Plain Meethinghouses: Lancaster County Old Order Mennonites Gather To Worship, by Beth Oberholtzer, photos by John Herr
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Edelweiss/Schiffer Publishing. All thoughts and opinions are my own.]
There may not be many people who would appreciate this book as much as I did, but I found a great deal about this book to enjoy. My own religious traditions share a great deal with the Mennonites , such as a standoffish relationship towards involvement with government, a desire to avoid worldliness, baptism of adults rather than infants, footwashing, strong schismatic tendencies, and a strong preference for community unity rather than individuality. Given these similarities due to our common background of pietism, there was a lot here that I was able to appreciate from my own personal experience. The author and photographer here do a fantastic job at showing the simplicity of the plain folk while also demonstrating the tensions and diversity within those traditions as they have accommodated and resisted modernity and worldliness. If you like beautiful photos and thoughtful commentary about a religious tradition that both fascinates and repels modern thinking, this book is a very excellent one that portrays the Mennonites in an honest but sympathetic light.
The book is organized, as one would expect, by the various branch of the Mennonites that are represented so that one can see the overall patterns as well as the distinctions between different groups of Mennonites. The author introduces with some historical context and the representative Mennonite buildings that set the patterns for later buildings before moving one by one through different groups of Mennonites with specific philosophies about church buildings and what they symbolize. First the author looks at surviving early Mennonite meeting houses, which were often house churches to better shield the faithful from the watching eyes of suspicious and unfriendly governments in Europe and were brought over by early Mennonites in the beginning of the 18th century. After that the author examines the buildings of the Stauffer and Weaver Mennonites. A discussion about schisms (and there have been many) follows along with the influence of Old Order traditions on the design of Mennonite church buildings. After this comes a look at shared meeting houses for the Weaverland and Groffdale conferences and the buildings for just the Groffdale Conference alone. A brief discussion of the meetinghouses of the Reidenbach Old Order Mennonites and those of the Weaverland Conference (as well as their fellowship houses) follows before the book concludes with an appendix that discusses the different directions that church construction could take based on one’s specific faith.
It is fascinating to look at the evolution of Mennonite construction over time, from early three room meetinghouses that were based on early Mennonite homes, to the subtle difference in the view of the ministry and church leadership that is signaled by whether the minister speaks from a table that is level with the brethren or from a pulpit on a raised area that shows a certain tendency towards hierarchy, to the way that women make their opinion known even if men hold the official leadership positions of different congregations, to the way that building design reflects certain worldview choices, such as making the warmer southern exposure the place for women to enter and desiring locations for churches that are equally close to brethren and far enough from roads to avoid the noises of traffic while close enough to be easy to reach with black cars of a strong degree of uniformity or horses and buggies that are more specialized than may meet the eye. This is a book that shows the unity and the diversity of Old Order Mennonite traditions that have struggled to maintain a common course in the face of diverse pressures to change or modernize or, alternatively, to strongly reject what is viewed as corruption and bad innovation. As someone whose life and religious worldview is involved in similar struggles and a great deal of shared history, I have a great deal of empathy and a certain amount of understanding for these traditions.
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