Book review: ‘Horse-and-Buggy Genius’

Jul 4, 2016 by

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Royden Loewen’s new book examines how Old Colony and Old Order Mennonites try to maintain religious and cultural changelessness in a world that celebrates change. But Horse-and-Buggy Genius also provides a lens for all of us to examine our own worldly assimilation.

"Horse-and-Buggy Genius: Listening to Mennonites Contest the Modern World"

“Horse-and-Buggy Genius: Listening to Mennonites Contest the Modern World”

Loewen, a history professor and chair of Mennonite studies at the University of Winnipeg, and a team of student assistants interviewed some 250 Old Order and Old Colony Mennonites in five countries. Horse-and-Buggy Genius is not an academic explanation or critique of what the groups believe or how they live. Rather, it is an oral history, a well-organized collection of responses to queries posed by the researchers, a format that not only provides insights but effectively personalizes the two groups.

They are ethnically, culturally and historically different from each other. Old Order Mennonites, rooted in the Swiss branch of Anabaptism, are several groups that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries split from the Mennonite Church. Old Colony members were part of the 1870s Russian Mennonite migration. They initially settled in Manitoba and later Saskatche­wan but relocated to Mexico in 1922 when they deemed Canadian educational requirements too intrusive. They have since spread elsewhere in Latin America.

Despite their differences, the Old Order and Old Colony Mennonites share a fundamental commitment to “submission, humility and simplicity in the face of modernity with its clarion embrace of ease and individualism,” Loewen writes. That means a fierce resistance to technological advances and limited interactions with the outside world, similar to the more well-known and well-studied Amish.

The first two of the book’s seven chapters focus on two Old Order groups in southern Ontario. But they are practically an afterthought, as the rest of Horse-and-Buggy Genius is about Old Colony Mennonites. They are the more interesting study, since they take more extreme measures to separate themselves from the world, including a willingness to repeatedly relocate.

When a group from one Mexican colony that was short of land was exploring a move, recalls one member in the book, “the preachers said that the parents had to go show the children” the value of roughing it. Loewen summarizes, “It is as if by migrating Old Colonists are on the right path, narrow and difficult.”

Old Order Mennonites, meanwhile, arguably face a tougher challenge, largely remaining in proximity to worldly forces but employing strategies other than geographic distance to safeguard themselves.

Issues addressed in the book include the centrality of family, dangers of working outside of the community, influence of evangelical groups and relations with the state. Both the Old Colony and Old Order have few qualms about flouting the law. For example, Ontario requires students to attend school until age 16, but Old Order schools only go through the eighth grade. To give the appearance of adhering to the law, schools provide faux internships, which in actuality allow students to get jobs.

While Loewen and his associates probed two of the most conservative groups in the Anabaptist fellowship, their questions could just as easily be directed toward more mainstream Mennonites.

The principles of nonconformity and separation from the world are shared by all Anabaptist groups, at least in theory. We acknowledge the power of the world to weaken beliefs and undermine Christ-like living, and so we erect defenses of various sorts.

Horse-and-Buggy Genius reveals Old Order and Old Colony Mennonites addressing their threats and defenses with an intentionality largely absent among their more acculturated cousins, such as Mennonite Church USA, the Mennonite Brethren and the Conservative Mennonite Conference.

For that reason, Horse-and-Buggy Genius would be great for study by Sunday schools and small groups in those denominations. While the specifics may be different, the topics in the book transcend church boundaries. Everyone needs to be vigilant.

A weakness is the book’s lack of context. Readers unfamiliar with the Old Colony, for instance, may find it difficult to grasp the dynamics that generate the concerns in the first place. For example, the book gives much attention to Old Colony economic health but lacks description of the factors that have historically affected it, such as ineffective farming methods, skepticism of innovation and poor education.

Most notable is the absence of any discussion of the drug trade — other than a couple of passing references — which has made Mexico’s Old Colony Mennonites infamous in the United States and especially in Canada. Perhaps such topics are beyond Loewen’s parameters for an oral history, but their absence hinders understanding of the Old Colony efforts to keep change at bay.

Horse-and-Buggy Genius offers insights into two often-overlooked groups while challenging those of us who are comfortable with modern advances. That makes the book doubly valuable.

Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind., and author of a new Herald Press book, In Pursuit of Faithfulness: Conviction, Conflict and Compromise in Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference.


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