Book review: ‘Plain Meetinghouses’

Dec 4, 2017 by

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With all the attention given to the way plain Anabaptists live their daily lives, it’s easy to forget that they are, at a fundamental level, a worshiping people. Beth Oberholtzer and John Herr have created an attractive reminder that Old Order Mennonites are not just quaint folks who dress differently than society at large and eschew technological advancements. Rather, like other Christians, they gather on Sundays to sing, pray and listen to words of instruction and encouragement.

"Plain Meetinghouses"

“Plain Meetinghouses”

Writer Oberholtzer and photographer Herr’s book, Plain Meetinghouses: Lancaster County Old Order Mennonites Gather to Worship, takes readers inside the worship spaces of Lancaster (Pa.) County Old Order Mennonites. Unlike the Old Order Amish, they meet in church buildings, which physically convey their principles of simplicity, nonconformity and community.

The authors explain the layout of the meetinghouses, their interior furnishings and interior design, even outbuildings. But Plain Meetinghouses isn’t just about architecture and aesthetics. The authors provide delightful insights into Old Order Mennonite life and belief, both inside and outside the church building. The book is history, theology, ecclesiology, hymnody and more, woven throughout narratives about cloakrooms, benches and tables.

For example, a description of alms boxes posted throughout a meetinghouse includes an explanation of Old Order Mennonite mechanisms for collecting offerings. A photo of a repurposed milk can, used to haul in water warmed by kettle outside to be used for footwashing, underscores members’ commitments to simplicity that preclude indoor plumbing and electricity.

Sections about church benches highlight the emphasis on community, describing how church members gather to build the seating together and how congregations will make their plans available to others. Examinations of horse sheds and hitching railings require addressing Old Order Mennonite transportation methods.

The book is organized according to the Lancaster Mennonite Conference family tree. After an introductory first chapter, the second chapter examines four early Lancas­ter places of worship, starting with the oldest, the Hans Herr house. It was built in 1719 as the family home but also hosted services until the mid-19th century. By including these buildings, Oberholtzer and Herr provide a baseline for comparison with those explored in the rest of the book: 21 meetinghouses of congregations that are part of groups that have left Lancas­ter Conference since 1845.

Four of the meetinghouses are used by two Old Order Mennonite groups. The Weaverland Conference split from Lancaster in 1893, spurred by the use of pulpits instead of the traditional preacher’s table. The Groffdale Conference then separated from Weaverland in 1927 when the latter began to accept automobiles. Since Old Order Mennonites meet for worship every other Sunday, two congregations can share one facility.

Herr’s photos wonderfully capture Old Order Mennonite congregational life, though no people were photographed (but some horses were). His interior shots, with their use of light and artful framing, are particularly compelling. Images such as rows of wooden benches, preacher’s tables laden with Bibles, horse sheds with dirt floors and even outhouses wordlessly depict simplicity and solemnity. Readers can easily imagine a style of worship that starkly contrasts with the sensory overload that characterizes many modern, mainstream services.

Overload is a problem that afflicts the book as well. While the photos are great, there are too many in too small of a space. Four on a two-page spread is common, and some have six or seven photos. That makes for a visually busy look, which can discourage readers instead of inviting them to engage with the images and the words.

With its emphasis on illustrative materials, Plain Meetinghouses has the feel of a coffee-table book. But the size is smaller than conventional coffee-table books. A larger format would have allowed for a more appealing presentation of its contents.

Oberholtzer’s text is informative while also easy to read. Like the subject matter itself, her writing is devoid of grand adornments and flourishes but still powerfully communicates. The photos have no captions, so all information is contained in the body of the text. Occasionally it is not evident what photo is being referred to.

While the book includes groups generally accepted as Old Order Mennonite, the lack of attention given to the Reformed Mennonite Church is a curiosity. The group was the first Lancaster Conference schism, breaking away in 1812 over concerns that the conference had deviated from the founding tenets of Anabaptism. Yet the Reformed Mennonites, whom scholar Stephen Scott called “the first keepers of the old way,” are covered in only four brief paragraphs and two photos. But that’s nitpicking a book that’s as charming as it is enlightening.

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


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