The Possibility of Positive Marginality: Warren Rohrer’s Mennonite Community of Origin

“There is this beauty which comes out of all these experiences that one has,” Warren Rohrer decided. It was a remarkable assertion, given its context. A number of Mennonite-reared artists and thinkers had come together in spring 1993 to discuss sources of creativity, and in the process shared story after story of misunderstanding and rejection by their childhood church communities. Listening to their accounts, therapist Lois Frey, who had convened the discussion, recognized the obvious pain in these narratives of being relegated to the margins. But she also wondered if there might be some “positive marginality,” some special perspective gained from the sidelines, some liminal spaces in which creativity emerges away from the centripetal forces of conformity. Or, as Rohrer put it, some way in which beauty can come out of all these experiences.[1]

Mennonite theology and sociology has often focused on boundaries, boundary maintenance, inside/outsider dichotomies, and the like. Framed in that way, marginality can easily reduce to marginalization and its attendant silencing or eliding those on the edges. Without ignoring those excluding outcomes, where might we look for the possibility of positive marginality in Warren Rohrer’s Mennonite experience? The Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Mennonite world of Rohrer’s youth (the 1930s and 40s) is easily flattened into a caricature of monochrome dress, religious rigidity, and domineering bishops. Yet the lived reality was more complex, generating, among other things, multiple sorts of marginality and situations in which someone might see themselves, or be seen by others, as simultaneously central and on the periphery.[2] Considered in plural, marginalities remind us of the multiple types of overlapping and intersecting spaces and communities, of forces of push and pull that crisscross our social worlds, and that marginal positions may be chosen or ascribed.

In Rohrer’s case, being Mennonite was arguably both straightforward and complex, as he came from a household that was distinctive in several ways. His family was “plainer” than others in their unusually progressive pocket of the Lancaster Mennonite world. Yet alongside their more traditionalist inclinations, the Rohrers were also engaged in boundary-crossing connections with African-American and ethnically Jewish Mennonites who existed on the community’s social, and sometimes geographic, edges. And the family’s generational experience with deafness put them in touch with another Mennonite minority on the margins.[3]

Church and community, central and peripheral

Warren Rohrer grew up in East Lampeter Township along a busy commercial thoroughfare connecting Lancaster with Philadelphia. The family’s religious home was the nearby Mellinger Mennonite Church. Geographically, the meetinghouse sat in the center of the Lancaster Mennonite world, and with some 500 members in Rohrer’ youth and an imposing building, it was hard to ignore. In fact, it played a prominent role in Lancaster Mennonite life if for no other reason than its central location and immediate access to the interurban trolley network made it a gathering place for conference events of all sorts, including the autumn meeting of bishops each year.

At the same time, the church also existed somewhat on the periphery of Lancaster Mennonite life. Although no one would have mistaken Mellinger for a liberal Protestant congregation, within the Lancaster Mennonite world the church diverged in some key respects from the prevailing patterns of plainness and agrarian norms. The meetinghouse was on the edge of Lancaster city and some members lived in the city and even more worked there. In Warren’s growing up years, less than half of the church’s households were farming, and some of those categorized in agriculture were wholesale florists whose enterprises focused on routine shipment of blooms to Philadelphia and other cities. Midcentury sources of employment included banking, steel construction, insurance sales, meat packing, and car dealerships, among others. Several were active in the county’s Republican Party structure and a few held local elected posts. Church member Esther Eby Glass was a noted writer, frequent public speaker, and doubtless the first Mennonite women in Lancaster to use a professional name that retained her family surname.

The church’s longtime—an extraordinary half-century, from 1911 to 1961—and very influential minister, David Landis, worked a sales and business job in the city, drove a Cadillac, and quietly resisted conforming entirely to Lancaster Mennonite Conference rules, wearing a bow tie with his plain coat and overlooking the men in the congregation sporting neckties.[4]

An ethos of plainness was not entirely absent from the congregation, but in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century, the church’s style was marked more by refinement and good taste than by plainness. At least that is how other Lancaster Mennonites seem to have regarded the church. In such a church-community, defined more by well-polished shoes and commercial ambition than by sectarian separation, perhaps Warren’s artistic focus on farm fields, open spaces, and the cycles of nature was less a shared community memory than the quiet critique of someone raised on a modest poultry farm surrounded by Mennonite middle class aspirations.

Marginality, chosen and ascribed

If the church of Warren Rohrer’s youth was on the acculturating edge of the region’s Mennonite world, his family—and maybe especially his father—hewed to the other side, being something of a conservative dissenter, uneasy, it seems, with what he perceived to be the liberal drift of the faith community. Rather than offer up direct disapproval, however, Israel Rohrer (1902-1988) threw himself into cultivating alternative expressions of Mennonite possibilities: less prosperous, more modest. He employed church planting—a valorized type of church work—to challenge his congregation from its margins.[5]

When Warren was nine, the Rohrers’ religious energy began moving in the direction of a rural community known as Andrews Bridge, on the border of Lancaster and Chester Counties, not far from where Warren and Jane would later reside on their Christiana farm. Israel Rohrer partnered with Lina Mae Thompson (1879-1955), an African-American matriarch at Andrews Bridge to begin a Sunday school for her rural neighbors, heirs of slaves who had fled north of the Mason-Dixon Line and more recent arrivals from Philadelphia.[6] Mennonite identity at Andrews Bridge might involve certain elements of plainness, but it also meant an appreciation for leisurely visiting, an absence of accumulated wealth, and a desire, even if imperfectly achieved, of supplanting genealogy as the source of Mennonite fellowship.[7] In his efforts at Andrews Bridge, which grew into a standalone congregation, Israel Rohrer was joined by his friend, Bernard Kautz (1895-1978), a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who had joined Mellinger Mennonite Church in the 1910s. Like Israel Rohrer, Kautz was a bit of a community dissenter, skeptical of the smug Mennonite “blue bloods” (as his daughter put it) and associated with the plainer wing of the church.[8]

Meanwhile, the Rohrer family’s experience with deafness—Warren’s paternal grandparents, Daniel (1871-1953) and Lydia Rohrer (1859-1939), and his brother Raymond (1930-2013) were all deaf—opened another alternative avenue for community, as households from elsewhere moved to East Lampeter Township in search of those who shared their situation. Israel Rohrer was soon central to organizing yet another alternative church, this one comprised largely of area newcomers and worshipping in American Sign Language. Meeting in a cramped space above a cloakroom in the Mellinger meetinghouse—a marginal space in an otherwise roomy building—the deaf congregation would eventually grow into a separate, independent church that was officially Mennonite but functionally interdenominational, since deaf Christians from various traditions sought out the sign language services that were otherwise uncommon.

What to make of a Mennonite upbringing in likely the least conservative and most commercially-oriented part of the Lancaster Mennonite world, but in a household (or with a father, at least) actively resisting those tendencies, both in personal conduct—the Rohrer men donning “plain coats,” for example, while many of their church peers wore lapels—and through relationships with those whose race, ethnicity, and sensory abilities positioned them on the edges of the community? I’m not certain, but it strikes me that such a mixture of relationships and impulses surely created possibilities for seeing situations in multiple ways and for questioning the tyranny of efficiency and overly practical pursuits of productivity.[9]

There was at least one other way in which Warren’s Mennonite childhood was distinctive. In 1939 his parents partnered with a Beachy Amish neighbor to open a one-room parochial school, which Warren and his hearing siblings attended while virtually all their Mellinger Mennonite peers continued in public education.[10] Warren would later attend Lancaster Mennonite [High] School, also as something of a local exception. Mennonite bishops had opened the school in 1942 with a clear agenda of “holding the line” on creeping acculturation. Yet despite the school’s proximity to the Mellinger meetinghouse, few church families other than the Rohrers enrolled, and the congregation offered only tepid support for the school’s sectarian agenda. Indeed, it may well have been from Warren’s high school experience, more than Mellinger church, that he encountered what he later described as a “nonconformity did not seem to allow me the right of individuality.”[11] In any case, his teachers there likely directed him to Eastern Mennonite College (EMC).

At least fourteen people, half of them women, from Mellinger Mennonite Church had graduated from college before Warren did, taking degrees from nearby Millersville State, as well as Elizabethtown, Goshen, and Franklin & Marshall Colleges. When Warren headed off for higher education, he did not especially stand out for that choice. Rather, he was distinctive in choosing EMC. In most corners of the Lancaster Mennonite world, EMC was considered a “safe” college choice; among his East Lampeter Township church peers, it was the odd choice.

In some ways, college would expand Warren’s world (including making a trip on a cattle boat to Poland in summer 1946), but it would also represent a sort of narrowing, as his Bible major featured a curriculum that, at the time, was heavily tilted toward premillennialism and a decidedly deductive approach to study that minimized opportunity for discovery or surprise and discouraged creative thinking.[12]

Debate and divergence at midcentury

In the autumn of 1948, following his junior year at EMC, Warren Rohrer would return temporarily to Lancaster County, this time with Jane Turner. He spent the 1948-1949 school year teaching in a local grade school and both he and Jane became quite involved in a remarkable set of activities percolating at his childhood congregation.[13] It would turn out to be one of their last formal association with a Mennonite church, and it was, by surviving accounts, an intense year of discussion and debate for all those involved.

A group of unusually energetic and often analytical young adults had coalesced at Mellinger Mennonite Church that fall, challenging the congregation to engage with them and with the wider world in new ways. With a penchant for organizing, planning, and acting—everything from surveying community needs and starting a church library, to fundraising for mission work and critiquing what they deemed a self-satisfied aloofness on the part of many established church families, the group was a whirlwind of activity, declaring that “as young people we are interested in activity—action of all kinds. That is what makes us grow.”[14] Warren was on the three-person executive committee that oversaw all this action, which even included drafting a constitution for the group, while Jane developed and edited a biweekly newsletter, Mellinger’s Notes.

Underneath all this energy, according to later memories of those days, was intense discussion, questioning, and debate about participants’ relationship to the institutional church, to the Mennonite tradition, and to their own futures. By the following summer, the group, which included many of Warren’s childhood peers, began to scatter: J.R. Burkholder would end up at Yale and then become a peace activist and professor at Goshen College. Anna Fager left for southern California with Mennonite Central Committee. Earl Witmer would go on to become a denominational executive in the Presbyterian Church. Dorothy Thomas moved to the Bronx to help start the first Mennonite church in New York City, but eventually left Mennonitism behind. Harry Lefever would follow Warren and Jane to EMC and then teach sociology at Spelman College in Atlanta for four decades as a Quaker.[15]

From this whirlwind year of discussion and debate, Warren and Jane returned to Harrisonburg, Virginia, where Warren completed his senior year of college as a Bible major in a context that was likely less stimulating than the young adult community they had just helped create and which had then quickly dissolved, along with his formal connection to the institutional Mennonite world. He would not become a minister of the word, as his father had apparently hoped, but would pursue painting and expressing truths through visual arts rather than words. (His brother Raymond, it turned out, would become a pastor, preaching through the visual medium of American Sign Language, and focusing intensely on words in his day job as a linotypist.[16])


In 1993, reflecting on his background in family, school, and community, Warren Rohrer’s sense of how his Mennonite heritage shaped his work was somewhat ambiguous, or at least unsettled. Everyone, he believed, has access to beauty, to sound, to aesthetic experience. But despite such access, not everyone truly sees or hears. Perhaps his ability to see what so many people around him did not—seemingly could not—was rooted in his early life, navigating multiple contexts and looking at the world from a variety of margins.

Warren Rohrer Birthplacde

What Warren Rohrer was sure of was that there was some sort of dialogue between his past and present, as well as “a dialogue between … paintings and the artist and a dialogue between … painting and the viewer.”[17] As an activity and a metaphor, dialogue presumes a space between or among things—a margin, perhaps. There had been painful marginalities, to be sure, but perhaps also positive sources of creativity. As Rohrer confessed: “There is this beauty which comes out of all these experiences that one has.”


[1] Lois Frey, Summary of conversation on creativity, April 3, 1993, 59-page document, Warren Rohrer Papers, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society Archives, Lancaster, PA. Quotes from pp. 11 and 59.

[2] John L. Ruth noted this paradox in Frey, Summary of conservation, p. 32.

[3] Observations on Mellinger Mennonite Church that follow draw on the author’s research and interviews, some of which are reflected in a popular audience congregational history, Mellinger Mennonite Church, 1717-2017 (Morgantown, PA: Masthof Press, 2017). (One note of correction: a transposition on p. 211 of that book introduces “E. Warren” Rohrer, rather than Warren E. Rohrer.)

[4] Bow ties were not exactly uncommon among Lancaster Mennonite men, but ordained men were not to wear them. Landis was one of only two out of several hundred ordained bishops, ministers, and deacons in Lancaster Conference who persisted in wearing a bowtie after ordination. Neckties were proscribed the conference discipline, but photographs of Mellinger Church and oral history point to their presence, as well as to other examples of sartorial variance from conference norms. When, in the 1993 creativity conversation, Rohrer spoke of his wearing a necktie as shocking deviance (p. 18), the context is Eastern Mennonite College rules and his parents’ convictions.

[5] In Frey, Summary of conservation, p. 15, Warren Rohrer suggested that “What controlled [his] parents was the approval of the group.” Which group Warren perceived this to be remains unclear; those who recall Israel Rohrer’s relationship with fellow East Lampeter Township Mennonites, thought Israel was relatively unconcerned with his peers’ approval or with fitting in.

[6] The relationship between Rohrer and Thompson is difficult to sort out at this distance from the 1930s. On some level, Israel Rohrer seems to have been responding to Thompson’s initiative and following her direction, but he also seems to have seen himself as in charge. Andrews Bridge (a literal bridge across the Octoraro Creek separating the two counties), is south of the village of Christiana, a community locally famous for its Black residents’ resistance to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law; see Thomas P. Slaughter, Bloody Dawn: the Christiana Riot and Racial Violence in the Antebellum North (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

[7] For example, Gerald Hughes was never told to wear a plain suit after he joined Andrews Bridge Mennonite Church; author interview with Hughes, Nov. 21, 2016. On Hughes’s later interactions with Mennonites in Midwest, see pp. 130-59, in Tobin Miller Shearer, Daily Demonstrators:The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).

[8] Grace L. Kautz Landis, “Briefly, the Life and Times of Bernard and Laura Kautz,” box 1, Grace Kautz Kreider Landis Papers, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society Archives.

[9] In Frey, Summary of conversation, p. 32, Warren said that deafness “tainted” his family with difference.

[10] The Beachy Amish school promoter was Daniel Glick, who lived on Hobson Road, just southwest of the Rohrers. The other Mennonites who joined this parochial school project were Martin and Mable Clymer who had two deaf children and had recently moved into the area to be closer to the Rohrers.

[11] Quoted in David Carrier, Warren Rohrer (Philadelphia: Locks Art Publications and Allentown Art Museum, 2016), 25.

[12] A deductive epistemology was prominent in the EMC Bible curriculum at the time and for several decades after Rohrer’s graduation; author interview with Willard M. Swartley, Feb. 17, 1995.

[13] Although living that year in central Lancaster County, Rohrer taught in West Fallowfield Township, Chester County, not far from the Christiana farm where he would live from 1961 to 1974.

[14] Mellinger’s Notes, Apr. 3, 1949.

[15] Some group members stayed closed to home. One of Rohrer’s cousins, John Eby Kreider (1929-2020), did so, taking over a family farm. Kreider later acquiring one of Warren’s paintings for his farmhouse.

[16] Warren’s youngest brother, Harold (1931-1998), briefly operated the small Rohrer farm in Smoketown, but soon rented out the land (and eventually sold it), instead becoming a successful entrepreneur and building a sizable office supply company in Lancaster City. Sister Verna pursued farming, with her husband, but moved to North Dakota to do so.

[17] Frey, Conversation on creativity, 28.

About the Author

Steven M Nolt

Steven M. Nolt is Professor of History and Anabaptist Studies at Elizabethtown College and is the Interim Director of the College’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies. He is the author or coauthor of fifteen books on Mennonite, Amish, and Pennsylvania German history and contemporary life, including Seeking Places of Peace: A Global Mennonite History, North America (Good Books/Pandora Press, 2012) and Mellinger Mennonite Church, 1717-2017 (Masthof Press, 2017), a popular-audience history of the church community in which he (and Warren Rohrer) were raised. Nolt is an alumnus of Goshen College in Goshen, IN. After receiving a PhD in History from the University of Notre Dame, he served as Professor of History for 16 years at Goshen College and led two Study Service Term units to China before joining the faculty at Elizabethtown College.