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More Trickster Tales


Chapter 3


The "more" in the title of this chapter alludes to Chapter 4 in my first MennoFolk book, which studies a tradition of Mennonite trickster tales that reaches all the way back to Menno Simons (1496-1559), after whom the denomination is named. The legend about clever Menno in the stagecoach, eluding authorities by means of deceptive speech, embodies what in Dutch culture is known as "The Mennonite Lie." The trickster allows his opponent to misunderstand a speech or a situation and benefits from that situation without revealing the truth of it. The pursued Mennonite escapes danger without literally telling a lie, thereby preserving the Anabaptist-Mennonite ideal of letting "your yea be yea" in an ethnic culture that treasures clear, honest speech.

In recent years, the legend of Menno in the Coach has mutated into the legend of the Mennonite preacher, who is dressed in his "plain" coat, being mistaken for a Roman Catholic priest and given special favors or treatment. The Mennonite preacher accepts the benefit without explaining his passive deception. Most frequently, such recent versions of the legend concern the late, well-known Mennonite theologian and preacher J. C. Wenger speeding down the highway and excused by a policeman or state patrolman.

Stories of the plain-coat Mennonite preacher will dominate the second half of this chapter, but other kinds of Mennonite and Amish tricksters in the first half will suggest the rich variety in the tradition, which Mennonites seem to relish. All of the stories resonate in the context of historical and recent Mennonite confessions of faith, in which an emphasis on integrity of speech, related to the non-swearing of oaths, is the one doctrine that appears most often in Mennonite sub-groups.

Tricky Behavior

The first Mennonite trickster uses silent pantomime to imply a physical violence that he never would use in actual life. Paraphrased here, it was told to me by a Beachy Amish minister who said he would never tell a story that was not true, although his story has all the trappings of a folk legend, including three-fold action. It also belongs to the tradition of implied threat associated with the tall tales of Strong Isaac Kolb and Strong Jacob Yoder in Chapter 10 on personal legends.

*Bontrager's first ancestor to settle in Elkhart County came here through the Ohio wilderness, driving oxen that pulled a wagon full of the family's possessions. One night they camped out in the wilderness beside the road, only to find themselves surrounded by a band of hostile-looking Indians, who waited and watched. What should the nonresistant Christian do? Well, first he built a bright fire behind the wagon. Then he went to the rear axle of the wagon and lifted it once and then set it down. He lifted it a second time and set it down. He lifted it a third time and set it down. Seeing this show of strength, the Indians vanished into the forest. In this case, The Mennonite Lie, implying brutal strength waiting to be used in violence, works better than prayer.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, we turn to the story of Mennonite ministers caught with their pants down. Or off!

*Two General Conference Mennonite pastors were at a lake with members of their congregation, and they decided they wanted to go skinny-dipping. So they went all by themselves and left their clothes on the edge of the shore. All of a sudden they saw the boats with their congregation people coming, and they knew that they were going to dock right there where their clothes were. So they ranto the shore as fast as they could. Their clothes weren't right there. One of the men couldn't run faster so he put his towel around his head. The other guy says, "Well, why do you put your towel around your head?" And he said, "Well, I don't know about you, but my people know me by my face."

This is a favorite story in Mennonite circles, but is usually told about boys in a Mennonite college who, after showering, raced through a girls' dorm floor with only a towel wrapped around their heads—either because someone had hidden their clothes or because they wanted to "streak" without being recognized. The latter makes the most sense, since they could have wrapped their towels around their loins and preserved their modesty. Adapted here to two preachers at a lake, the story makes less pleasing sense because members of the congregation surely would have known who the single streaker was, even if they didn't recognize him by his private parts.

Tricky Speech

The first two stories illustrate trickery by clever deeds. The more typical Mennonite trickster is one who uses deceptive or ambiguous meanings of words to convey a false message that saves the Mennonite, either physically or morally.

*E. G. Kaufman [1891-1980], past president of Bethel College [Newton, Kansas], was in New York City about to attend seminary. This was at a time when housing, particularly student housing, was very hard to come by. And many of the landlords were Jewish and would take Jewish boarding students, but not gentiles. Because of their need for separate eating quarters, I guess, Jewish students would eat with the family, but gentiles could not. Anyway, E. G. was getting pretty desperate to find a room, and finally went up and knocked at one of these Jewish families. The landlord gave E. G. a close look and wanted to know what E. G. was doing. E. G. told him he was going to seminary. (This was obviously a non-Jewish seminary.) The landlord explained that they did not rent to gentiles, and E. G. finally piped up, "But my name is Kaufman!" The landlord said, "Kaufman! Well, why didn't you say so!" So apparently E. G. got his room after all.

Here the Mennonite is more deliberately deceptive than in other trickster stories. He deliberately wants the Jew to misunderstand the "seminary" he is attending, and he knowingly emphasizes his very common Mennonite family name, which is also a common Jewish name.

With the rise of labor unions in the United States, pacifist Mennonites early on forbade members to join unions because unions ultimately will resort to coercion, even force, to attain their ends. While Mennonites were predominantly farmers, the ruling was academic, but as Mennonites moved into more urban occupations this rule created hardships, which the following story solves in a tricky way:

*Some Mennonites from Kalona [Iowa] were working on a plastering crew in Iowa City, when they were approached by a union organizer. They heard this fellow say, "Do you belong to the union?" And he said, "Yes, I belong to East Union." See, that's the Mennonite church [near Kalona]. And both fellows inside [the house] also belonged. And of course this went all over the community right away. They said, "Benny, he got rid of [the union organizer] all right by telling him he belonged to East Union," and both of the plasterers belonged to East Union, too. So they were "union" men!

Historically, Mennonites have tended to be separatists in the countries and cultures in which they have lived. Often they have sought special privileges of exemption from military service and of operating their own schools in their immigrant languages. Those positions inevitably create tensions with the government. One story shows how Mennonites resolved an issue through a linguistic technicality:

*The Mennonites in Brazil were told during World War II that they could not hold their services any longer in German because of the war with Germany. And the Mennonites said, "OK. If we can't use [High] German we'll use Plautdietsch [a Low German dialect]. And the government said, "You daren't use Plaut because that's a form of German, too." "No," the Mennonites said, "it's a form of Dutch." Well, you can argue both sides of that. It has certain resemblances to both languages. So the government sent a professor out to the colonies of the Mennonites in Brazil to find out what kind of a language they did speak. And he said, "How do you say horse in Plaut?" Well, the word in Plaut is Piert, which is a form of Ferde, which is the High German word for horse. But there is a word that's a little bit slangy that's about like our word nag, and it's schrog, and this German professor had never heard of it. So he said, "How do you say cow?" Well, the Low German word for cow is Ku, which is the same as High German. But, again, there's a slangy word which would be about like you'd say in English, "the old bone pile." And it's pronounced Klem. So they said that. And he had never heard of that. So he went back to the government. He said, "The language they talk is not German." Then the Mennonites laughed up their sleeves and conducted their services in Plaut and enjoyed it more than ever.

Although the story is more often told about Mennonites in Prussia and Ukraine, this version came from J. C. Wenger, himself the hero of many, many Mennonite trickster stories. Clearly, he enjoyed the larger tradition, just as he apparently relished being a hero in others' trickster stories about him.

One Amish trickster story is based on the clever, literal interpretation of a phrase:

*My mom and dad went out west one time. And Dad had a beard and when he was out west he had a close shave. That's part of the story. Then Mom had always said, "Well, she won't sleep with Dad if he shaves the beard off." But of course he did have a close shave and he lost the beard. And so I asked Mom, "How do you, well, how do you do this?" She said, "Well, I went to bed first. He had to sleep with me." I guess it's all in how we look at it! That's the way a lot of the jokes are. But I think it's good for us to laugh at ourselves and see that we are still God's people.

The story was told by a pastor of a Conservative Mennonite church, following a men's fellowship dinner at which I and members of the audience told Mennonite and Amish stories. The program was followed by religious songs by a men's quartet, after which the pastor stood to close the evening with this story, other comments and a concluding prayer. Although he appreciated and enjoyed the ambiguity of this family story, his comments implied a dichotomy between relishing funny stories and being "God's people."

Tricky Costume

Stories of the Mennonite preacher as trickster wearing the plain coat have a predictable narrative pattern, although some of them clearly derive from the actual experience of Mennonite men being mistaken for Catholic priests. John Mosemann (1907-89) was a well known Mennonite pastor who, according to his own counting, was stopped for speeding four times in his life. In each case, the arresting officer mistook his plain coat for the garb of a priest and did not give him a ticket. The conversation usually went something like this: "Oh, I'm sorry, Father! You were just exceeding the speed limit out here and I know you wouldn't want to hurt anyone." "Thank you."To which John added, "I not always, but frequently, put a religious book or Bible or Testament on the dash going through customs, for immigration to Canada and back. It would say as much as I could tell them, perhaps—in shorter compass." The effectiveness of the Bible on prominent display in the car is illustrated by this account:

Self Portrait
Image: Don Swartzentruber

Self Portrait

*My father was a minister ordained by lot . . . [and wore] the plain coat. It happened that he was a salesman and would have his Bible along. And one time his Bible was on the seat and . . . I think he was parked too close to a fire hydrant or sticking out over a parking lot. And when he left, the traffic policeman there stopped him and then said, "Father, I would have given you a ticket, but I saw the Bible in your seat."

Two other stories show how Mennonite ministers deliberately exploited their plain coats to receive favors from the government:

*This is a true story. When Levi Hartzler [1909-2002] and Nelson Litwiller [1898-1986] went to Mennonite World Conference, they came back together. They had to go through customs. And all the time they were [in Europe] they didn't wear their plain coats. And when they got off the plane, Lit was smart. He put his plain coat on. And so they went through customs. Levi was in line. And they saw Lit and they called him out, and they passed him through customs—just like that. When Lit passed Levi, he waved at him. He said, "Goodbye!" And there was Levi, laughing. He said, "Boy, leave it to him!"

John Mosemann told a different version of what was probably the same event, although more through the eyes of Nelson Litwiller than Levi Hartzler:

*It was one of the Mennonite world conferences—presumably in the 50s or early 60s. They still traveled by boat. A number of these persons who had attended the conference had quite a discussion . . . on the value and relevance of the clerical coat. None of them were really over-enthused about its value or its place and usefulness, Litwiller among them. He was not making a case for this at all—until they docked at New York. That morning he put on his clerical vest and he picked out an Irish official, went up to him and said, "Do I have to stand in all this line to get through customs and immigration?" "No, Father, you just follow me." And so he took Litwiller on one side of the barricade, which was pierced. You could see through it. And the other representatives, travelers, who he had discussed this issue with, were on the other side, waiting their turns. And he waved to them as he passed by. And it took them an hour or two to get through. . . . He demonstrated that the clerical vest had some time-saving value. He let the cloth speak for itself.

Here Litwiller was wearing a clerical vest with a lapel coat. But if he "let the cloth speak for itself," he also became an aggressive trickster by deliberately wearing the coat for a non-clerical purpose and by deliberately seeking out an Irish official, who would be by nature inclined to give favors to a presumed Catholic priest.

John Mosemann relished telling another story about J. C. Wenger wearing a plain coat and allowing himself to be mistaken for a Catholic priest—but this time by a fellow Mennonite—Ed Taylor (1923-2006), an African-American employed at the time by the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities:

*Ed Taylor had determined that he was going to witness to any priests that got on [the train] at South Bend. Ed Taylor had a certain book, and this priest that came and sat next to him showed interest in this book—it was one of John R. Stott's books—and asked him whether he reads much by Stott. Yes, everything he can get his hands on of Stott's. They were visiting and he finally asked Ed what he does. Well, he works for the Mennonite Board of Missions. He's their Home Missions secretary, and so on and so on and so on. "And what's your name?" "Ed Taylor." And Ed Taylor reciprocated and wanted to know who he was. He said, "I'm J. C. Wenger."

Wenger clearly relishes being mistaken for a Catholic priest. He prolongs the conversation during the mistaken identity and does not reveal his name until the protocol of conversation makes it absolutely necessary. Or, at least that's the case in Mosemann's personal shaping of the story in the manner of the Mennonite legend of the plain coat preacher.

Although such stories are almost always told about Mennonite men tricksters, one shows the similar possibility latent in the "cape" dresses worn by conservative Mennonite women:

*This actually happened. Mary Ann Bender [1904-2001?] and Uriah Bontrager's wife [Esther Irene Bender 1918-84] went to California to visit John Bender [b. 1899?] . . . . Anyway, John was taking them sight-seeing and they went into a park somewhere. A man looks into the back seat and he says, "Oh, sisters! [Catholic nuns]." Uriah [1907-74] piped up right away, "No, sisters-in-law."

Even if some of these stories are based on incidents in real life, the reader can clearly perceive that they all fit within the archetypal narrative of the plain-coat preacher in mistaken communication with the world. The shaping of such narratives into stylized form is best captured by the following version, whose punch lines are Bible verses not likely ever to have been used in a conversation between policeman and Mennonite:

*There was a preacher coming from Ohio and he was going too fast. So he got stopped—pulled over by a cop. The cop walked up to him and the preacher looked back to the cop and he says, "Be merciful to me, a sinner!" And the cop shook his hand and he says, "Go thy way, and sin no more!" That's all he said. And he left.

That version, told by a Conservative Mennonite man, assumes—but does not mention—that the plain coat resembles a priest's. Perhaps it and others also participate in a larger cycle of legends told by members of other religious groups about their clergy. Here is a Methodist variant as told by a Mennonite missionary doctor who worked with Methodists in India:

*[Dr. Miller, a Methodist in Nepal] said the Methodist Church tells about this itinerant preacher who was out gathering money for the churches. He got on the stagecoach to go home. And a robber got on the stagecoach and started to go around, person to person: "Give me your money. Give me your money. Give me your money." He came to this Methodist preacher and [the preacher] said, "Oh, please, please, please! I'm just a poor Methodist preacher. I've got church money here." [The robber said] "Oh, you're a Methodist? So am I, Father. So am I. So you just keep it. Keep it."

There is a bit of story contamination here, since the Methodist robber would never have addressed his fellow Methodist clergyman as "Father." That part of the narrative belongs in a trickster story where the would-be victim is mistaken for a Catholic priest. The story no doubt assumes that the Methodist clergyman was wearing his clergyman’s garb.

Tricky Redemption

Mennonites sometimes express concern about telling such stories—especially repeating the story of Menno in the stagecoach—lest it convey to the younger generation the notion that deception, whether by design or by default, is excusable in Christian affairs. J. C. Wenger told one story and then overtly defended its subtext.

*Well, I heard Peter Dyck [1914-2010] tell that he was helping a Mennonite boy—I think around twelve—to escape from Russia into the free world [following World War 2]. And the boy was scared stiff, of course. And Peter said, "Don't you say anything. Let me do the talking." So when they got to the border, Peter showed the Russian that had to leave them out his own papers, which were in order. And then he showed a driver's license, which was supposedly the passport for this boy. And the Russian couldn't read any other language, so he let them go through. So Peter Dyck got that boy out on a driver's license. I assume it was his own. But he just flashed the card in front of the Russian and he said, "OK?" And the Russian said, "OK." No, he didn't lie. You get to the point, when you live under the Russians, that you're pretty slippery. I'm not justifying it—the battle of wits—[but it shows] how to get along.

J. C. Wenger may not be "justifying it" logically, but he is justifying it by telling a moving story. He might have thought of citing the ambiguous admonition by Jesus: "Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves."Or he might have told this final story, which illustrates that the "Mennonite Lie" might not be necessary—that, in fact, a blatant telling of the literal truth might also disarm would-be oppressors:

*A Mennonite brother in an elevator with one companion was asked to hand over his wallet. He said he didn't have his wallet with him that day. While [the robber] pondered his next threat, the brother added, "But I have $20 in my shirt pocket." The would-be assailant made no further demand but got out of the elevator at the first opportunity.

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.