Nourished by Rural Roots: The Resources of Mid-Twentieth Mennonite Rural Identity for Renewed Commitments to Local Place Open Access

Showalter-Ehst, Krista Leigh (2012)

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Nourished by Rural Roots: The Resources of Mid-Twentieth Mennonite Rural Identity for Renewed Commitments to Local Place

North American Mennonites have a long history in relationship to farming and rural life. The percentage of Mennonite farmers, however, decreased significantly throughout the twentieth-century, following broader North American trends. Decreasing numbers of farmers resulted from shifts towards large-scale, highly mechanized agriculture that cut back on the need for human labor, consolidated land under the ownership of fewer farmers, and made farming an increasingly expensive investment. These agricultural changes impacted not only farmers, but entire rural communities that had previously oriented much of their lives around small-scale models of agriculture. Many Mennonite communities retain memories of these former modes of farming, and of periods when community life was largely circumscribed by rural landscapes. Additionally, the history of Mennonite responses to mid-twentieth century rural disruption is still quite accessible. These memories are important for our present time, in which many of us are disconnected from farming and food sources and--more fundamentally--are disconnected from our local places.

This paper examines rural Mennonite experience during the mid-twentieth century. It utilizes the writings of The Mennonite Community Association, an organization that was concerned with maintaining Mennonite rural life. It also draws heavily on the Association's primary publication: The Mennonite Community, a periodical that offers a breadth of North American rural Mennonite experience and response. Additionally, the study focuses on the experiences of Franconia Conference Mennonites in Southeastern Pennsylvania. The sermons and writings of long-time bishop John Lapp provide a window into one church leader's response to rural changes. Twelve interviews with current Franconia Conference Mennonites provide living memories of the impact of farming and rural life on Mennonite life, and how changes in those spheres have impacted Mennonite communities. Through these sources, it becomes clear that many Mennonites enacted key faith values in relationship to the rural landscapes they lived and worked within. This intersection of faith identity and rural place was, in many ways, mutually beneficial for the community and the land. As we strive to strengthen communities and sustain our landscapes, we can learn much from the ways that mid-twentieth century Mennonites cultivated connections to rural places.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
I. Introduction of Thesis & Sources...1

a. Introduction...1
b. Sources and Methodology...3

II. Context of Mid-Twentieth Century Rural Mennonite Life...8

a. Rural Agrarian Life in the Mid-Twentieth Century...8
b. Anabaptist-Mennonite Histories in Relationship to Land...11

III. Mid-twentieth Century Mennonite Rural Ideals...15

a. Rhetoric of Rural vs. Urban as an Oppositional Strategy...15
b. Pictorial and Poetic Idealizations of Rural Life...20
c. Ecclesial Connections with Rural Life...23

IV. Values Associated with the Rural Sphere...30

a. Social Values...31

i. Family Life...31
ii. Social Relationships within the Faith Community...35

b. Economic Values...38

i. Mutual Aid...38
ii. Simplicity & Nonconformity...41
iii. Nonresistance...45

c. Land-centered Values...48

i. Biblically-based Relationships to Land...49
ii. Land Stewardship...50

V. Expressing Values in Practices of Resistance and Adaptation...54

a. Resisting and Adapting to Changing Agricultural Models...55

i. Large-Scale Agriculture...55
ii. Mechanization...61

b. Resistance and Adaptation in Response to Industrialization...63
c. Increasing Openness to (Sub)Urban Places...67

VI. Ongoing Mennonite Relationships to Place...69

a. Mennonite Demographics since the Mid-twentieth Century...69
b. Looking to the Future: Claiming and Expanding our Places...73

i. Knowing and Depending on our Landscapes...78
ii. Place-based Community Life...81

VII. Conclusion: Expanding a Vision of Place...86
VIII. Works Cited...89
IX. Appendix...94

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