Who are the Mennonites of Appalachia?

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PHOTO: A deacon, speaking on a Sunday morning at Creston Mennonite Church. Citation: Mennonite Community Photograph Collection, The Congregation. Mennonite Church USA Archives, Goshen, Indiana.
PHOTO: A deacon, speaking on a Sunday morning at Creston Mennonite Church.
Citation: Mennonite Community Photograph Collection, The Congregation. Mennonite Church USA Archives, Goshen, Indiana.

The Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwest Virginia present an unrivaled picturesque view of the 1,500 mile Appalachian countryside.  Nestled in this tranquil setting is the Town of Rural Retreat, Virginia, a bedroom community of Wytheville where the local economy is still comprised largely of farming and locally owned businesses.

Hidden just off Interstate 81’s Exit 60, Rural Retreat is in many ways not too different from the average mapdot showcasing Smalltown, USA: The community is dissected by a Norfolk-Southern trainline, residents follow the local high school football team more closely than any NFL club, and traffic backups only occur when the train passes through town or a tractor is puttering down the locality’s main street.  It is indeed the living embodiment of a countless number of country songs and towns highlighted on the FM dial.

However, a trip to the Dutch Pantry, a favorite local hangout destination which is part-grocery store, part-deli, and part-giftshop, reveals there’s something very different about this community than most others: There is a large population of Mennonites.

Just down US Route 11, a second Mennonite-owned business has opened in the community, Java Blend Café, a coffee shop that features expressos, breakfast and lunch treats such as pizza fried pie.

Like so many other Mennonite owned businesses in Southwest Virginia, these lunchtime favorites are flourishing and have somehow managed to become an embedded part of the community, while at the same time retained their unique lifestyle and customs.

But who are the Mennonites of Appalachia?  Who are these individuals that are among the most industrious and prosperous people of the region and how have they become a woven piece of the Appalachian fabric?

Before tackling these questions, one must first realize that like Baptists or a countless number of other denominations, to say one is a Mennonite really doesn’t reveal much, as there are dozens of subset orders that more closely define one’s day to day life.

In Appalachia, many of the Mennonites adhere to conservative dressing standards and can be easily spotted in a crowd, as the women often wear head coverings and married men have beards in most congregations.  While television and radios are forbidden, filtered Internet is permitted by most congregations and men wear ready-made clothing, while both the men and women own and drive personal automobiles.

In addition to separation from the world, a key component to the lifestyle is found in their childrearing, which focuses largely on training children in a trade in order for them to become industrious.

In an era when society through public schools have pushed for college education and graduates from high school expect to work in white collar jobs, the Appalachian Mennonites have largely taken the opposite approach, teaching their sons how to operate heavy equipment, farm, pave driveways, build storage sheds, run sawmills etc., while the young women are taught to be culinary masters and the results are proving to be wise investments as the simple life and entrepreneurial spirit have culminated in making many of its adherents some of the most financially stable individuals in Appalachia.

Often confused as being Amish, Mennonites do in fact share a common history which predates Jamestown by roughly a century.

Though it would be impossible to cover the many splinters and schisms that have led to the various modern day sects of Mennonites in Appalachia, the nutshell history begins with a man named Menno Simons of the Netherlands who articulated and formalized the teachings of earlier religious men a set of doctrines for a religious order that would be centered upon the mission and ministry of Jesus.

An offshoot of the Anabaptists, early Mennonites opposed infant baptism, insisting that only believers who had made the decision to live for Christ should be allowed to be baptized.  This conviction led to a great number of Anabaptists being persecuted by various Roman Catholic and Protestant states.  Rather than fight, however, the pacifist Mennonites fled to neighboring states where ruling families were tolerant of their belief in and in the years that followed, they eventually made their way to the New World; initially settling in the Colony of Pennsylvania, a pacifist-Quaker stronghold.

During the Colonial period, Mennonites were distinguished from other Pennsylvania Germans in three ways: their opposition to the American Revolutionary War, which other German settlers participated in on both sides; resistance to public education; and disapproval of religious revivalism. Contributions of Mennonites during this period include the idea of separation of church and state and opposition to slavery.

In the several decades following the War for Independence, Mennonites migrated beyond Pennsylvania, settling areas such as Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, while a handful began the southwest trek down the Blue Ridge to Virginia and neighboring states.

Since the days of Menno Simons, the world has seen great changes and advances in technologies have forced the Mennonite people, a group known for being “in the world but not of the world” to make hard decisions.  These decisions have often been contentious and led to numerous splits and breakups; however, there remain about 2.1 million Anabaptists worldwide as of 2015 (including Mennonites, Amish, Mennonite Brethren, Hutterites and various other similar groups).

Embracing the adage of being “plain people”, Mennonites can be found in communities in at least 87 countries on six continents and are an increasing sight in Appalachia.

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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