Amish-Mennonites plant outpost in Wyoming

Sep 6, 2016 by and

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Forrest Mast’s Kentucky congregation felt a call to plant a church where there are few Mennonites. They found that place in Wyoming — home to about 100 conservative Anabaptists in a small handful of congregations.

A new frontier for church planting? A new Amish-Mennonite congregation is getting started in Wyoming. — http://www.cgpgrey.com [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A new frontier for church planting? A new Amish-Mennonite congregation is getting started in Wyoming. — http://www.cgpgrey.com [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

About eight years of planning and searching came to a conclusion when the first families arrived in the Torrington area five miles from the Nebraska border earlier this year.

Mast grew up in Montana and is the ordained minister of Summersville (Ky.) Mennonite Church. The congregation is part of Ambassadors Amish-Mennonites, which has similarities to the Beachy Amish or Nationwide Fellowship Churches.

“One of the goals of our churches is when they get to a reasonable size and financial means, we reach out,” he said. “We’ve been reaching out in the East; there are a lot of churches there, and I’ve always had this vision to start our type of churches in the West.”

The Summersville congregation did more than follow a vector toward the setting sun. A set of practical criteria guided a delegation of four men’s search.

To mesh with their roots and business backgrounds, the church planters sought an agricultural community — irrigated agriculture, to be specific. Mast said irrigated land lends itself to smaller operations.

“A big drawback to the West is a lot of these farms and ranches were homesteaded in the old days, so it’s almost impossible to buy enough land to make a living,” he said. “. . . It’s just almost impossible to get your foot in the door financially, and a newcomer has to work harder to be influential with those types of people.

“These smaller farms and operations are folks we can connect with. So it just makes sense financially and spiritually.”

They also wanted to avoid tourism, and the “false environment” and inflated prices that come with it.

The group earlier identified Belle Fourche, S.D., as an option, but by the time they began considering it, a Nationwide Fellowship church started up, prompting Mast’s congregation to re-evaluate.

“We sent out a delegation to go out and look, and we got a big circle drawn,” he said. “Wyoming was totally in that circle.”

While the congregation seeks to go into Anabaptist voids, it also sought fellow Anabaptists with which it can connect.

The delegates contacted the closest Mennonite church, an hour and a half away in Carpenter, Wyo., out of respect. High Prairie Mennonite Church — a Nationwide Fellowship congregation founded in 1991 — welcomed the group and shared information.

New way of operating

Eight families with adults ranging in age from younger 20s to upper 60s volunteered to make the move. In addition to Mast, two other families have preachers. By mid-August, three families had arrived and another was heading out.

All plan to live within a roughly 15-mile radius of each other. Mast bought an abandoned building in town for a metal-working business.

“There are a few church houses for sale, but we’re planning on building a school facility and church facility as well,” he said, noting the families count around 20 school-age children. “It’s all brand-new, starting over and getting a new way of operating.”

Though a church building has yet to take shape, Mast is already looking to the future. He said there’s room in Nebraska for future churches like his.

“It takes a pretty stout personality to survive in the West,” he said. “I don’t know what contributes to there not being a lot of Anabaptist churches out here, but it’s a lot easier to settle than any time in the past.”

Wyoming has attracted Anabaptist pioneers before

Forrest Mast’s congregation is not the first set of Anabaptist pioneers to put down roots in southeastern Wy­oming. In the early 1880s, the Philip J. Yoder family of Shanesville, Ohio, moved from Henry County, Iowa, to Go­shen County, Wyo., of which Torrington is the county seat.

The Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online indicates Yoder prospered in ranching and discarded his Amish/Mennonite heritage.

In 1921, the Union Pacific Railroad laid track to Torrington, passing near the Yoder ranch. Philip’s son Jesse Yoder built a settlement along the line. Yoder, Wyo., grew to a population of 500-600 before declining in the Great Depression.

“There’s actually a museum out here that has their artifacts from the original home place,” Mast said. “It has a lot of artifacts from their past, like a doll that has no face. I wasn’t familiar with that, but they had quite a bit of reference to their Amish background.”

In 1914-16, Mennonite immigration promoters Carl B. Schmidt and Henry P. Krehbiel worked to establish a Mennonite settlement near Bordeaux, Wyo., an hour west of Torrington. The effort was based on an irrigation project on a Laramie River tributary, but found little success.

Later, in the 1920s, the (Old) Mennonite Church became interested in a large-scale irrigation project in a high-altitude desert area near Rock Springs. Promotional pamphlets made exaggerated claims, and the Mennonite settlers found the hard ground only received 8 inches of precipitation a year — mostly in snow — and the developers went bankrupt. These problems and the Great Depression caused this effort to fail.


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