Yoders celebrate 300 years in America

Founders of Lancaster congregations flocked to Penn’s religious haven in 1717

Oct 9, 2017 by and

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SHIPSHEWANA, Ind. — Perhaps no other name is as closely linked with the American Mennonite and Amish faiths than Yoder. It’s the 598th most common last name in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But 300 years ago, there was only one man.

Hans Yoder was the first Mennonite of that name to settle in America. He immigrated from Europe in 1717 and settled in the Quakertown, Pa., area, where he probably worshiped at Swamp Mennonite Church.

yoder reunion crowd web

Floyd Yoder, left, of Venice, Fla., visits with Willy Christner of Shipshewana, Ind., at a Sept. 20-23 reunion celebrating 300 years of Yoders in North America. Rich Preheim — MWR

He, as well as the first American Amish Yoders, who arrived in Pennsylvania 275 years ago, were recognized at the national Yoder reunion Sept. 20-23 in Shipshewana.

But Hans Yoder had plenty of company. Three hundred years ago, he was part of one of the largest and most important Mennonite migrations of the 18th century.

Starting in the mid-1600s, Mennonites and Amish began moving north along the Rhine River from Switzerland, where Bern and Zurich authorities were trying to eradicate the Anabaptists. But their new homes also became oppressive, and in the early 1700s the Anabaptists were looking to move again.

“They were so disenfranchised that they were looking forward to the chance to go somewhere else,” said Rolando Santiago, director of the Lancaster (Pa.) Mennonite Historical Society.

Mennonites already living in Pennsylvania, the religious haven created by William Penn, began encouraging their European co-religionists to join them in America. With the aid of Dutch Mennonites, more than 700 Swiss refugees migrated in several waves during 1717.

“I’m totally grateful to the Quaker William Penn,” said reuniongoer Joe Yoder of Middlebury. “Penn got the Amish and Mennonites to settle in America.”

Seventy-six families, numbering nearly 500 people, joined a Mennonite settlement in what is now central Lancaster County that was started by 29 immigrants in 1710. That influx of Europeans would establish Lancas­ter as a major Mennonite center.

Runaway horses

Two area congregations, both members of Lancaster Mennonite Conference, are observing their tricentennials this month. Lancaster Online reported Groffdale Mennonite Church in Leola, which celebrated Oct. 1, attributes its origins to runaway horses. Several escaped from their Mennonite owner living farther south in the original community. The horses’ pursuers caught them in an area they saw as especially fertile, and one of them bought 1,500 acres.

Mellinger Mennonite Church in Lancaster will hold its anni­versary festivities Oct. 21-22. The congregation, founded by 1717 settlers, is named after Martin Mellinger, who didn’t arrive in America until 1772. But his influence as a deacon was so great that the congregation took his name.

The other 200-plus immigrants of 1717, such as Hans Yoder, settled farther east in the older Mennonite communities near Germantown.

Swiss origins

At the Yoder reunion, an estimated 350 people from 26 states plus Canada heard historical pres­entations on family origins and Anabaptist history. While definite genealogical links have yet to be made, it’s believed that all Yoders originated in Steffisburg, Switzerland.

While Hans Yoder was the first Anabaptist member of the family to arrive in America, he was not the first Yoder on the continent. That honor goes to two Swiss Reformed members who settled in Berks County, Pa.

The reunion was for all Yoders, although the Mennonites and Amish, or those descended from Anabaptist Yoders, were predominant.

The reunion also featured a presentation on Steffisburg by Andreas Joder (the German spelling of Yoder) of Switzerland. A native of the city, he spoke in the absence of his father, a longtime Steffisburg civic leader who was unable to attend because of illness.

Joder was struck by the audience’s historical knowledge.

“I’m impressed,” he said. “Maybe I need to change my presentation a little bit.”

The Shipshewana gathering was the eighth Yoder reunion since 1995 and the first in the Midwest. Previous reunions had been held in Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina.

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