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More Personal Legends


Chapter 10


Anabaptist groups, at their best, hold to the equality of all human beings. Like the Quakers, they tip their hats to no one—or to everyone. They are anti-hierarchical, suspicious of those who would lord it over others. In their fellowships of believers, they cultivate congregationalism and honor the voice of all.

In Amish communities, that ideal is expressed through uniform costume, as well as in cemeteries, where the small gravestones are of equal size, with barely enough room for the deceased's name and life dates. In Mennonite churches, the ideal is expressed by decisions arrived at by consensus, by studies carried out by lay committees, by an increasingly congregational polity, and by a suspicion of charismatic leadership.

But failures to attain the Anabaptist ideal of equality abound. Although the Amish ordnung is unique to every local district, not beholden to a national organization, the Amish nevertheless honor—and obey--their bishops and other ordained leaders. In the early twentieth century, Mennonites, too, yielded congregational authority to ordained men and conference regulations, although in recent years church polity has returned to a more democratic governance, albeit one that borrows from American corporate practices.

Especially in the revivalist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as in their increasing activisim during World War 2 and following, Mennonites learned to know and revere certain leaders—usually male—either because of their charismatic spirit (as with evangelist George R. Brunk, Jr.) or because of their amazing accomplishments (as with relief worker Peter Dyck).

However, the stories Mennonites tell about such leaders are almost always humorous and satirical, as if ordinary members feel a need to bring them back down to the level of a common humanity. These personal legends are usually told as true by their narrators, and believed to be true by their audience. If readers recall the principles of multiple and variant forms in folklore in general and the migratory nature of folk tales, they will greet some of these with healthy skepticism as to their historicity.

Preachers and Discipline

Mennonites today tend to ridicule the clothing restrictions that prevailed among them in the U.S. from about 1910 to 1950. The first such legend, about Iowa Amish bishop Christian E. (Chris) Hershberger (1872-1966) highlights the ironies inherent in early attitudes toward dress and tobacco use:

*Back at the turn of the century, five of the Amish-Mennonite bishops [in eastern Iowa] gathered to determine by the discernment process whether they had now reached the point where they would allow pockets to be sewn into the pants. And they spent the morning debating and discussing this. And by the end of the morning they finally turned to one bishop and said, "Brother Chris, what do you think?" And he said, "Well, whether it be right to have pockets in your pants, I cannot say. But I do know this: It sure would be nice to have some place to keep my tobacco!"

Another story about preachers' costumes comes from the Lancaster Mennonite Conference and concerns Lewis C. Good (1899-1978), pastor of the Cottage City, Maryland, congregation. It questions the biblical basis for the Lancaster Conference rule that ministers, unlike laity, had to wear the frock-tail coat, an old-fashioned men's dress style from the nineteenth century:

*[Lewis Good] was wearing a lay-down [lapel] suit. But he was never used in the church where he lived because he was wearing the wrong clothes. He had a straight-cut coat hanging in the closet and couldn't bring himself to wear it. Then one day he decided he was just losing too much time, so he went and he wore it. And then immediately he was made Sunday School superintendent, teacher, and a number of other things. And after a while he was put in the lot twice—once for deacon and once for minister of the church. Every time he was in the lot, the bishops all gathered around and they quizzed him to see whether he was really suitable for the job. He asked one day, "Well, why should I wear a frock-tail coat?" Solemn for a while. Then one of the men spoke up and said, "Well, that's one of the mysteries of the Gospel."

Daniel Brenneman (1834-1919) of near Wakarusa, Indiana, left the Mennonite Church and formed the Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church, later known as the United Missionary Church, now the Missionary Church. Two innovations that Brenneman advocated, in opposition to his home church, were four-part singing and preaching in English rather than German:

*One day Brenneman was walking along the road and a stranger picked him up and they didn't know each other. And the fellow in the buggy was a Mennonite. So after a bit the Mennonite said to Brenneman, "What do you think of Daniel Brenneman?" And Brenneman sort of excused himself. He said, "Oh, I don't know. What do you?" He said, "Not much! He sings bass and preaches English." That was enough to condemn him. --J. C. Wenger

Preachers Preaching

It's the preachers in the pulpit, though, who tend to have the most and the funniest stories told about them—as if their high calling and spiritual and moral pretensions need to be squared with the realities of daily life. In the sequence that follows, John W. Hess (1884-1958) was an evangelist and pastor in Missouri, Iowa and Pennsylvania. Nelson Litwiller (1898-1986) was a missionary to Argentina. And Don Jacobs is a retired missionary to East Africa who worked for the Eastern Board of Missions in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

*John W. Hess was always bothered by people who would doze off in the congregation. He said he was preaching one time and some farmer was in the congregation who had a hard day and he dozed off. Suddenly he hears John preaching—and John would get quite loud sometimes—and the man yells out, "I'll give forty dollars for the spotted cow!"

The singsong nature of early Mennonite preaching may account for the sleepy man's sense that he is in an auction rather than a church service.

*One Sunday morning Nelson Litwiller was given five minutes to speak. (I understand usually you could expect him to go beyond that limit.) Anyway, he stood up and said, "The Holy Spirit and I are going to have trouble staying within five minutes." And a voice in the bench behind mine [Carl Kreider 1914-2002] said, "Let's not blame it on the Holy Spirit!"

*This happened in Houston just a few weeks before the 1980 election. Don Jacobs was preaching in one of these big Presbyterian churches, and his message was Christ riding through Jerusalem on the donkey. It was a big church and they had two services. And after the message the members shook hands with him and one of them said, "You know, it was a good message, but you give the one party the whole attention here [i.e., donkey as symbol of Democratic Party]. You know, some of us down here are Republicans." In the next service Don preached the same message and said someone had commented on his other message—about the donkey—saying he should give both parties equal recognition. So Don said he would just stick with the Bible terms and say "he rode him on an ass" and cover both parties. Don Jacobs was serious until the crowd burst out laughing, and all of a sudden it struck him and then he laughed, too.

Editors Editing

Daniel Kauffman (1865-1944) was a very conservative, influential writer and editor at the Mennonite Publishing House in Scottdale, Pennsylvania. Of his many books, Doctrines of the Bible (1928) became a kind of manual for conservative Mennonite thinking and practices, including clothing regulations. J. J. Hostetler (1905-2002) was an editor at the publishing house.

*In the days when Mennonite men were supposed to wear flat-topped hats, J. J. [Hostetler] wore a crease in the top of his. Daniel Kauffman obviously did not like this, but said nothing. However, in a Gospel Herald editorial later on, Daniel Kauffman said that clothes should fit the shape of our bodies. So we should wear creases in hats only if we have creases in our heads.

C. F. Yake (1889-1974) also lived in Scottdale, Pennsylvania, and edited Words of Cheer, for children, as well as other publications. He is remembered as a lovable, eccentric person:

*C. F. Yake once—and often—had a hard day at the office, dictating letters to his secretary at the Publishing House in Scottdale. Once arrived at home in the evening, he led his family in grace at the supper table, saying: "Our kind Heavenly Father, we thank you for the many blessings showered upon us. . . . Period. New paragraph." --John L. Ruth

The Miller Family

A series of linked stories are told about a prominent Miller family from rural Middlebury, Indiana. Daniel D. ("D.D.") Miller (1864-1955) was an influential bishop in Indiana-Michigan conference during a time of great controversy over the relative merits of modernism or fundamentalism in interpreting scripture and establishing church polity. His son Orie. O. ("O.O.") Miller (1892-1977) became executive secretary of the Mennonite Central Committee from 1935-1958. Ernest. E. ("E.E.") Miller (1893-1975), his other son, became president of Goshen College from 1939-54.

A story about D. D. Miller shows him at his less than upright, nonresistant best. His actions lead to tragedy for another farmer and create an etiological, or origins, legend about how a present-day phenomenon came to be.

*When the State of Indiana wanted to rebuild U.S. 20 south of Middlebury, they wanted it to follow the foot of the hill and curve north, following the valley and crossing SR 13 closer to Middlebury. That of course would have taken a huge corner off of D.D.'s farm. Whenever the surveyors came and drove in the stakes to mark the route, D. D. went out and pulled them up. Finally, the chief engineer in Indianapolis said he gives up; he had never run into such stubborn opposition before. So he had his engineers keep 20 going west beyond highway 13, then curve north to meet the highway at the point where Essen Haus Restaurant now stands. But that emasculated another farmer's farm. That man's reaction was to slash his wrists [but not take his life].

D. D. Miller's son Orie became so influential in Mennonite institutional affairs, especially the Mennonite Central Committee, that people who worked with him claimed that he wrote the minutes of committee meetings before he came to them. He once expressed that self-confidence as a child, only to be quickly corrected by his father:

*When Orie O. Miller was a boy on the farm in Indiana, one day he found a bucket of paint and proceeded to paint, in large letters, his initials on the side of the barn: "O. O. Miller." His father didn't notice until he was working in the field, looked at the barn from a distance, and saw it. "Only Old Mush," was all he said, and he drove on. --John Ruth

About D. D. Miller's other son, E. E. Miller, another story is told that reflects upon both father and son.

*Ernest E. Miller told the following story in a psychology class setting. His father [D. D. Miller] had been a well known church leader and evangelist of two generations ago. He often was absent from home for 4-6 weeks at a time. When he got back home he was keyed up, tense, and needed a way to unwind. He would kick the horses a lot—in their bellies. Someone asked Mrs.[Ruth Blosser 1893-1977] Miller what Ernest does to unwind. She replied that Ernest is like his father, but he doesn't have horses.

John Howard Yoder

John Howard Yoder (1927-1997) dominated American Mennonite thought and attention in the late twentieth century, as O. O. Miller, Harold Bender and J. C. Wenger had done following World War 2. Yoder, who first taught at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries (now Anabaptist Mennonite Seminary) and later at the University of Notre Dame, became the most important Anabaptist-Mennonite theologian and ethicist. His influence reached far beyond Mennonite circles, and "Yoderian" thinking continues to influence theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University, Christopher Rowland of Oxford and James William McClendon, Jr. of Fuller Theological Seminary. As with many academic heroes, Yoder's personal eccentricities and intellectual genius are captured in the many stories that still circulate about him.

*Once John decided to learn Hebrew. So he took Hebrew language books into his study and locked the door. He emerged a week later with the ability to read Hebrew fluently.

*In 1970 John flew to Buenos Aires, Argentina, for a year of teaching in an evangelical theology faculty there. When he boarded the plane he was not able to speak any Spanish, but he did take along Spanish books to teach himself enroute. His first lecture at the seminary was scheduled for the first day after his arrival. He gave it in Spanish, but with great difficulty, requiring the help of an English-Spanish dictionary. Two days later, at his second lecture, he spoke more ably, although still with some struggle. But by the end of his first week there, he was able to speak Spanish nearly fluently and had no more problems communicating with his students.

*One day John Howard Yoder went into Provident Bookstore in downtown Goshen and bought a book. He paid for it and began reading it immediately, while he walked back to Goshen College. He read it all the way to the college. Upon reaching the campus, he realized that he had left his car parked outside the bookstore, so he started the long trek back, reading his book all the way. By the time he reached the bookstore, he had finished the book, so he asked Marvin Musser [the manager] for a refund. Musser refused the request.

*When a student at Goshen College, John was walking on the sidewalk along a street where workers were cleaning up after just pouring a new section of sidewalk. As he walked he was deeply occupied reading a book in his hands. Therefore he did not see the freshly poured cement in front of him. He tripped over the forms and fell in, book and all. Without appearing to be hurt seriously, he picked himself up, brushed the cement off of his book, and continued walking down the sidewalk—still reading—as if nothing had happened. Another narrator: I heard that he finished the paragraph before he got up. Another narrator: And he lay on the ground till he got to the end of a page—flipped a page—and then got up and walked on.

Similar stories are told about Irvin. B. Horst (1915-2011) at Eastern Mennonite College (now University), as well as other Mennonite intellectuals.

*John, the story that I first heard attached to your name was on the occasion of dropping by on your first week in Basel to meet Dr. [Karl] Barth [1886-1968]. And his wife answered the door and said that he was in the garden, and you proceeded to identify plants along the way--in Latin. And by the time you reached the far end, she introduced you to him as a good friend.

Yoder replied to the narrator, who was his colleague, saying he never saw his mentor Barth in the garden.

*[Yoder and Barth] got into a debate on nonresistance, just between the two of them, and Yoder really had Barth on the defensive during the debate.

*While at a party, the host asked John whether he wanted coffee. When he said yes, the host showed him the hot water, mugs, and freeze-dried coffee, expecting him to make it to suit his own taste. Much to the host's astonishment, however, John picked up the coffee jar and a spoon, and began to eat the crystals by the spoonful. He ate half the jar before he stopped.

His students also remember that Yoder studied while standing up at a desk; slept only four hours a night, then got up and read; and kept in his office a plastic bleach jar filled with cold liquid coffee, from which he sipped from time to time. Following his death, information about sexual abuse by Yoder emerged, causing much discussion and controversy in the Mennonite community. However, few anecdotes circulated.

Eastern Mennonite College/University

Three stories deal with church leaders from the Harrisonburg, Virginia, area, where Eastern Mennonite University is located. John R. Mumaw (1904-1993) was president of Eastern Mennonite College from 1948-65. Charles B. Hostetter (1916-1997) became the popular preacher on "The Mennonite Hour," a radio program broadcast throughout the U.S. in Mennonite communities. J. Mark Stauffer (1918-2004) was professor of music at EMC and influential in Mennonite church music along the eastern seaboard.

*At Eastern Mennonite [University] the most commonly told story has been verified by John R. Mumaw, I understand. He was sent to EMC by his parents as an angry, rebellious young man, and came down by the train, which went into Elkton. They would arrive in Elkton and then phone to the college to have someone come over and pick them up. He was thoroughly resenting this whole process, as he was sent down there to be reformed. When he phoned the college, they sent C. K. Lehman [1895-1980] over to pick him up. And C. K. Lehman asked if there's this Brother John R. Mumaw here. And they said, "Oh, yes, he was in here a moment ago. He's around behind." And Lehman walked around behind and he found him standing out there smoking a cigar. The man inside had said, "Yes, I think that's the young man that asked how you get to the damn Mennonite college."

*The same is true for Charlie Hostetter, who was transferred to EMC as a wrestler from Penn State. And he said he had just snuffed out his cigarette right down below where the chapel now stands, walked up front, and C. K. Lehman, who was the dean, met him and took him in to register him. Of course, as he met him, the first thing Lehman did was gave him a great, brotherly kiss, which you did with all incoming students in those days when you were the dean. And Charlie said he held his breath because, he said, "I know I must've smelled enough of tobacco to knock people over." But C. K. Lehman gave him the kiss and took him right on in—registered him.

Both of these stories offer the thrill of observing something scandalous in the histories of men who eventually became moral and spiritual pillars of the church. Smoking and saying "damn" may be petty sins for prodigal sons, but they are enough to give these leaders the necessary credentials of being truly converted, born-again Christians.

J. Mark Stauffer experienced Heaven before he died. Of course, it was a Mennonite heaven, full of the sound of unaccompanied four-part singing:

*I was in one of J. Mark Stauffer's choirs at EMC. He came striding in the room one day and he started out, "I had a dream last night." He said, "I dreamed I died and I was in heaven and I was singing in this huge choir. I looked around. The Lord himself was directing the choir. There were hundreds of sopranos and hundreds of altos and hundreds of tenors. But I was the only bass. . . .We started singing, and we were singing away and the Lord stopped the choir and said, 'Could we have a little less bass, please?'"

Goshen College

For many years H. S. Bender (1897-1962) was Dean of Goshen College and then President of Goshen Biblical Seminary. One of his students fondly recalls and often repeats this story:

*In class Harold Bender was explaining the Catholic view of Purgatory, and finally Stanley Shenk [1919-2010, later professor of Bible at Goshen College] asked, "Well, now, what about me? What about a Protestant? What would happen to me?" And Harold Bender said, "You go to Hell!"

Like D. D. Miller, Silvanus Yoder (1873-1963) was a farmer near Middlebury, Indiana, and also a part-time solicitor for contributions to Goshen College.

*My dad was soliciting in Illinois for the college—a well-to-do farmer in Illinois. He was in the farmer's barnyard, soliciting, and the farmer was very stubborn. He said, "OH, I, I, I like to put my money in the [offering] basket on Sunday morning." And somehow Dad got a little exasperated. There was a bushel basket sitting there and he grabbed the bushel basket up and he said, "Well, Brother, here's a basket!" I don't think he got any money.

Russian Mennonites

Three personal legends will acknowledge the rich trove of personal narratives to be found among Mennonites of Dutch-Prussian-Russian ancestry, especially due to their migrations and sufferings during the past 125 years. Frank C. Peters (1920-87) was a leader of the Mennonite Brethren Church in Canada, including as dean of the Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg (1957-65). Peter Dyck (1914-2010) and his wife Elfrieda (1917-2004) did heroic work with MCC following World War 2 in helping Mennonites escape from Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine, and settle in North and South America.

*Frank C. Peters told his congregation one Sunday evening c. 1970 that he had been driving from St. Catherine's to Kitchener on Route 406. He had been preaching at Kitchener and was speeding home. Somewhere past Hamilton he was suddenly stopped by an Ontario Provincial Police officer for speeding. Peters asked, "How did you catch me?" The officer raised a hand, with finger pointed heavenward, and didn't say anything. "Officer," Peters said, "I cannot argue with what comes from above." Then the officer noticed his Bible in the front of the car and let him go.

The story expresses well the ideas that Peters must have treasured as a Mennonite Brethren preacher: the power of the Bible, absolute obedience to the supernatural, and the positive influence of a Christian's testimony.

*The guys in Germany during PAX days [a volunteer reconstruction project] liked peanut butter but they couldn't get peanut butter. It was available in Holland, though, quite cheap. So [on] one trip Peter was taking, he filled up his trunk with peanut butter. And at the Dutch-German border they knew Peter Dyck because was going through all the time. They asked him, "Do you have anything to declare?" And he said, "No. Nothing but a trunk full of peanut butter." And they laughed, and he went on.

Most stories about Peter and Elfrieda Dyck concern the people that he helped escape. Here peanut butter displaces his usual, more precious cargo. But the ambiguous blending of human trickery and divine providence in many stories about Peter Dyck are still present in this more mundane incident.

A cycle of stories about I. M. Friesen, a shadowy figure, circulate among Russian Mennonites, including this legend:

*Irvin M. Friesen went to the sale barn and he bought an animal at the auction sale, and the auctioneer wanted to know what his name was. He says, "I. M. Friesen." Auctioneer says [agitated voice], "I am freezing, too. But, hey, I want your name!"

But exactly who is I. M. Friesen? And is his first name Irvin or Isaac? Although in the history of the large Friesen clan there must have been at least one man with the initials "I. M.," he cannot be recalled as a living person by informants, nor do genealogical records identify him. The best that can be said is that, in the folklore family, he is a first cousin of the equally legendary man from mainstream American folklore, named I. P. Standing.

Strong Men

One type of folk narrative seldom found in Mennonite and Amish circles is the tall tale, that is, the usually amusing story that exaggerates human experience or human achievement toward the fantastic. The Mennonite and Amish suspicion of fiction, and preference for legend, may be one reason for that lack. Another might be the traditional Anabaptist emphasis on humility. In the same way that one must not think highly of oneself, so in storytelling one should not make extraordinary claims. The decorum of story-telling complements the decorum of character. But probably the main reason for their scarcity today is that the tall tale is more characteristic of traditional rural culture than of contemporary urbanized culture, which is more likely to express itself through the trickster tale than the tall tale.

Even so, two cycles of stories about very strong men continue to circulate in Mennonite and Amish circles. One has as its hero "Strong" Isaac Kolb (1711-1776), who was a preacher in the Rockhill and Plains congregations in eastern Pennsylvania. The hero of the other cycle is "Strong" or "Strong Arm" Jacob Yoder (1726-1790), an Old Order Amish farmer from the Kishacoquillas Valley ("Big Valley"), Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, near Belleville. The extraordinary strength of both men sometimes expressed itself ambiguously in violence toward other people. Such stories are as close as one will get to finding "The Mennonite Book of War Heroes" mentioned at the beginning of Chapter 1.

*One day, during a barn-raising, Strong Isaac Kolb and others discussed during the noon meal whether it would take one or two teams of horses to pull a certain beam to its location in the barn. After lunch, while the men were chatting on the porch, they saw Strong Isaac walk past, carrying the beam on his shoulder.

*Strong Isaac Kolb spent a night at a tavern on his way to somewhere. In the tavern he was taunted by a young man who said, repeatedly, "Isaac Kolb won't fight." Whereupon, Strong Isaac finally went over to him, lifted him up high in his arms and slammed him back down in his chair so hard that it shattered. The young man said, "I'll never torment Isaac Kolb again."

Despite the violence latent in Kolb's behavior in the second story, it was told in 1983 with relish by John E. Lapp (1905-1988), a much revered retired bishop from the Franconia Mennonite Conference, to an assembly of Mennonites in the old Franconia meeting house.

Strong Jacob Yoder excelled in the same kind of hoisting power and sometimes also used it in morally ambiguous ways:

*My uncle's barn gable ends are stones. The top stone they can now measure, they estimate weighs about 300 pounds. The story goes that [Jacob Yoder] put the stone up there himself.

*[Strong Jacob Yoder] dismantled a wagon because of a flooded stream and took all the parts across and all the grain sacks across too. And then reassembled [the wagon].

*Jacob Yoder was a first-generation immigrant. He would take two 100-pound sacks of wheat to the top of the mill, one on each shoulder, or one under each arm. And as he would go up, someone would reach out through a window on the way up and tweak his beard. And finally he took up only one [bag] and grabbed this guy instead and took him on up.

*The way they showed their strength in those days was with wrestling matches. [Jacob Yoder] was the strongest boy in Big Valley and he obviously was the champion. Some boys in Lancaster County heard about Strong Arm Jake and they were sure that they could easily take him on. So they came to Big Valley and were going through the valley and saw a fellow plowing. So they called to him and said, "You know where Strong Arm Jake lives?" The person lifted the plow and said, "Yeah, right over there." They ran back to Lancaster.

The narrative element of a strong man pointing directions by lifting his plow has such a worldwide spread in folk narrative that it has been given its own number—F624.4—in Stith Thompson's magisterial index of folklore motifs, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, 6 vols. (1955-58). That allows us to be a bit skeptical of other awesome elements in these tall tales and to enjoy them more as fiction than history.

William McGrath, the Beachy Amish minister described in Chapter 5, published a kind of official, moralized version of the preceding story (p. 76), which incorporates elements from the other accounts given here. McGrath does not interpret the story as confirming Strong Jake's nonresistance, although some details of his narrative suggest that meaning. Instead, he introduces the story by quoting Psalm 27:1 and 1 John 4:18, both of which emphasize the casting out of fear.

Mennonite Women

To the several stories dealing with tobacco use, cited above, needs to be added the following, which also shows the influence of Mennonite women in church and community affairs—even if they are barely represented in legends in this chapter. Moses Horning (1829-1906) lived in Lancaster County.

*Bishop Moses Horning, when ready to go to the store for groceries, said to his wife, "I have trouble with my stomach. I guess I will get me a pack of chewing tobacco. Maybe that will help." His wife said, "I have the same trouble. Would you bring me a pack also?" So Mose went to the store and came home without any tobacco.

A more farcical, cynical view of the power of a Mennonite woman comes from the Bucks County Mennonite community and involves a married couple, Henry and Sallie Moyer, whose life dates cannot be documented..

*Henry Moyer was a sort of an ornery kid and an even more ornery young man. He got the name of "Devil Hen," for Hen--Henry, you know. He married Sallie and they lived on what is presently known as Pearl Buck's farm and they had a rocky marriage. She didn't like him and he didn't like her. Everyone knew it. So when they had their bedroom downstairs, he was in bed sleeping. She took her rope and tied it around his neck and put it up through the hole where the stovepipe goes, and she went up there. In the meantime, he knew what she had done. So he took the rope and tied it to a strove. She went upstairs and pulled on the rope and she pulled the stove up against the ceiling and she thought she was pulling him. She yelled out of the window and yelled, "Fire! Fire!" and then a lot of people came and they saw the stove--and Henry with a grin on his face. This got out in the community. My folks like to tell that story, but, oh, with a great deal of embarrassment.

The narrator insists that the event really occurred, but its farcical, improbable physical battle between the sexes connects it with the fabliaux tradition in universal folk literature.

Although Mennonites until very recently have cultivated a separatist stance regarding "the world," the community nevertheless seems to cherish accounts of Mennonites' brush with world-famous people. The first story comes from a Dutch Mennonite family line that first moved to the Danzig area but eventually settled in Ukraine. The second comes from a Swiss-Alsatian Mennonite family connected with Goshen College, in Indiana, which has often hosted prominent international leaders. Both come from women narrators and both concern the woman of the house in her traditional domestic role, serving breakfast:

*It's about a woman who was my great-great-great-great grandmother in Russia—four greats. And it's very simple. One morning they woke up and some of the military officers came galloping into their village on horses, very early in the morning, before five, and pounded on their door. They got up and were rather frightened. But the officers just told them the Czar was coming through in an hour and he wanted breakfast. And so that grandmother of mine cooked breakfast and the Czar came and ate in their home and then went on his way. . . . When my dad told it to us he was sort of proud of the fact that, you know, way back in our ancestry the Czar ate breakfast in one of our homes.

*In the early 1960s Clement Atlee [1883-1967], who was a former Prime Minister of Great Britain, was speaking at [Goshen] College. And I'm not sure if he stayed overnight at John Fisher's [1926-2014] home or just had breakfast there, but Pauline cooked porridge for him and served it to him. She said afterward that he told her that this was the best porridge he had had in America. Our family always jokes about that.

Tribute to J. C. Wenger

This scattered gathering of personal legends will close with an inspirational story about John S. Coffman (1848-1899), a native of Virginia, who became the first Mennonite evangelist and, near the end of his life, chair of the board of the Elkhart (Indiana) Institute, which eventually became Goshen College. Coffman deserves much credit for helping make American Mennonites the more dynamic, outward-looking group that they have become today, one century later.

*[Coffman] went to Bridgewater Normal [one term in 1875], which is now known as Bridgewater College [in Harrisonburg, Virginia]. The president was a Dr. Bucher. And Coffman would go to him and say, "I really would like such and such a book and I can't afford to buy it."

"Oh," Bucher said, "no problem. I'll just loan you my copy." So he loaned this young man, who was such a worthy young man, by this time married and starting his family and farming a very hilly farm near Mole Hill—that's known to anybody that knows Harrisonburg, Virginia—and he would rest the horses at the end of the row and pull out this book and read a while, and then he'd go on with his work. And then when he was done with the books he took them back to Dr. Bucher and reached for his wallet to pay him. And Bucher said, "Do you think I would take anything from a young man as eager for an education as you are?" And they said John S. Coffman's eyes filled with tears—he was so moved at the kindness of this man.

This story was told to me by John C. Wenger—mentioned recurrently in this book—who was one of the great Mennonite raconteurs of the late twentieth century. Although he appreciated any story for its own sake, he was masterful in using stories from Mennonite experience in his sermons and other public presentations, in order to make his intellectual and emotional points about Mennonite history and beliefs. And to entertain and please his listeners. He dressed and thought conservatively, but his friendly demeanor and his winsome story-telling united all members of his audience, across the divides of Mennonite splinterings. The book concludes with reference to J.C. as a tribute to his respect for and memorable use of Mennonite folk narratives, and his lifelong appreciation for Mennonite folk culture.

Little C.O
Image: Don Swartzentruber

Little C.O

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.