I’m Mennonite, Not Amish: 7 Common Questions

For those of you who are Mennonite, you have likely been asked at some point, when sharing about your faith tradition, whether or not you are Amish. And if you happen to have a sort of nebulous Swiss-German-Western-European look like myself, you probably get asked this question fairly often. I usually don’t mind when people ask me this question because: 1) My grandpa was actually Amish and left the church, so I’m not that far removed, and it gives me the chance to tell a family story ; 2) It shows me that people are interested in my faith tradition and it gives me a chance to explain a bit more about who Mennonites are and what I believe; and 3) I really like and respect the Amish.

Living in California over the last few years, I have had many opportunities to perfect my “elevator speech” about the relationship between Mennonites and Amish. So, when this question comes up in casual conversation, I usually give a short answer that goes something like this:

The Mennonites and the Amish do share a common Anabaptist lineage, but today we are actually two distinct Christian groups. The Amish still cultivate a very intentional counter-cultural lifestyle: still relying on alternative forms of transportation, very tied to rural areas and agriculture, and dressing in cape dresses and plain clothes. Mennonites do share some beliefs with the Amish: a commitment to nonviolence and a desire to live simply (although this gets expressed in very different ways), but today, Mennonite Church USA (the group that I am a part of) might have more in common with Quakers, Brethren or other historic peace churches. (For a longer description, visit Third Way Cafe).

Sometimes this is enough to assuage people’s curiosity, but there are often follow-up questions and a good discussion ensues. But over the course of the last few years, living outside Los Angeles and traveling around the United States a bit more, I have encountered some pretty hilarious questions about my religious identity as a Mennonite.

So, without further ado, here are variations on 7 common questions I’ve encountered and the responses I have often offered:

1. So you’re Mennonite and married? Does your husband have a really large beard?

Sadly, no. I think Justin would fail at being a good Amish man, because, despite many attempts, he has been unable to produce a respectable goatee, let alone a full-blown beard.

2. A question posed at a restaurant, while enjoying a glass of wine. So, you must be in the midst of those “wild years” (rumspringa)?

Nope. Unlike the Amish, Mennonites don’t really stick to any beliefs about a “free period” during adolescence when you can just “go wild” before committing to the church. So, depending on who you ask, I’ve either always been a pretty responsible Mennonite or my choice to drink wine means that I’m living in a perpetual state of heresy.

3. I love Beverly Lewis’ book, The Shunning. Has your church shunned you for dressing like that?

Nope. Mennonites don’t practice plain dress, and aren’t too prone to shunning (and actually, many Amish communities practice the “ban” very infrequently, too). Although what does the fact that you are asking this question say about your thoughts on my clothing choices?

4. So you are a grad student studying at Claremont, right? Is it hard to read process theology by lamplight?

OK friends, let’s be honest here, it’s sort of hard to read process theology by any light, but don’t worry. Mennonites are all about the electricity, although one would hope that we have developed our ecological sensibilities far enough to use it responsibly.

5. Where do you park your buggy in Los Angeles?

Alright people. There is a reason that many Amish communities are located in rural areas, and that they rent vans with drivers when they travel to urban areas. No one in their right mind would take a buggy on the I-10 freeway with all that traffic, and, as a Mennonite, my little Hyundai Elantra works just fine and is also doctrinally acceptable.

6. So you pretty much have to be born into a Mennonite group, right? Or do you allow converts?

No worries here! Everyone who wants to can be a Mennonite. Yay! In fact, although it is less common, some individuals have been able to join Amish communities, too. But like many other Christian groups, the Mennonite church welcomes new members who have found an affinity for our particular brand of Christian beliefs and who wish to follow Jesus in community with other believers, are welcome to join.

7. Do you churn your own butter and raise all of your own food?

Urg, I wish. Actually, Mennonites are historically agricultural people too (although we are becoming increasingly urban), and do have a history of simple living, eating off the land, and being locavore eaters. I did dutifully buy my own copy of the Saving the Seasons:How to Can, Freeze or Dry Almost Anything cookbook, and Justin and I have always aspired to be gardening and canning machines, who makes their own homemade pickles and jam. But alas, we have yet to find space in our small apartment for a butter church and a local cow to buy milk from, and our attempts at patio gardening have been flops (despite producing one surprisingly robust crop of basil).

So, if you are a Mennonite, what interesting questions have you been asked about your identity? And if you’re not, what questions do you have? Any question is fair game!

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27 Comments

Filed under Mennonite Identity

27 responses to “I’m Mennonite, Not Amish: 7 Common Questions

  1. Melissa Jantz

    Hannah, I’m loving this blog! And I especially love this post. I have had so many of these questions before, especially when I worked as a waitress at The Amish Barn summers between Goshen College. I used the opportunity to give some Mennonite history lessons and think maybe was tipped better because of it.

    I’ve thought of these questions, too, in the context of the book Mennonite in a Little Black Dress which yes, was hilarious but also frustrated me because the author portrayed herself as Mennonite when she was actually Brethren, and she acted like she was the official spokewoman on Mennonites when in fact she is not. I love how you show the complexities and how someone would view drinking a glass of wine, for example, as heresy or a personal choice. Do you consider coverings and wearing dresses plain dress? I know not many choose that, but I still have cousins who would dress “plain,” as in Mennonite plain, not Amish plain. See–it gets confusing even for those of us who grew up Mennonite!

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Hey Melissa – Thanks for reading the blog! It has been an interesting exercise for me to think about writing “publicly” in this way. And I agree with you about “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress.” I had many of the same reactions! I think she actually capitalized on a lot of the confusion/curiosity that is out there surrounding Mennonite identity and that some of these questions that I mentioned point to. And yes, you are so right about the confusions with dress: I have relatives who are Beachey Amish, Conservative Mennonite, Old Order, etc. and I frankly could not even begin to tell you accurately about the differences in lifestyle expectations among those different groups.

    • Wow! I thought I was the only one a bit annoyed by _Mennonite In A Little Black Dress_. I feel comforted knowing I’m not alone.

  2. Pamela Dintaman

    I bumped into your blog yesterday for the first time and totally enjoyed reading what young adult Mennonite women are thinking and writing. One of my favorite Mennonite questions from my past: I was traveling on a commercial airliner for my work with what-was-then-called Mennonite Board of Missions. When my seatmate learned I was Mennonite he said, “Should you be flying?”

    I’m a Mennonite pastor–now hospice chaplain–living in the Sonoran desert in rural Arizona, sorting through my theology again… Pamela

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Ha! Love it! I travel a lot for work, too, and it’s always interesting to see people’s responses when they ask me what kind of work I do and I tell them I work for the Mennonite church.

      Thanks for reading the blog and for commenting. If ever you find yourself wanting to reflect on your theological journey in the desert (that sounds very monastic!) in a more public venue, let me know. I’d love to continue to broaden the conversation that’s happening here to be more intergenerational.

      • Pamela Dintaman

        Thanks Hannah for providing a place for people to converse in this way. After reading some of the entries, I started playing with the idea of writing some personal reflections. Might take me awhile ’cause I live a slow pace these days. I identified something recently–a silent message from my Mennonite background that says: IF you vary too much from what you’re taught, be the “quiet in the land” and just go away. Nobody ever said that aloud, and it’s a strange distortion on ‘the quiet in the land,’ but it was helpful to realize that the message occasionally lurks some place within me.

  3. stephanie

    When my friends find out I attend a Mennonite church, they often ask if I wear a head covering (over my dreads 🙂 and if the men & women sit on opposite sides of the sanctuary. I realize there are still Mennonite churches who practice these traditions but it brings a smile thinking they are envisioning me in that way.

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      I love this! Sometimes the “cognitive dissonance” that these questions raises is just hilarious. I would think that people would realize, just by looking at me, that something about me is different from the Amish, but maybe they think I rock a different “Sunday style” or something.

  4. But, Hannah, you’ve neglected to mention that “Mennonite” means different things to different people. In Old Order and Conservative Mennonite traditions, things are different. Even within the Mennonite Church USA, there’s a huge spectrum of experiences and beliefs.

    One of my favorite things to think about when it comes to Anabaptist history is that the Amish split from the Mennonites, rather than the other way around.

    Additionally, my background on my Dad’s side is overwhelmingly Amish. I actually have a lot of issues with the Amish community, which might seem ideal from the perspective of those of us living hectic lives in the “English” world, but as I understand it, lends itself to being a rigid culture of oppression and abuse.

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Erin – You are so right. I figured that might add too much complexity for one blog, but there are certainly Mennonites who would think of themselves very, very differently from the way that I have described myself above. And, just like any religious community, I think you’re right that the Amish have variations and there are some places where the level of control and rigidity that is exercised is not great. I also think there hasn’t been much work done on examining the roles of Amish women, but again, that’s a whole other post….

  5. Nancy

    If I had a dime for every time I’ve been asked that question…! I was born Amish, raised Beachy Amish (or Amish Mennonite), married a Mennonite-raised man, and now consider myself borderline agnostic. I certainly have more questions than answers. Maybe I should write a book.

  6. My comment wasn’t that enlightening and it’s probably okay it ended up on the wrong post.

    But these comments are making me realise how much I regret the loss of cultural identity happening in so many Mennonite fellowships.

    I grew up in what used to be called the Evangelical Mennonite Church. It separated from the General Conference Mennonites because they had some differences of opinion. Now they changed their name entirely–Fellowship If Evangelical Churches, I think–because they were trying to distance themselves from these misconceptions.

    Other Mennonite churches are dropping the M word too. It makes me incredibly sad.

    • That is exactly like the church I grew up in. When my family started attending in the early 90’s they had already changed the name. I had a great experience there and I now identify with the Mennonite ideology more than any others (the church was non-denominational so I have inherited a little difficulty myself committing to one group). A possible negative, though, is that the church has no roots, no connection to their history, and it has now completely changed, to the extent that I no longer identify with the practices.

      • Hannah Heinzekehr

        I think you are both right. A lot of churches are wrestling with this, and don’t always think through what it means to take a name off a sign. Sometimes I think people believe that it will make their church more attractive to others, but they don’t realize what else might be lost with the process and/or they don’t change anything about the community inside the building that would make it more welcoming to others, so the move might not accomplish its stated goal anyway.

  7. Carl Friesen

    I found this to be quite interesting. I grew up Mennonite in Elkhart Co. Indiana, and I didn’t face this question until I went to grad school in Kentucky. When I got there, there weren’t any Mennonite churches, and people I talked to thought I ment Amish when talking about mennonites. I still consider myself Mennonite even though I haven’t attended a mennonite church since the 90’s.

  8. I usually try to explain Anabaptism as a spectrum to people who ask. I remember once in college, someone thought I was joking when I told them I was Mennonite and started laughing at me. I grew up in Central PA in a church in the Conservative Conference. I went to public school and dress mainstream, but many of my second cousins on both sides are still Amish-Mennonite. Once, after moving to the suburbs (ew) of Philadelphia, someone asked me how my parents felt about me “leaving the faith.” I had to explain that I hadn’t left anything! I do attend a nondenominational church, but that doesn’t mean I don’t identify as Mennonite, and I certainly didn’t leave the faith.

  9. ItsMinGlen

    Great post. I never get those questions.

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Ha! Glen, that is probably true. I wonder though: what confusing questions do people ask you when you tell them you are Mennonite? Are they about pacifism?

  10. Jake Short

    Did you ever have to explain who Mennonites are while in Northern Ireland? I know I had to, and that was interesting, checking to see if people know who the Amish are, and then saying we’re kind of a cross between Amish and Quakers, since those would be the groups they know the best. Also, it was fun to ride the DC Metro with four Amish and have people wondering what on earth was happening.

    But I agree with some of the comments above; the term “Mennonite” can encompass many things, are generalizing can be helpful sometimes, but it can be just as problematic. Knowing I have roots and relatives in the Amish communities, Amish Mennonite Church, “Old” Mennonite Church, the former Evangelical Mennonite Church (now Fellowship of Evangelical Churches), Reformed Mennonite Church, and probably in other splinter Anabaptist groups, it gets complicated really quickly. Listing all the various Anabaptist groups to mainstream MCUSA people can get confusing enough; explaining the differences sometimes makes people even more confused than before you started.

    Not to mention, the problems of confusion for “Mennonite vs. Amish” seem to occur really only for white Mennonites. I’m certain Latino, black, Asian, Native American/First Nations, and any other ethnic/racial groups of Mennonites don’t have to worry about being confused with Amish, or just make the confusion all the worst for those who don’t know the difference. (But maybe I’m wrong, so someone please correct me if this is the case.)

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      You know, Jake, we had a few conversations about that. I had my internship at Corrymeela, where they actually kind of new and liked Mennonites because of a legacy of peace workers who had been located in Belfast. And you are right: any time we talk about these identities, we inevitably simplify. Helping people to understand the complexities of the Anabaptist narrative is important, but I have not yet figured out the best way to get that across in clear cut ways in a short conversation. Any advice you have would be much appreciated!

      And as Glen and Sue’s posts prove, you are definitely right about this being a European Mennonite “problem,” but I bet there is a whole other set of questions that get asked of other Mennonites, too!

  11. Sue

    I am on the same boat with Glen 🙂

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Sue, I would ask you the same question that I posed to Glen. What are the other questions that people ask you when you sahre about being a part of the Mennonite church? Do they have any assumptions?

  12. Kate

    Hi – Love your blog! I am not Mennonite but am very intrigued. I live in CT and we actually have a very large community in the next town over of persons of Swiss extraction who attend the “Swiss Church” (Apostolic). They dress and act like other children until they are about 16 and then have to choose whether or not to join the church. If they do – the women spend the rest of their lives in calf length denim skirts and wear a small lacey bit of fabric on their pinned up hair. This group never seems to get mentioned in any Mennonite publications or maps but they do exist and have a very large and dedicated membership. It makes me sad when I see people that I was friends with in our younger days who practiced this lifestyle and are now middle aged and rocking tattoos and beers. I feel like they had something beautiful that they have turned their backs on.

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Hi Kate – I’m glad you’ve found the blog! I am not very familiar with the “Swiss Church.” I’m wondering if they are from a non-Anabaptist lineage, but it seems like they may have some similarities in dress and practice to Old Order or Conservative Mennonites. Identity with these groups can be an interesting thing. I think for some, it can feel highly restrictive and limiting, but I also think it’s ususally harder to simply “replace” our faith traditions once we leave them than we really think.

  13. Kate

    Hi Hannah – I think there could be quite a story there – the church was founded in that town in the 1880’s – http://www.apostolicchristian.org/faith_lifestyle.php – it’s like a little pocket of PA but in CT.

  14. Pingback: Top Ten Methods of Evading Jury Duty (Some Theological, Some Otherwise) | The Femonite: Musings from a Mennonite Feminist

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