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Mennonites Want Only ‘Christian’ Identity

Pearson, John. “Mennonites Want Only ‘Christian’ Identity.” Bismarck Tribune, 16 February 1982, 10F.


“People used to ask me why I didn’t grow a beard,” said the Rev. Chester Fast, pastor of the Mennonite Brethren Church in Harvey.

Most Mennonites want to be ordinary citizens, to hold regular jobs, and to be identified “only as Christians, not as peculiar people,” he said.

Washington Heights Community Church is the only Mennonite Church in Bismarck. It was founded in 1961 by several families from the McClusky area.

Albert and Marie Hauff are one of the founding couples of the church. “We don’t have one farmer in our church,” Albert Hauff said, although he noted that many of the members do have farm backgrounds.

He works as a clerk at Melroe Division Clark Equipment Co., two other members are accountants and another is a secretary at the state Capitol.

“We’re trying to reach out into society and be a witness to others,” said Hauff, who is a board member. “I don’t think that being Mennonite means being apart,” he added.

The 28 members of his church dress like other Bismarck residents, he said, although they try to be conservative in lifestyle.

His wife, Marie, said, “I’m proud of the Mennonite heritage and what they teach. The word means nothing if you don’t believe, just like in other churches. Beliefs are what count.”

According to several historians, a few old-fashioned Mennonites and members of another religious group called the Brethren came to North Dakota expecting to continue the small-farm lifestyle that had been successful elsewhere. ·

But, as Bishop Eli J. Bontreger, who served several Amish (another denomination of the Mennonites) communities in Rolette and Pierce counties for many years wrote, “The novelty of farming those prairie lands, where four to six horse teams were needed, wore off after a number of years and a desire for farming on a smaller scale grew ... on some of us.”

Many of the Old Order Amish in North Dakota dispersed after 1909. John A. Hostetler, a scholar on the Hutterites, concluded that “It was the cold, severe snowstorms and the low crop yields that loom large as the causes for the decline of the Amish community.”

Only the Hutterites, the most conservative of the many Mennonite denominations, still live in colonies and wear the traditional plain dress. The men have full beards and wear black denim clothes. The women wear full skirts, long-sleeved blouses and scarves.

And while the strict Hutterite interpretation of Scripture requires nonconformity and rejection of most worldly pleasures, Hostetler notes that the proscription doesn’t extend to the latest farming techniques and equipment- Scripture tells mankind to be efficient and industrious, say the Hutterites.

Like many of the Mennonites, the Hutterites learned to farm prairies on the Ukrainian steppes, and they became experts at large-scale prairie farming. But they did it communally, on large cooperatives instead of individual homesteads, and the Hutterites are considered by many to be outstanding farmers and shrewd businessmen.

The Hutterites stress communal living, a concept based on biblical descriptions of early Christian churches. They also stress hard work and plain living. The colony is the primary unit of their denomination, and they have little organizational structure beyond that.

They have individual houses, eat in a communal dining hall and worship in a plain church. According to Hostetler, evangalists who try to “save souls” in Hutterite colonies make little headway with the Hutterites; most of them know the Bible well.

Their colonies function as a farm unit, headed by a business manager. The business manager and other department heads are elected by the members of the colony, and the leaders try to place workers in jobs they like - such as the machine shop or dairy. That is the compensation for no salary.

They deal in local markets as much as possible with their produce and needs. Many colonies buy only basic materials, from which they make clothes, tools and furniture. They don’t like radios and televisions and cars- only trucks, which are for work. But they do utilize the services of local physicians and attorneys.

Hutterites are free to leave their colonies if they don’t like the lifestyle, but, scholars note, many eventually come back after getting a taste of the outside world because they find it difficult to adjust to a fast-moving life without the support of their colony.

Education and military service are two areas where Mennonites, Hutterites and also the Brethren, a similar protestant church movement, have occasionally parted company with the rest of North Dakota society. Most of them have sent their children to public schools, according to scholars.

However, some of the Hutterites and several conservative Mennonite churches have rejected education beyond eighth grade. They have also rejected modern educational values as unnecessary for their lifestyles, and they have founded their own schools.

A court case over state requirements regarding teacher certification for Pleasant Valley Christian School at Grafton was averted last year when authorities decided there was no need to prosecute. That school was founded by the Mennonite Church of God in Christ at Grafton.

Pacifism is a matter of conscience for members of the “peace churches”- and, during wars, a number of members have refused military service.

Mennonite pastor Fast of Harvey thinks that the learning of English was a major reason why the social barriers between various religious groups began to break down during the 1920s.

According to J.B. Toews, Fresno, Calif., a Mennonite scholar, Mennonites have remained cautious about interfaith marriage, but the numbers of intermarriages between Mennonites and people of other faiths are increasing.

The “peace churches” have retained their beliefs, although most of the members except Hutterites have adjusted their lifestyles to a changing society.

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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