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Defining Mennonite: Narratives


Chapter 2


Some narratives serve as explicit or implicit definitions of what is meant by the designation Mennonite, whether in regard to cultural traits or religious commitment.

The most obvious kind of story that does this is the narrative that places a Mennonite, or Mennonites, in the punch line as the final ethnic group in a series of three or four—as with the Polish-Jewish-Black-Mennonite "book titles" riddle that opens Chapter 1. The Gordon Factor is strong in such stories, which usually communicate only a harsh, generic put-down of the final group in the series. Since they are easily transferred, by substitution, to other ethnic groups that one wants to make the butt of a joke, only one will be used here, because of the venue where it was collected.

*When the Episcopalian priest, the Baptist pastor and the Mennonite preacher boarded the plane, it was found that the Episcopalian had a relatively light bag, the Baptist had a somewhat heavier one, and the Mennonite had the heaviest. They talked and eventually came to this topic and explained what they had inside the bags. The Episcopalian said that he had four sets of underwear: one for Monday-Tuesday, one for Wednesday-Thursday, one for Friday-Saturday, and a clean set for Sunday. The Baptist had seven sets of underwear, one for each day of the week. The Mennonite said, "I have twelve sets: one for January, one for February, etc.”

Although the story is told by many Mennonites, this version was told by Don Jacobs, a Mennonite missionary, at the church-wide assembly of Mennonites gathered at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1983. Jacobs interpreted the story in a positive light, as emphasizing the high value that Mennonites place on thrift. But surely the more obvious meaning of the story is that Mennonites are "dirty" in personal hygiene—which contradicts the normal stereotype of Mennonites as obsessed with cleanliness. Jacobs' use of the story illustrates variability depending on context. He was telling the story to Mennonites gathered decorously, expecting an uplifting message, so he gave the story the best possible interpretation for the context.

Misunderstanding Mennonite

Some stories that cannot be transferred to other ethnic groups concern the humor that results when people misunderstand the odd name "Mennonite," whether innocently or deliberately, as has already been seen at work in some of the riddle-jokes in Chapter 1.

The following cluster of stories will illustrate the fun that results when Mennonite is misunderstood:

*A non-Mennonite was walking in a town in eastern Ohio with his grandson, who saw an Amish person for the first time in his life. "Grandpa, what's that?" he enquired. "A Mennonite," the grandfather replied. "Well, what is he in the daytime?" the boy asked.

*You'd think . . . South Bend would have heard of Mennonites. The last time I was in the hospital there they had written on my intake sheet, "Menno Knight."

Americans often confuse the Amish with the Amana colonists, and Mennonites with Mormons. Mennonites are also confused with an obscure people in the Old Testament scriptures. Or maybe even with an infection or insect.

*Levi [Hartzler 1909-2002] taught this English course at Elkhart [Indiana] High School. There was something [in it] about the Midianites, and this boy was writing about it and he said, "These Mennonites."

*The Erbs of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, upon their return from Australia, reported that once when they were speaking to a civic group, someone came up afterwards and said, "I've often read about you Midianites in the Bible, but this is the first time I've ever seen one."

*[At Eastern Mennonite College] our YPCA was responsible for having street meetings in different parts of the country. There were four of us guys, and two girls. During the evening service, on the street corner, a lady accepted the Lord. And so we wanted to go to her home afterwards to make further contact, you know, and get better acquainted. So we went into this home to have a little service, and while we were sitting together there, in comes her husband. He looked around the room, spotted us guys with plain coats on, wondered who we were, sat down beside me and asked if he could tell a joke—tell a story. It was his own home. I didn't want to say no. So he said, "A friend of mine was in the hospital in Harrisonburg and I stopped to see him one day and I asked him how he was getting along. He said, 'Oh, pretty well. The Mennonites bother me so much here.' I said, 'Oh, that's OK. Just put some powder on. Rub it in before you go to bed. They won't bother you any more.' You can imagine how we felt there, trying to make contact in his home with the lady! That helped me later on—take it with a smile!

The story lends some support for the claim that the name Mennonite is a hindrance in evangelism, although in an unusual way.

What's Up, Menno?
Image: Don Swartzentruber

What's Up, Menno?

The bawdy pun inherent in the word Mennonite, discussed in Chapter 1, surfaces in narratives, too. One account is claimed to have been an actual occurrence—a slip of the tongue--although it more likely is an elaborate development into narrative of the riddle jokes:

*A student who . . . grew up in Chicago decided to do a sociology report [in college]. His topic was to interview a prostitute in Chicago. And so he went in, paid his fee, and he talked with this prostitute. He asked her how many tricks she did in a particular evening. She said, "Twenty." So he came back and was giving his presentation to a sociology class. And as he was going through his presentation he came across this one question and he said that she could handle "twenty Mennonites."

It is unlikely that a Mennonite college student would have been encouraged to pay to see a prostitute for a class project.

Mennonite Ideals

From these raucous, degrading uses of the term Mennonite we turn to stories that embody some of the most deeply held beliefs in Mennonite and Amish communities. As will be noted, some have been made popular in Mennonite circles by John L. Ruth, a Mennonite historian of the Franconia and Lancaster Mennonite and Amish communities in eastern Pennsylvania. He told the first one in responding to my question, "What is the archetypal American Mennonite story?"

*A Mennonite man, broke, borrowed money from the bank for a business or farming venture and got a wealthy man in Lancaster County, a Mr. Ringenberger, to sign the note for him. When the loan came due, he still couldn't repay it and decided to ask Ringenberger to re-sign the note. Shortly after, and before he could approach Ringenberger, the debtor died. The bank told Ringenberger one day when he was in the bank that he was lucky the borrower hadn't got him to sign, since now the bank was responsible for the debt. "He was going to ask me to sign?" inquired Ringenberger. "Let me see the note." The teller slipped him the note, whereupon Ringenberger promptly signed it, thus taking upon himself the debt.

Ruth said he had a special "affection" for the story because it shows that Christian community is important enough to Mennonites for them to be willing to pay for it.

A second story told by Ruth defends the Old Order Amish from the charge that they do not adequately articulate their faith, in an evangelical fashion:

*A young Amish man attended a revival meeting, where he had his eyes opened to the kind of self-consciousness regarding religion that he was unaccustomed to in his unselfconscious, integrated Amish community. When he returned home, he confronted his mother: "Mother, why didn't you ever teach me these things?" And his mother broke down, crying. Only later did the young man realize that his parents and community had been teaching him those things ever since he was a little boy, in every unselfconscious thing they did.

Mennonites, too, accept the point of this story, which is that a life of Christian discipleship requires that actions speak louder than words; that Christian faith must be totally integrated into one's everyday life.

Three stories from early American Mennonite history emphasize the traditional Mennonite value of humility—of submitting to the fellowship of believers and not thinking highly of oneself.

*In Amsterdam [Dirck Keyser, Sr., 1635-1714] had been a silk merchant, and after he arrived here he wore a silk coat, which caused his neighbors some disquiet. Some of the brethren calling to talk over his worldliness found him in the garden. As he advanced to meet them he wiped his hands on his coat. They concluded, on seeing that, that he did not value it unduly, and so said nothing of the object of the visit.(Charles F. Jenkins, Guide Book to Historic Germantown, 1904.)

*As the bustling young Philadelphia lawyer Samuel Pennypacker, hot on the trail of his worthy "Mennonite" ancestors, saw Deacon Joseph Tyson approaching from his corn-field, he began by asking, "Is this Mr. Tyson?" "My name is Tyson," replied the deacon coolly, "But not Mister." (Ruth, "A Christian Settlement," Mennonite Quarterly Review (Oct. 1983)).

Many other stories support the Mennonite position of nonresistance, or pacifism, especially during a time of war.

*An ancestor of [J. Herbert] Fretz's [1921-2013] was approached by soldiers during the French and Indian war. They demanded that he give them his gun, which hung over the mantel. He agreed, but added, "I will give this to you, but I want to keep hold of the butt end." In other words, he would keep them from shooting it by forcing them to hold the end of the barrel only.

John Ruth regaled the Bethlehem '83 audience with other accounts of historic Mennonite pacifism. Before alternate service provisions were made for conscientious objectors during World War 2, Mennonites would hire people to take their place in the army, go to jail, serve as noncombatants, or even carry guns.

*An army officer chastised Christian Good for not shooting. Good: "I didn't see anything to shoot at." Officer: "But didn't you see those soldiers?" Good: "Yes, but they're people and we don't shoot at people."

*Stonewall Jackson commented on the Mennonites and Dunkards in the Shenandoah Valley, fighting in his army: "They shoot but they don't hit anything."

*Frank Moyer of Lower Salford bought a substitute in the Civil War. When he was killed, Moyer stood over his grave and said, "That's me."

Mennonite acculturation in the U.S. during the nineteenth century included adapting religious practices from holiness and evangelical American denominations. Although revival meetings and tent campaigns peaked in the 1950s, some Mennonite churches still hold spiritual emphasis weeks. And for several years Goshen College sponsored renewal festivals, which generated this comment by a non-Mennonite observer:

*When they first started the Festival of the Spirit, Earl Gray—of course he's non-Mennonite—he said, "Yeah. I just don't understand these Mennonites. It must be like the library card. They renew their religion every year."

The relief work of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) enables Mennonites with practical skills to apply them to relief efforts following wars or natural disasters. In areas where MCC and MDS have worked, Mennonite ingenuity and hard work are admired.

*Paul Ruth [1903-98] was in Europe after World War 2, distributing flour. One Saturday afternoon in the Mennonite community of Westphalia, a boxcar of food arrived but was parked with its door absolutely blocked by a telephone pole. No remedy, since the crew had left for the weekend. The Mennonites were hungry. Paul took a GMC truck and with a winch inched the train forward, bit by bit, to the [German] Mennonites' great disbelief. When the train was moved enough, an old German said, "No wonder we lost the war to the Americans!" -- John L. Ruth

Mennonite Reality

Many more joking stories expose the darker side of Mennonite life, especially the way they put their beliefs into practice. A story that emphasizes a certain kind of narrow-mindedness in Mennonite groups will introduce this broad category:

*Mennonites were having a conference and they advertised the need for housing in the community, to put up people [overnight]. So people were calling in and saying they could have one or two people stay at their house. And here a lady called in and she said, "I can take care of eight Mennonites." And the person answered, "Oh, that's wonderful. How many beds do you have?" And she said, "Just one." He said, "Well, how can you expect to get eight Mennonites into one bed? She said, "Well, I've heard they're quite narrow." This story has also been told of Baptists and, no doubt, other Protestant groups.

Two stories from Dutch Mennonite culture emphasize the less admirable Mennonite traits of legalism and a certain kind of stubbornness, which may derive from—or at least complements--Mennonites' separatist, nonconformist stance toward the world:

*A Mennonite lived along a dike one winter [Sunday]. It was such a nice clear day so he put on his skates and skated down the dike to go to the meeting house for services. And then he got called on the carpet for skating on the Lord's Day—which was improper. He said, "I didn't skate from the joy of it. I skated to get to the service." And they said, "The crucial question is, 'Did you enjoy it?'" -- J. C. Wenger

*This one comes out of Holland during the war. I heard it in the Netherlands. It is about a Mennist Deckkop in the north of Holland. That's simply a word for a stubborn Mennonite. "The thick-headed Mennonite" would be a literal translation. During the war when the Nazis were there, they confiscated all the beef and so the Dutch people were short of meat. If they wanted beef they had to secretly kill the beef and keep the meat away from the Nazis. So they'd go out to the barn without lights so no one could find that they were there. And Jans and another guy went out one night to kill a beef and instead of using a gun (so they wouldn't be heard) they used a sledge hammer. And the one fellow said, "Well, Jans, I'm going to hold it and you hit it." And he struck it about three times, and says: "Is he dead yet?" "No, but I'm going to let him go if you don't quit hitting me over the head."

Two stories concern Mennonites' peculiar practices associated with the doctrine of non-conformity to the world and plain living, its corollary in practice. One exposes the scandalous ambiguity inherent in Mennonites' not using wedding rings. One shows that, even with wedding rings, Mennonites are suspected of unorthodox behavior.

*A conservative Mennonite group went to somewhere in South America to do missionary work, and after being there several years, they learned that the local people thought they were living there without the benefit of marriage because they weren't wearing wedding rings.

*At an interdenominational training for young adult ministry last summer at Lake Geneva, my counterpart June Dunn was approached by a woman who said, "I see you're wearing a wedding ring. Do Mennonites marry?" To which June answered, "Only if they want to."

Several stories concern the experience of "outsiders" when they join the Mennonite Church:

*A Mennonite pastor was serving Communion for the first time to an elderly convert. When she was given the wine, she exclaimed, "Bottoms up!"

The humor here is two-fold. Mennonites advocate abstinence from alcohol and in most Mennonite communion services the "wine" is actually grape juice. The convert clearly is used to social drinking, and her exclamation should be a prayer or blessing instead.

*A convert came into the church from the Presbyterians, and after he was in a while, he started wearing a plain coat. And somebody then asked him where he got his plain coat. He said, "Oh, well, I just traded off my golf clubs to a Mennonite going the other way."

The story carries less punch nowadays since most Mennonite men have abandoned the plain coat, and Mennonites even sponsor an annual Mennonite Golf Classic to raise money for charity.

*I can tell one, but I'm embarrassed to do it. . . . You have to stand to do it. It's the story of the Mennonite man in the Franconia Conference that became a bit better off, financially, and he decided to get rid of his plain coat. He went to Hope's in Souderton where they have tailors to make suits. This was just the time when these new . . . polyesters were on the market. So he asked to have a new suit made of this new polyester. When he took it home, the suit didn't fit very well. So he went to the tailor and said, "You know," he said, "the sleeves on this suit are much too short." The tailor said, "Well, this is the new polyester cloth. I tell you, it stretches. So all you have to do is, when you have time, just hold your sleeve down like that [demonstrates, here and throughout, constantly] and it'll soon get OK. So he would always be pulling this sleeve to get the thing to fit. But then he noticed that when he pulled down on the sleeve, the tail would come up. So he went back to Hope and he said, "Look," he said, "whenever you tell me to pull the sleeve down like this, the tail comes up, and that doesn't look right.” The tailor said, "Well, you just pull down [the tail] and it'll stretch and fit." And then he noticed when he stood in front of the mirror one day—when he was pulling this way and pulling this way—that the lapels, which were sort of new to him, were all pulling away. So he went back to Hope the third time and Hope said, "Well, really, what you need to do is, when you're pulling this sleeve like this, pulling it down like that, just bring this over like this [puts chin on lapel to hold it down] and just keep stretching it. . . So he was standing down there at Main Street in Souderton waiting for his wife. He just stood there, going like this [constantly doing the three motions]. A New Mennonite couple walked by. The New Mennonite lady said, "You know, I sure pity those handicapped people." And [the New Mennonite man] said, "But do you notice, he has an excellent tailor. His suit fits perfectly!" An alternate ending: It was a Franconia [Mennonite] couple that walked past, and one said to the other, "See what happens when you throw away your plain coat."

If outsiders are going to regard Mennonites as peculiar people who do peculiar things, the following story shows one woman taking advantage of that stereotype:

*A Mennonite woman from eastern Canada was ready to deliver a baby but eager to avoid all the admitting procedures. When the medical officer saw her admission form, he noticed she was a Mennonite. Not knowing what that was, he thought perhaps she required special medical consideration—just as Jehovah's Witnesses cannot receive a blood transfusion. So he asked her if such was the case. She seized the opportunity and said, "Yes, I'm a Mennonite, so I can't have enemas."

Although in theology and belief Mennonites are an idealistic people, they are also eminently practical, and pride themselves on the ability to get things done—whether in everyday labor or in relief and service projects. Two stories show the practical impulse winning out, even over evangelism and romance.

*Well, this is an Illinois story. But since "Rabbi" Eigsti [the narrator's husband Orie J. Eigsti 1909-2003] isn't here, I'll tell it. I only heard it. I've never told it before. But he says the Illinois farmers were in church one Sunday and the minister had told about this cloud formation in the sky: "G P C." And the minister said, "That means go preach Christ!" And one of the farmers stood up and he said he had seen the formation, too, but he interpreted it to say, "Go plow corn!"

This story illustrates both Mennonites' suspicion of supernatural manifestations and a reluctance to do mission work.

*A Mennonite woman was reading Maribell Morgan's book, The Total Woman, about how to please your husband and get everything you wanted. So she decided to try some of those techniques. When her husband came home from work one day, she greeted him at the door with nothing on but a big, beautiful smile, and it turned out that it worked really well for her. She was telling all her friends about the wonderful success of it. Her husband bought her a Roto-Tiller. The story was told by a feminist-inclined college student as a way of criticizing Mennonite women who relish their traditional roles as helpmeets and domestic laborers.

With their ancient history of martyrdom, their attempt to follow literally the "hard" sayings of Jesus, their often non-conformed lifestyle, their shunning of tobacco, alcohol and dancing, their hard work, and their ethic of service—Mennonites can be perceived as holier than other Christians, or, worse yet, can so regard themselves.

*A visitor was touring central Kansas and got filled to the gills with Mennonites. First he went to Newton, then to Hillsboro and finally to Goessel, and found nothing but Mennonites. So he went into a Mennonite church. "I'm sick of Mennonites," he said. "I want to go some place where there aren't any Mennonites." "Why don't you go to hell?" said the pastor. "There are no Mennonites there."

Does that joke compliment Mennonites or satirize them for self-righteousness? The story was given national currency by being included in an article on religious humor in the Pittsburgh Press on July 2, 1983. A variant referring to any speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch was published by Elmer Lewis Smith in Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore, p. 26.

About the Author

Ervin Beck

Ervin Beck, Emeritus Professor of English at Goshen College, is co-editor of The Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing, author of many publications on Mennonite literature and folk culture, including MennoFolk and MennoFolk2, published by Herald Press, and compiler of the three Mennonite bibliographies linked on the CMW homepage. From 2006-07 he taught English and dramatic literature at LCC International University in Klaipeda, Lithuania. He was on the planning committee for the two Mennonite/s Writing conferences held at Goshen College in 1997 and 2002. He lives in Goshen, Indiana.