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March 18, 2013 issue

Amish-Mennonite family album

Researcher depicts group that occupies middle ground

By Tim Huber Mennonite World Review

Cory Anderson’s new book about Amish-Mennonites presents a visual record and historical analysis of a group not known for doing either on a national scale.

Photos like this one of Cornerstone Mennonite Church in Harrison, Ark., are featured in <i>The Amish-Mennonites of North America</i>.

Photos like this one of Cornerstone Mennonite Church in Harrison, Ark., are featured in The Amish-Mennonites of North America. — Photo by Cory Anderson

The Amish-Mennonites of North America: A Portrait of Our People is precisely what the title suggests. The weighty tome — one foot wide and 300 pages — collects page after page of photographs.

“It wasn’t planned ahead of time; it just started developing as I was collecting artifacts of Amish-Mennonite history,” said Anderson, of Newcomerstown, Ohio, who came from a Baptist background to join the Amish-Mennonites eight years ago. “I thought, ‘Perhaps I’ll have a shoebox of these images,’ but it turned into a book project as people asked to see them.”

Over three years he traveled the U.S. and Canada, photographing church exteriors, sanctuary interiors, road signs and congregations. The book also includes Anderson’s research in text, charts and maps — an ode to his bachelor’s degree in geography. He is finishing a doctorate in rural sociology, and his dissertation digs into the world of Amish-Mennonites.

Not much has been written on the subject. He said most Amish-Mennonite history is regional and informally maintained. For example, no minutes are kept at annual ministers’ meetings.

“I just saw that there was a gap,” he said. “They didn’t have as much of an understanding of total history, just their local segment.”

Aaron Lapp, a deacon in the Lancaster County, Pa., area for three decades and author of Weavertown Church History, said Amish-Mennonites have a history of open fellowship with both more progressive and more conservative Mennonites.

“That has been a wonderful experience and enriched our own church life,” he said. “We’re kind of an in-between group, without trying to be, of course, not competitive but cooperative with other groups.

“We just kind of fill a niche there that doesn’t require saying who we are.”

Matter of definition

One of the challenges The Amish-Mennonites of North America addresses is definitions. Amish-Mennonites are too assimilated into the broader culture to be Amish — they drive cars and use electricity — but they also aren’t comfortable being as culturally adapted as mainstream Mennonites.

Anderson advocates hyphenating the term “Amish-Mennonite,” to imply that it is a single concept and not a hybrid.

“It’s hard to get a succinct definition, because I don’t think we’ve developed an appropriate terminology,” he said. “Part of my goal in the book is to carve out this niche, not just describe the Amish-Mennonites as kind of Amish or kind of Mennonite, but something separate — carve out that middle section.”

And it’s a broad one. Many photos were taken immediately after a church service. Some have a rainbow of clothing colors and styles for both men and women. Others are quite uniform in black or gray. Still others would not be comfortable having their photo taken at all.

“I’ve had some people kind of call this a Beachy directory,” he said. “It’s part of that, but in this book is a variety of other types of Mennonites that have come out of the Beachy movement. You see quite a bit of diversity in where the Amish-Mennonites are at today.”

The Beachy Amish are a subset of Amish-Mennonites, who altogether total nearly 13,000 members in the U.S. and Canada. Including children and other attendees there are more than 22,000 adherents.

Newcomer’s zeal

A relative newcomer who began attending a Beachy Amish church when he was 18, Anderson studied two years at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. His 10 years of higher education stand in contrast to Lapp, who recorded nearly a century of oral history in his 300-page book without a high school education.

“We don’t have anything close to [Anderson’s book],” Lapp said. “I guess we just didn’t have the vision for that. It takes a lot of work, and of course Mr. Anderson did that out of his college work.”

Anderson is also the author of Ornament of a Spirit: Exploring the Real Reasons Covering Styles Change, published in 2011. A study of the women’s prayer covering, it seeks to offer a bigger perspective, much like The Amish-Mennonites of North America.

“I have had a couple of people tell me that this is almost something our own people could not have done,” Anderson said. “I heard someone who once said those who join a religious group [and] who didn’t grow up with it generally have more of a zeal for the people, rather than those who didn’t join [from the outside]. That’s where I find myself… . Maybe it took an outsider to put the pieces together.”

He hopes to widen his scope still further and study the global Amish-Mennonite family. The Mennonite Historical Society awarded him a grant last year to research Latin America, and he is applying for grants to also cover Europe and Africa.

Both books by Anderson are available from Ridgeway Publishers at 888-822-7894, vision-publishers.com or a website he put together about the Beachy Amish, beachyam.org.

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