More than our family tree

Dec 7, 2015 by

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Betsy Poling didn’t grow up Mennonite. Neither did her parents or her grandparents or her great-grandparents. Of German-Irish background, Poling grew up in Lima, Ohio, where she attended a Church of the Brethren congregation simply because it was down the street. She then went to nearby Bluffton University, which led her into the Mennonite fold.

The Dordrecht Confession

The Dordrecht Confession

Earlier this year, however, this first-generation Mennonite discovered she was actually descended from Mennonite royalty.

Poling, who now lives in Goshen, Ind., and is a member of Southside Fellowship in Elkhart, is a great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great (that’s 12 greats) granddaughter of Herman op den Graeff (1585-1642), a preacher at Krefeld Mennonite Church in western Germany. More significantly, in 1632 he was one of the 51 signatories to the most enduring faith statement in Anabaptist history, the Dordrecht Confession of Faith.

Originally adopted by Dutch Mennonites (Krefeld is near the Dutch border), the Dordrecht Confession would be accepted by other Mennonite groups throughout Europe in subsequent decades. In North America, Lancaster Conference approved it in 1725, and it was the basis for the former Mennonite Church’s Confessions. The Dordrecht document remains the belief statement for a number of conservative groups, including the Old Order Amish.

So for Poling, op den Graeff signing the Dordrecht Confession is like having an ancestor who signed the U.S. Constitution. She also has op den Graeff relatives who were on the Mennonite equivalent of another great American icon, the Mayflower.

Four of op den Graeff’s grandchildren were part of the contingent of 13 Krefeld Mennonite families that crossed the Atlantic in 1683 aboard the ship Concord and settled at Germantown, Pa., creating the first permanent Mennonite settlement and congregation in North America. William Penn, whose largess made Pennsylvania possible in the first place, was a relative on the op den Graeffs’ maternal side.

Furthermore, two of the op den Graeff brothers signed a 1688 petition against slavery, the first such statement in the New World.

With a pedigree like that, Polling’s lineage easily dwarfs that of the vast majority of church members with years of Mennonite heritage. But that doesn’t make her a better church member than the rest of us.

If it did, might Leroy Saner be worse than some of us? About the same time Poling was learning about her family tree, Saner, who lives in Elkhart, Ind. and is a member of Hively Avenue Mennonite Church, found out that he was a third cousin to the “American Sniper,” Chris Kyle.

Of course, it’s ridiculous to even consider that Saner, retired after a long career in Mennonite education, is somehow a lesser Mennonite because a distant relative he never met held views diametrically opposed to central tenets of the faith. But it’s just as ridiculous to elevate someone on the basis of another family member’s credentials.

Otherwise, we’d all be obligated to revel in the Kansas City Royals’ World Series championship.

The team’s longtime owner was Ewing Kauffman, who was born into the Mennonite community at Garden City, Mo., but never joined the church. The Royals’ stadium was renamed in his honor in 1993, less than a month before he died at the age of 76.

And should we all be eating Musselman’s apple sauce? That’s what built Bluffton University’s Musselman Library.

John S. Musselman Sr. and his sons John Jr. and Christian High were “devout Mennonites,” according to the company website, who purchased a canning company in the fruit-growing region of Adams County in southern Pennsylvania in 1907. C.H. Musselman eventually took charge and turned the operation into a highly successful business. In 1929 he pledged $100,000 for a new library at Bluffton.

For many Mennonites, this is all interesting stuff. And justifiably so. It’s part of the great historical fabric of our faith and identity. But equating the Polings, Saners, Kauffmans and Musselmans of the past with those in the present — and vice versa — is a colossal mistake. In fact, it’s un-Mennonite. Anabaptism was founded on the belief that the church is a voluntary association, that nothing automatically makes someone a Christian.

In other words, while we can’t choose our relatives, we still must choose our own faith.

Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.


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  • Don Lowery

    I could be wrong…but I believe my ancestors coming from Switzerland in 1629 and settling in South Carolina were early Anabaptists who escaped Europe…but arriving in the US…they gave up Anabaptism and became slave and land owners. Now here in 2015…I have been affiliated with Mennonites and Church of the Brethren…just like my ancestors could have been about 400 years ago.

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