Are Californians different?

Sep 28, 2015 by

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This survey of Mennonite migrations and developments in California from 1850 to 1975 focuses on three groups — the Mennonite Breth­ren, the General Conference Mennonites and the Mennonite Church — clustered primarily around the Central Valley (near Fresno) and in the greater Los Angeles area.

9781421415123Over time, Mennonite Breth­ren congregations have had the largest presence in California. Other Anabaptists, such as the Brethren in Christ, who also maintained a historic presence in the state, and non-English speaking congregations — Latino, Korean, and others accounting for the growth of California-style Mennonitism in recent decades — are outside the scope of this study.

This volume draws on archival sources and print media, as well as memoirs, to highlight selected themes, including economic opportunity, conflict and historical consciousness. The author’s preface includes the caveat that such a broad spectrum — in which individuals who identify as Mennonite move across categories the author calls “Evangelical,” “Anabaptist” and “secular” — has significant weaknesses.

While numbers of Mennonite congregations in the state have grown steadily, overall numbers (fewer than 13,000 members in MB and Mennonite Church USA congregations in 2012) remain small. Froese attributes this to alternate religious modes — including Pentecostalism and Protestant evangelicalism — that influenced the state’s culture.

One fascinating example is the attraction of Aimee Semple McPherson’s Pentecostalism for some Southern California and Central Valley Mennonites. From the 1920s to the 1940s, her ministry reached across the state through charismatic revival meetings and radio broadcasts.

Froese attends to the legacies of some Mennonites’ religious prejudice. He notes that these were consequential in Mennonite evangelical efforts beginning in the 1950s among Mexicans and Mexican-American labor camps. “Mennonite descriptions of Catholicism were largely negative” and reflected “a certain sense of superiority over migrant workers,” he says.

Froese writes of Mennonite fruit growers and the United Farm Workers’ labor activism for higher wages and collective bargaining that culminated in strikes and boycotts in the mid-1970s. He details the response of a Mennonite delegation that traveled from Pennsylvania and Indiana to central California, representing Mennonite Central Committee’s Peace Section, as well as a group of students from Goshen College who visited Mennonite farms to study workers’ grievances.

Froese does not analyze the agricultural disputes from the perspective of farm laborers themselves or from the growing Mennonite Hispanic constituencies across the U.S. But he suggests that “labor-intensive capitalist agriculture and conservative evangelical religion” heavily influenced central California Mennonites’ outlooks. This led to competing views about peace, justice and Anabaptist values.

Froese notes that by the 1970s “there was a perception that Mennonites in California were qualitatively different than Mennonites elsewhere.” Yet his suggestion that California Mennonites tilted in a direction fundamentally at odds with other American Mennonites is unconvincing. A study of Mennonites in mid-20th century Virginia, say, or Illinois, would likely yield comparably tangled histories in which racial identity, economic status and religious diversity played out in protracted conflicts. Books by historians Tobin Miller Shearer in 2010 and Felipe Hinojosa in 2014 offer nuanced examples of Mennonites’ mediating their identity, again and again, in response to shifting cultural, economic and political pressures.

Emphasizing Mennonite Brethren leaders, congregations and institutions in the California context — including Fresno Pacific University and Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary — Froese opts for a portrayal that frequently conflates evangelically focused Christianity with what he terms “the rise of ‘secularized’ Mennonitism.”

This argument is especially pronounced in the book’s coverage of Kings View Homes, a mental health facility in Reedley that developed out of World War II-era Civilian Public Service units’ focus on humane health care. Characterizing developments at Kings View from the late 1940s onward, the author emphasizes secularization and notes that this facility received more government funding than any other American Mennonite hospital, suggesting that its backers were “increasingly a part of mainstream California life . . . [as] socially active members.” Again, this analysis seems strained, since Mennonite institutions elsewhere, not only on the West Coast, were simultaneously embracing professionalization and nonsectarian partnerships.

Likely, some readers who have spent their entire lives in California or who sojourned there for a period of time will recognize their experiences in this book. Others, though, will question the author’s overgeneralizations and lament the puzzling absence of iconic California Mennonite destinations: for example, Camp Keola in the Sierras, now approaching its 50th year; or First Mennonite Church of San Francisco, long a site of creative urban ministry.

Rachel Waltner Goossen teaches history at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan.


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