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Humble and Faithful -
The Mennonite & Amish Communities of Southern Maryland
Story by Kathy Warren and Paintings by Mary Lou Troutman
Southern Maryland was founded on the principles of religious tolerance, so it's no surprise that today it is an area containing representatives of many different religions. The founders of our region endured great hardship to find a place where they could practice their religious beliefs free from the fears of persecution, and they would surely be proud of the diversity which continues to exist in our community today.
Even before those who fled England to come to Maryland in the 1600s in search of religious freedom, a religious movement began taking place in Europe. In Zurich, Switzerland during the early 1500s a group of people began questioning traditional religious practices of the time such as baptism at birth. Known as Anabaptists, they believed that baptism should take place during adulthood and not in infancy. They were further motivated by what they felt was the slow pace of the Protestant Reformation and implemented even more radical reforms. This new belief that baptism should be performed on adults was considered blasphemous at the time and was even against the law. Many of the church's followers became martyrs and were executed for their beliefs.
Even amid the persecution, with the help of religious leaders such as Menno Simons (a Dutch Catholic Priest who became heavily involved with the Anabaptists), the Anabaptist church continued to grow. Simons is commonly referred to as the founder of the Mennonite Church and would later become its namesake. By the mid 1600s the Anabaptists (or Swiss Brethren as they are sometimes called) migrated to Alsace and Palatinate, Germany, and later into Holland.
At the end of the 17th Century some within the church became disillusioned by what they felt was movement away from the original ideals and vision of the Mennonite faith and broke away to form their own church. This new church, headed by Bishop Jacob Amman, advocated strict religious discipline and shunning and became known as the Amish. Shunning, which is still practiced in the Amish church today, is the practice by which any member of the church who does not adhere to the strict doctrines of the church is banned from living within the community or having any contact with the other members either socially or in business dealings. The "ban" as it was called in the 1690s was said to be one of the reasons for the split within the church. The Mennonites, except for a small group known as reformed Mennonites, gave up the practice of shunning in the late 1600s.
Both groups, having endured tremendous religious intolerance in Europe, began migrating to North America in the 1700s. Most Amish and Mennonites settled in Pennsylvania near Philadelphia or Lancaster County and later in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Maryland, and even Canada.
Here in Southern Maryland, both groups are represented within small settlements throughout Charles and St. Mary's Counties. Both Mennonites and Amish contribute greatly to our community with their varied skills and talents, all while maintaining their traditional lifestyle amidst fast paced "modern" surroundings.
Like so many religions, there is diversity within each church, and what is deemed acceptable is determined largely by the church leaders. The Amish community in Southern Maryland is part of the "Old Order," one of four different orders recognized by the church. Because the Amish community located in Northern St. Mary's and Southern Charles County is relatively small, they are all part of the same church district and therefore governed by the same "Ordung" or set of rules for living. This would include rules regarding the use of certain technologies such as hay balers, gas powered generators, and other modern conveniences. Most Old Order Amish adhere closely to the principles of obedience and yielding to God, dedication to the church and others, and a strong sense of separation from the outside world. In doing so they feel they are able to maintain the integrity of their faith and stay true to the vision of their ancestors. This is why the Amish in our area don't drive automobiles but continue to use horse and buggy. Cars, electricity, phones, and other items we take for granted are considered "worldly" and not in keeping with their humble and faithful existence. By living a slower pace and doing tasks in traditional ways which are more labor intensive, the Amish are able to live simpler lives free of material distractions. Dress is another way in which the Amish avoid being prideful. By dressing similarly with only a few variations in color for women's dresses, the Amish are able to create an atmosphere where each person is equal and the emphasis is not on appearance but on the measure of their work.
Many of these same principles of daily life also apply to the Mennonite Church as well. Like the Amish, Mennonite children start school by the age of six and finish by the age of 14, or at the end of eighth grade. Although some children are exposed to English before they reach the first grade, many children have only spoken Pennsylvania Dutch prior to the start of school. Though it is referred to as Dutch, it is really German, and the name was changed from Deutsch or German, into the word Dutch. Katie Stoltzfus, recalls her first day at an Amish school, "I couldn't understand the teacher," she says smiling. She adds that the teacher says everything in English and then repeats instructions in German if necessary. By the beginning of second grade, both Mennonite and Amish children are expected to try to say everything in English, quite a feat in such a short time.
The Mennonite communities, located mostly in St. Mary's County, are split into two different orders. "Old Order" Mennonites use horse and buggy like their Amish counterparts, while "New Order" or "Car" Mennonites as they are sometimes called may own and operate automobiles. Most New Order Mennonites own dark colored cars.
Because the Mennonite population has grown in our area, church services are held every Sunday with the congregation being split between alternating Sundays. On those Sundays where members don't attend services, they use the time to visit with family and friends or simply rest, but no work other than necessary daily chores is done on any Sunday. Unlike the Mennonites, the Amish meet at a member's home instead of gathering at a church building every other week.
Both the Amish and Mennonite communities in our area share more similarities than differences, each with its own way of interpreting the doctrines set forth by the original Anabaptists. They don't allow their pictures to be taken for several reasons; one is the idea that it is boastful and the other that relates to the Bible and its reference to graven images. Though this may seem like a silly idea to many people outside of the religion, it is one about which they feel very strongly, and they ask others to honor as a sign of respect for their beliefs. Probably the greatest visible difference between the two groups is that when Amish men marry they wear a beard, while Mennonite men never wear beards. Jennifer Wenger, a member of the Stauffer Mennonite church, says that she had always heard that this too was cause for the rift long ago between two church leaders and another reason for the original long ago split.
For many of us, the site of a horse drawn plow or children playing barefooted in their traditional dress is a taste of nostalgia and a harkening back to simpler times. For the Amish and Mennonite communities, it is a way of life, one which requires patience and selfless determination, and one which they feel is essential to living as they believe God intended. We can only hope that in our brief encounters with their culture which seems in some ways so foreign to our own existence, that they will remind us to slow down and enjoy the simple things life has to offer.
Having grown up in Southern Maryland, local artist Mary Lou Troutman vividly depicts her recollections of everyday Amish life through her colorful artwork. To purchase one of the prints from this collection or to learn more about the artist and her work please visit www.maryloutroutman.com or call 301-872-5807.
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