We’re back home now, and our pilgrimage is over, although the reading and metabolizing will continue. We’re truly the beneficiaries of a beautiful and troubled inheritance. And we’re more convinced than ever that story and history matter. As sociologist Christian Smith, one of Lisa’s grad school professors, has written:
We are makers, tellers, and believers of narrative construals of existence and history, every bit as much as our forebears at any other time of human history. Furthermore, we are not only animals who make stories, but also animals who are made by our stories. We tell and retell narratives that themselves come fundamentally to constitute and direct our lives.
We plan to use what we’ve learned on this journey in our teaching. Lisa will use her biography and visual ethnography in units highlighting cultural legacies through food preferences and religious symbolism. I plan to narrate parts of my genealogy as a way of introducing students to trans-Atlantic elements of early American history.
We’re also thinking of team-teaching a course called something like “Pilgrimage, History, and Social Identity.” It would integrate historical perspectives and methodologies with sociological theory (i.e. Geertz’s work on symbolism, Bourdieu’s field theory, world systems theory, etc.). In addition to wide-ranging interdisciplinary readings, students would construct their own pilgrimage using archival sources, genealogy, art, food, and music to explore the intersection of history, memory, and social cohesion.
We’re going to sign off Facebook and our blog for now. But we’ll be working hard on more projects. Stay tuned for the release this fall of Lisa’s book Stained Glass Ceilings: How Evangelicals Do Gender and Practice Power. Then a year later my next book comes out. It’s a biography of a Confederate statue in Jessamine County, Kentucky, that explores how Civil War memory has evolved over time. In the meantime, Lisa and I will finish a co-authored book on the American evangelical antitrafficking movement in Southeast Asia. Our hope is to do one more set of field interviews in Thailand next summer that focuses on the pandemic. So look for a new series of “Signs of the Thais” a year from now—and then a book set in Cambodia and Thailand the year after.
We went to a lot of places on this pilgrimage. But there were more places, many tantalizingly close, I wish we could have visited. Here are just a few:
Lausanne, Switzerland: To the Palais de Beaulieu conference center, where the 1974 Lausanne Congress took place. I wrote an entire chapter on this place in Facing West. For a conference where a lot of men sat around talking, it was pretty riveting material. A group of mostly non-Western delegates calling themselves the “radical discipleship caucus” met to plot their resistance to Western dominance of the Congress.
Schleitheim, Switzerland: To the place where the Schleitheim Confession of 1527 was drafted. It included statements on baptism (believer’s baptism, not infant), the ban (excommunication of those who refuse to repent), breaking of bread (communion is a remembrance, not the physical body and blood of Christ), separation from evil (no fellowship with the wickedness of the earthly world), pastors (men of good repute who teach, publicly read Scripture, apply the ban, pray, and administer the sacraments), the sword (don’t use one; love your enemies), the oath (your yes should be your yes). This confession still guides some Anabaptist groups.
Strasbourg, France: We got within a few dozen kilometers of Strasbourg, which is where Ron Sider, one of the main characters in Moral Minority, gave the most important speech of his life. It’s called “God’s People Reconciling” and launched Christian Peacemaker Teams. Money quotes: “Do we have the courage as a united reconciling people to show the poor of the earth our peace witness is not a subtle support for an unjust status quo, but rather a commitment to risk danger and death so that justice and peace may embrace?” “What would happen if we in the Christian church developed a new nonviolent peacekeeping force of 100,000 persons ready to move into violent conflicts and stand peacefully between warring parties in Central America, Northern Ireland, Poland, Southern Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan? Frequently we would get killed by the thousands. But everyone assumes that for the sake of peace it is moral and just for soldiers to get killed by the hundreds of thousands, even millions. Do we not have as much courage and faith as soldiers?”
Eastern France/Alsace: Where a lot of Swiss Anabaptists, including the Mullers, went after being expelled from Switzerland. Some of the villages where my ancestors lived were Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, Jura Mountains, Monbéliard, Couthenans, Dampierre, Tagsdorf, Saint-Amarin, and Colmar. Despite many local princes wanting to keep their Anabaptist farmers, King Louis XIV began making laws forbidding residents in France from practicing any religion except Catholicism. So most of my ancestors didn’t stay terribly long, which is why this area was not a high priority to visit on this trip.
Witmarsum, Netherlands: The birthplace of Menno Simons, a Catholic priest who became an influential Anabaptist leader. He was rebaptized and left the priesthood in 1536.
Asperen, Netherlands: From Mennonite Quarterly Review: No story of an Anabaptist martyr has captured the imagination more than the tale of Dirk Willems. Dirk was caught, tried and convicted as an Anabaptist in those later years of harsh Spanish rule under the Duke of Alva in The Netherlands. He escaped from a residential palace turned into a prison by letting himself out of a window with a rope made of knotted rags, dropping onto the ice that covered the castle moat. Seeing him escape, a palace guard pursued him as he fled. Dirk crossed the thin ice of a pond, the “Hondegat,” safely. His own weight had been reduced by short prison rations, but the heavier pursuer broke through. Hearing the guard’s cries for help, Dirk turned back and rescued him. The less-than-grateful guard then seized Dirk and led him back to captivity. This time the authorities threw him into a more secure prison, a small, heavily barred room at the top of a very tall church tower, above the bell, where he was probably locked into the wooden leg stocks that remain in place today. Soon he was led out to be burned to death. Some inhabitants of present-day Asperen, none of them Mennonite, regard Dirk as a folk hero. A Christian, so compassionate that he risked recapture in order to save the life of his drowning pursuer, stimulates respect and memory. Recently Asperen named a street in Dirk’s honor.
Lviv, Ukraine: Remember the Ewys from Switzerland’s Emmental Valley? This side of Lisa’s family had distinguished themselves as pioneers in progressive agriculture—crop rotation, selective breeding, and the use of minerals as fertilizers. Because of their successes, they were invited by Catherine the Great to agriculturally invigorate the steppes of Ukraine (936).They added cabbage, borscht, beets, potatoes, mushrooms, and verenike to their diet. They stayed until the early 1880s, when the military draft threatened them. On July 10, 1882, Peter Ewy, a mason by trade, went overland from the rural areas around Lviv to Hamburg, Germany, where he boarded a ship called the Cimbria. He landed in New York harbor and made their way to Moundridge, Kansas. The entire cost of the journey was $88. All of their possessions were crammed into one big trunk. For obvious reasons, we didn’t make it to Lviv, but it’s on our bucket list!
Moscow, Russia: According to Peter Dyck, my great-great-uncle Alvin Miller, who would become a professor of education at Kent State University, arrived in the Moscow Central Railway Station in his underwear. The year was 1920, soon after the Great War, the Russian Revolution, and the Russian civil war were over. The New York Times was reporting that people in Russia “are dying like flies.” The 120,000 Mennonites in Ukraine and Russia were not exempt.
A delegation of three men had been dispatched to America to tell the sad story. A small group of Americans, including Alvin Miller, traveled to Russia to begin relief work. He left Paris by train expecting to arrive in Moscow the next day. When night came, he undressed down to his long one-piece white underwear, hung his clothing on a hook, and went to sleep. When the conductor called out “Next Station Moscow,” Alvin awoke with a start, reached for his clothing, and discovered that it was gone. Everything, including his shoes, had been stolen. It was cold outside, and there was snow on the ground.
Meanwhile a delegation of Mennonites had come from Ukraine to meet the first American relief worker and was waiting for him in the central station. There was no Alvin Miller. Finally, they thought he might have taken a “droshke,” a horse-drawn taxi, to the hotel. They went outside. What they saw in the first dawn of the early morning was an incredibly strange sight, something like a snowman or a ghost, darting this way and that between the carriages. They investigated this unusual phenomenon, introduced themselves to Alvin Miller, got some clothing for the poor American professor.
This trip helped galvanize the birth of Mennonite Central Committee.
As a child, my Mennonite family taught me the way of peace. They did so in part by telling the story of Hannes Müller, who in 1749 traveled from his home on the border of France and Germany to the port of Rotterdam in Holland. There he boarded a ship called the Phoenix, which carried him to the port in Philadelphia. Then traveling overland, he journeyed to Berks County, Pennsylvania, near the city of Reading and set up a farm.
About eight years later, in 1757 during the French and Indian War, “Wounded John” Miller, as Hannes Müller came to be called, met with tragedy. As he was plowing in a field, he noticed an unusual cloud of smoke rising from the Jacob Hochstetler farm nearby. Since he had recently heard tales of Indian massacres in the area, he left his plow and fled into the forest. At the same time several members of the Delaware tribe burst into the clearing from the direction of the burning homestead. Terrified, he was able to lose his pursuers among the dense trees. An alternate version is that John was chopping wood, was captured, shot through the hand as a warning, and then released. Regardless, John Miller fared better than the Hochstetler family, one of whose descendants married one of John’s descendants, whose offspring eventually resulted in me more than two centuries later.
The Hochstetler family was massacred. The sons had guns and ammunition in the home and were ready to defend the family, but the father, firmly believing in the doctrine of non-resistance did not give his consent. In vain they begged him. He told them it was not right to take someone’s life, even to save one’s own. Consequently, a son and daughter were tomahawked and scalped, and the mother was stabbed through the heart with a butcher knife and scalped. As the knife came down on her, Mother Hostetler glanced her eyes heavenward and screamed in her mother tongue, “Oh, Herr Yesus!” The father and another of his sons—who their captors decided not to kill because they were intrigued by his blue eyes—were taken captive and led into the frontier. They were released years later as part of a prisoner exchange in the French and Indian War.
The lesson of the story: Peace is difficult, but it’s the way of faith in God and obedience to the teachings and example of Jesus. My evangelical Mennonite church taught me that killing fellow believers is a violation of Christian discipleship—and that killing heathens, which might send them to eternal torment, is a violation of evangelism. Because the Hochstetlers sought peace, they should be viewed as pacifist heroes. As one account puts it: They remained “faithful in the hour of sorest trial.” As a ten-year-old boy, I was transfixed by the story, and I interrogated my own soul. Would I be courageous enough to not use violence to defend myself?
This was a true story. But there was another story that my history teachers had not told me. My ancestors may not have brandished guns and forcibly taken land from indigenous peoples. But they were nonetheless complicit in what we might call the European invasion of North America.
Indeed, their farms would not have been possible without the backing of the British Empire. Their farms would not have been possible without wars and dozens of broken promises and treaties between the U.S. government and various indigenous people groups. Their farms would not have been possible without help from the land offices of Pennsylvania and Maryland that gave them land designated as “vacant.”
This second story, which is more attentive to the historical context of my ancestors, exposes their inaction in the face of terrible injustice. In this case, unlike the first story, inaction doesn’t seem quite so peaceful.
That I can tell two stories that are simultaneously so different and so true exemplifies what Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian-born writer, has called “The Danger of a Single Story.” When she arrived in the United States to attend college, she found that her classmates had stereotypes about her. There was the funny story of a new college roommate who wanted to hear some of her “tribal” music only to be disappointed when she pulled out a cassette of Mariah Carey. There were the less funny experiences of people assuming she had been a starving, naked child with flies hovering around her encrusted mouth. And in her TED talk, Adichie explained that stereotyping is not a singular vice of Americans, noting that she too gave in to a single story in assuming things about Mexicans and white people.
What my Mennonite church should have taught me was that the sacred texts of my tradition do offer a model of telling multiple stories. The story of Israel’s beginning is told through multiple memories. Later on King David is narrated as a violent general, a philanderer, a murderer, and a “man after God’s heart.” The New Testament opens with many gospel accounts, presenting four quite different accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The stories we hear depend much on the personalities, backgrounds, and vocations of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
All of these stories demonstrate the terrible and beautiful complexity of the human condition. We see it in David. We see it in my Hochstetler ancestors who were generous and peaceful even as they were structurally complicit in theft and violence. If we interrogate our own souls and contexts, we’ll see it in ourselves. Even when we don’t personally commit violence, we can live lives that aren’t peaceful. In short, nonviolence is not peacemaking.
It’s a sobering reality that should give us pause about overly valorizing our own heritage. There is danger in telling a single Mennonite—or Wesleyan or Catholic or Reformed or Buddhist—story.
The very last country we’re visiting as part of our Rome to Rotterdam pilgrimage is the Netherlands. We’re making lots of good Anabaptist connections here. This, of course, was the home of Menno Simons, whose words that inspired one of my favorite songs “True Evangelical Faith.”
Dutch Anabaptism differed quite a bit from our own varieties of Swiss-German Anabaptism. If the Swiss Germans were quite rural, the Dutch Mennonites were urban and sophisticated. Visiting Doopsgezinde Amsterdam (Singel Mennonite Church) gave us a good taste of this. It took a warren of hallways to get to because the sanctuary is set back from the building’s façade. That’s because the Amsterdam authorities in the early 1600s made them keep a low profile and worship as a “hidden church.” But the sanctuary itself is absolutely beautiful. The worship was elegant and dignified. And the parishioners were urbane. This is in keeping with their history, which boasts significant artistic creativity, scientific achievement, and political engagement. When we visited the Marithuis art museum in The Hague that very afternoon to see “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” and Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson,” we noted that Rembrandt was a kind of honorary Mennonite, having lots of associations and friendships with Mennonites in Amsterdam.
The very last site we visited as part of our pilgrimage was the port of Rotterdam, where our ancestors departed from to migrate to America. We felt a bit like country bumpkins as we wandered the streets of this very cosmopolitan city trying to figure out public transportation. I imagine it was much the same for my farmer-ancestors from Hesse, who had sailed down the Rhine to Rotterdam and then wandered the city before they boarded ships to America at the port.
To be honest, it was a very difficult last day for our group. We were nervous if one or more of us would test positive for Covid the next morning. One of our computers died. We learned that a waterbus that we were depending on to get us from a windmill site to a Rotterdam harbor tour was out of service, making it very difficult to get around. And it was terribly rainy and cold. We were soaked and shivering as we navigated ferries and trains and buses.
At 4:30, just before we were set to end our pilgrimage’s grand finale—a harbor tour around the port itself—we got an email saying that our flight the next afternoon was canceled and that we had been rebooked for just fifteen hours later. It turns out that Schiphol Airport was in meltdown—not enough airport staff, the Pentecost holiday, and bad weather were causing more than fifty cancellations a day. Passengers were getting unruly, and Amsterdam police were in the airport to keep public order. For us, this meant that our scheduled Covid tests would not work anymore, and that we needed to find a different lab on very short notice. Unfortunately, we didn’t have our passports with us—and so couldn’t get tested before most labs closed at 5 p.m.
We found shelter on the front stoop of a building at the port, where I searched for Covid testing centers on my phone as I talked with an unhelpful rep from Icelandair on the phone. I finally found a possible testing site and began typing the personal information of all six of us with an index finger that wouldn’t stop shaking because of the frigid temperatures. After doing it twice because the site could not process the transaction, it finally worked. Unfortunately, by that point, we had missed the harbor tour. After a moment all together as a family at the harbor recognizing our ancestor’s departure, we high-tailed it to a testing center back in Amsterdam. We made it in time, and found out thirty minutes later that we had all tested negative!
Of course, our disappointment and stress does not compare to what Jakob Beiler, Hannes Muller, and Jacob Swartzendruber and dozens of our other ancestors (including so many women who are barely mentioned in the sources) experienced on their journey to America. I’m typing this after a pretty decent chicken dinner (with chocolate ice cream for dessert) on our voyage on United Airlines. The kids are watching movies. Our cabin is air conditioned. The stewards are smiling. Just an hour in, we’ve already passed by England, and the screen in front of me says that we are flying at 579 miles per hour, even with a headwind, at an altitude of 39,000 feet. My ancestors would be astonished to know that we’ll land in Chicago in just five more hours.
In contrast, our ancestors took sea, not air, voyages that took weeks, sometimes months in terribly difficult conditions. Even before the main voyage, they had to raft north on the Rhine River to Rotterdam, a journey that could take up to six weeks—all before they set sail for America.
In the summer of 1737, Jakob Beiler left from Rotterdam on the Charming Nancy, a ship piloted by Captain Charles Stedman of London. This third ship to carry Amish-Mennonite immigrants stopped last at Plymouth, England, in August to re-provision for its trip across the Atlantic. Their destination: Philadelphia. These German Amish undoubtedly chose this ship and destination because word had reached them of “Penn’s Woods,” a colony founded by William Penn that featured religious freedom. They could even own land.
Despite the allure, it was a daunting journey to actually get to Pennsylvania, and the Charming Nancy became a lot less charming in open waters. Hans Jacob Kauffman, another passenger, counted twenty-four deaths during the voyage of 83 days. If the experience was anything like other immigrant journeys, they were crammed in like sardines and subjected to terrible stench, dysentery, scurvy, filthy food, lice, severe storms, and a lack of drinking water. Here’s an entry from Kauffman’s diary:
“The 28th of June while in Rotterdam getting ready to start, my Zernbi died and was buried in Rotterdam. The 29th we got under sail and enjoyed only 1½ days of favorable wind. The 7th day of July, early in the morning, died Hans Zimmerman’s son-in-law. We landed in England the 8th day of July remaining 9 days in port during which 5 children died. Went under sail the 17th of July. The 21st of July my own Lisbetli died. Several days before Michael’s Georgli had died. On the 29th of July, three children died. On the first of August my Hansli died and Tuesday previous 5 children died. On the 3rd of August contrary winds beset the vessel from the first to the 7th of the month three more children died. On the 8th of August Shambien’s Lizzie died and on the 9th died Hans Zimmerman’s Jacobi. On the 19th Christian Burgli’s child died. Passed a ship on the 21st. A favorable wind sprang up. On the 28th Hans Gasi’s wife died. Passed a ship 13th of September. Landed in Philadelphia on the 18th and my wife and I left the ship on the 19th. A child was born to us on the 20 – died – wife recovered. A voyage of 83 days.”
In total, says historian Marcus Yoder, twenty-six people from the eleven Amish families on board, died during the voyage. Twenty-four of them were children. Of the broader context, Yoder writes, “From the period 1700-1750 it is estimated that 50 percent of children under seven years old died on the immigration journey and for those families with babies under one-year-old, the life expectancy was only 10 percent.”
The overcrowded conditions bred unfortunate social behaviors. Cheating, cursing, stealing, and bitter arguments, even between parents and children—and husbands and wives—became commonplace. But they persevered, and upon landing on October 8, 1737, the Amish-Mennonites on board became the contingent large enough to form a church.
After disembarking, they walked from the port area to the Philadelphia courthouse. There they appeared before the honorable James Logan, Esq. to offer allegiance to the British crown. This declaration to both the British king and the “proprietor of the province” had been mandated in 1727 for all foreign immigrants, in part because so many Germans were arriving. Even though these Amish migrants from Germany did not give an oath, which would have been verboten in their faith, declaring allegiance to any state structure would have been uncomfortable for these Anabaptists.
There were dozens of other ancestral voyages too. In 1749, Hannes Muller took a boat, The Phoenix, piloted by Master John Mason, from Rotterdam to Philadelphia.
And in May 1833, Jacob Swartzendruber and family left Mengeringhausen. I’ve already described the departing scene as the townspeople wished them “an obliging farewell and a happy journey” under the crooked steeple of the Lutheran church. That may be the steeple that Daniel Gingerich, Jacob’s stepson and fellow passenger, was thinking of when he wrote that the cliffs of England passing on the right side of the ship were probably “4-6 times as high as a high church steeple.”
Daniel’s fascinating diary also mentions exotic fish and the problem of seasickness. He describes how the ship lost its anchor after colliding with another boat, how passengers tied themselves down with a rope during a storm, and what a voyage funeral was like. He wrote that “the captain made a nice speech so solemn that many cried. He said man offended God so often with his deeds that we would all be lost if God would punish us at once as we have deserved, but the gracious God preserved everything through his mercy.” The brick-weighted corpse of the man, who died of an illness, was then dropped into the sea.
After nearly two months, however, Daniel got annoyed by the captain. He wrote, “We are also out of the gulf stream according to the . . . captain, but the captain does not always tell the truth.” Still, on day 54, the Swartzendruber family awoke with American soil on the right and the left. The final words of Daniel Gingerich’s diary read like this: “There was great rejoicing that [they] once more saw land.”
Another one-hour drive in the region of Hesse took us from Bad Berleburg to Langendorf, where Bender’s brother Daniel, my great-great-great-great grandfather, lived. Langendorf is quite a contrast to the gray-slated, aristocratic vibe of Berleburg. This agrarian village is rugged and surrounded by fertile fields. The architecture consists of half-timbered buildings of cement with an exposed wood framework. The streets are very narrow and curvy. One source I’ve consulted says that “in many respects, Langendorf must look like it did when the Bender family left it in 1842 to find a home in America.” Indeed, the village’s population in 1840 was between 350 and 375 persons, almost exactly matching what resident said the current population is.
Daniel Bender was not tossed in a dungeon like his brother, but he was still socially marginalized and probably quite poor. As a member of the Amish Mennonite congregation in the area, he nurtured convictions against joining the military in an area where military service was mandatory. His son Wilhelm was sixteen years old, very close to the age of induction, and so Bender felt some pressure to make a move so that the family could maintain its conscience against killing.
According to my grandfather, David I. Miller, this belief combined with a general interest among the poor in Hesse to think about America as a land of better prospects. Here are the lyrics of a song popular among farmers in this region:
Now have come the time and hour
To travel to America.
The wagon by the door now stands;
With wife and children we will go.
And when we come to Baltimore,
We’ll hold our hands upraised.
And shout a word of victory
Now we’re in America!
Daniel Bender, who didn’t have enough money to pay cash for a ship’s passage to America, sent his son as an indentured servant. Wilhelm would serve someone for five to seven years to pay off the passage. When he landed in Philadelphia in 1830, an Amish bishop in Grantsville, Maryland, heard about this Amish boy serving out his time working for a nursery proprietor in Baltimore. Bishop Benedict Miller rode 160 miles on horseback, redeemed young Wilhelm, and brought him back to live in a real Amish community. When they arrived, the bishop’s daughter Catherine joked, “That boy may become a husband for one of us.” Eight years later, Wilhelm and Catherine married.
Wilhelm worked hard, saving enough money to bring his younger brother Joseph to America. Then Wilhelm and Joseph together worked to pay passage for their father, mother, and four younger brothers to join them. From across the ocean, the Bender family sold their possessions and prepared to leave. Tragically, Daniel died unexpectedly, and the family buried him just before departure.
The year was 1842. Twelve years had passed since Wilhelm had left. He had married the bishop’s daughter and was raising a calf to be eaten when the rest of his family arrived. But the expected date came and went. Discouraged and hungry, he killed the calf to feed Catherine and his children. Amazingly, later that very day, he saw a group of people trudging down the National Road (now U.S. Route 40) through the fields. He thought, “They look like my family but there is one too few.”
He was exactly right. During the bittersweet reunion, Wilhelm discovered the tragic news—and learned more about their fraught journey, which ended with a twenty-seven-mile walk from Cumberland, Maryland, a sleepless night in a barn, and provisions provided by a kind farmer who took pity on the penniless German immigrants.
Wilhelm’s youngest son, Christian W. Bender, who is my great-great grandfather, interpreted his father’s migration and legacy this way: “We deeply appreciate the evidence of Christian faith and life among the descendants of our ancestor Daniel Bender. But it cannot be denied that the results of weaknesses and unworthy living, permitted by some, are all too evident on every hand. What of the future? As an aged man, who has seen quite a bit of life, and one of the remaining seven of my generation in the Bender family, I would warn us of the danger of departing from the Christian faith. Perhaps God’s warning to the Israelites would be profitable here. ‘For the Lord thy God bringeth thee into a good land, a land of brooks of water . . . When thou hast eaten and art full. . . . Beware that thou forget not the Lord thy God.’ (Deut. 3:7)”
Of Daniel Bender’s descendants, only one child—Christina—did not migrate to America. The last living descendant—Catherina Schoenbeck—died in 1875 at the age of twenty by suicide. Her three-year-old sister Elizabeth had died when she was one. Her one-month-old brother had died when she was five. Her father had died when she was ten. Her mother had died when she was nineteen. A year later, she was found hanging in the house of a merchant named Plitt in Marburg.
Things have changed. Anabaptists are tolerated in Germany now, and the land seems very productive. During our visit in Langendorf, many buildings had a house and barn connected in the middle of town. There were lots of solar panels on houses, but also a lot of manure piles. There were as many tractors as cars—and more bicycles than tractors. It seemed like a “good land.” It also seemed familiar. As we drove around Hesse, it reminded me of Grantsville and Lancaster County and other places in the United States where Amish and Mennonites, no doubt reminded of their homeland, settled.
And the people were very friendly. We engaged two elderly German-speaking women in conversation—which led to sparkling water on their patio, which led to one of their daughters riding her bicycle twenty minutes to translate for us, which led to them identifying where Daniel Bender had lived, which led to an unlocking of the village church house, which led to another patio invitation with chocolate snacks and more sparkling water, which led to a delighted man making us look through photo retrospectives of Amish bus tours through Langendorf from the 1990s.
Then we went to nearby Wohra, a larger town just one mile to the east. We visited the cemetery where Daniel Bender had been buried. They have a system of recycling graves that I don’t completely understand, so there were no gravestones dating before the 1950s. Next door was the Lutheran church. As an Amish Mennonite, Bender did not attend here, but there were significant connections. In honor of his Lutheran employees who attended the church (and perhaps to make his family more socially respectable and tolerated), he had paid for the church’s pews. Sadly, the door was locked, so we stood on our toes to peek at the pews through the side windows.
Based on an essay written by my grandfather, we also know that inside the church (or maybe the parsonage) is a register laid out in columns across two facing pages that holds information from the early 1800s. It shows that Daniel lived in house #56 in Langendorf at the time of his death on January 15, 1842. A translation of a part of the record reads as follows: “Daniel Bender, Mennonite, was married first to Helena Schlabbach; second to Elizabeth Bauman.” The column with the heading “Place and Time of Birth” says: “Hof Reseif by Berleburg; reportedly 77 years old.” He is listed as a “Mennonit.” His death record is in these records too.
I want to give tribute to my grandfather, now eighty-nine years old and living in London, Ohio. He helped spark my love of history as a child, and we’ve been talking family history for over four decades now. He is also responsible for uncovering much of the history above. I only wish he could have made this trip with us. A three-generation pilgrimage is pretty cool. Four generations would have been amazing.
As we’re learning, pilgrimages aren’t exactly a vacation. Going such long distances and navigating so many different cultures, languages, train systems, currencies, food, etc. is hard and difficult. We’ve also done a lot of thinking about faith and death and humans doing bad, bad things. As a man we talked to this morning at Doopsgezind Amsterdam (the Mennonite congregation here) said, “Family history can weigh heavily.” I can promise that our next trip will be far, far less complicated and introspective!
Living people can weigh heavily too. Our traveling companions, our own children, have been mostly delightful, though lack of food and sleep on just a few occasions have made for some “moments.” But we’ve experienced nothing like the fifteenth-century pilgrim Margery Kempe. Some thought she was pious and saintly. Others thought she was a fanatic and heretic. Whatever the case, in 1411 this insufferable pilgrim became convinced that God was calling her to pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Rome.
Kempe came from reputable stock. Her father was the mayor of Lynne in Norfolk. She grew up in comfort with lots of servants and money and fashionable clothes. She got married and developed her own independent brewing and milling business.
But these ventures did not prosper, and she turned to spirituality. She saw herself as a Mary Magdalene figure with a sinful past but a particularly close relationship with Christ. She became a vegetarian and then persuaded her husband to stop all sexual relations. She told him she would rather he was dead than that they should “turn again to our uncleanness.” But then she “asked her husband what was the cause that he had not meddled with her for eight weeks, since she lay with him every night in bed.” He said he was so frightened of her that he dared not touch her.
In 1413, having settled all her debts at home, she set out on her pilgrimage without her husband. First, she sailed to Holland, then traveled overland to Venice. Almost immediately, though, she annoyed her fellow pilgrims because she “wept so much and spoke always of the love and goodness of Our Lord, as much at table as other places.” They thought she was an exhibitionist and said that “they would not put up with her as her husband did when she was at home.”
Still, she wouldn’t stop. So they told her “she could no longer go in their fellowship” and they “forsook her that night.” She begged them not to leave because it was impossible in this era and place for a woman to travel alone. At least, she said, let me go with you across the Alps. They let her, but only after humiliating her. They cut her gown so short that it came but little below her knee, so that she “should look foolish and immodest.” They made her wear a canvas apron to “make her looke like a servant.” They made her sit at the end of the table “below all the others,” a position where if she started sobbing and praying, she would not disturb the other pilgrims.
Kempe ended up joining a different group. They made her promise to “not speak of the Gospel where we are, but to sit still and merry, as we do, both at meat and at supper.” She surprisingly agreed, and stayed with them in Venice for thirteen weeks awaiting a ship bound for the Holy Lands. But she soon reverted to her old ways. She began reciting Gospel texts at dinner, interrupting her companions’ conversation. They banished her to her room for the last six weeks in Venice. Then on the ship to Palestine they hid her clothes and stole her bedding. Margery wrote, “And so I had ever much tribulation till I came to Jerusalem.”
Being at the Holy Places was almost too much for her. At Calvary she “fell down and rolled and wrestled with her body, spreading her arms abroad, and cried with a loud voice.” She proudly wrote that many were astonished by the volume of her crying. Some “wished she was in the harbour, or wished she was on the sea in a bottomless boat.” Her fellow pilgrims again refused to eat with her. Only the Muslims were “good and gentle” with her.
Then she traveled to Rome. She began to wear all white from head to foot “so that all the world should wonder at me.” In what became quite a spectacle, she joined up with a hunchbacked Irishman and two friars. As they made their way across the mountains to Rome, Richard the Irishman went begging and Margery did her public weeping performance.
Finally, around Easter 1415, Kempe headed for home. Not surprisingly, the drama didn’t end. People were angry she had been gone so long. They thought she had been away giving birth to an illegitimate child—and wondered where the child was. So she promptly left again, this time for Santiago to complete the pilgrim trifecta.
How do we know all this? She wrote what might have been the first autobiography in the English language: The Book of Margery Kempe. Who was she really? A mystic? A publicity-seeker whose visions coincided with her own convenience and plans? A proto-Reformation figure who interpreted the Bible for herself and directly communicated with God, bypassing church authority? Historian John Ure, who I got this story from, says it was all these things. I’m just glad I don’t have to travel with her!
Our next stop was less than an hour away by car. In Bad Berleburg, another Swiss Anabaptist migrant relative—this one named Hermann Bender—in the eighteenth century worked through a fraught relationship with Casimir, a pietist prince.
Unfortunately, we were barred from entering Berleburg Castle. It turns out that the very next day, Prince Gustav of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg was getting married to Carina Axelsson, a former model and children’s author from America. Prince Gustav, the son of Princess Benedicte and the nephew of Queen Margrethe of Denmark, is very royal. That has limited his marriage prospects. In his will, written in 1939 in the middle of the Nazi regime, the prince’s grandfather mandated that his prince-grandson could only marry a woman who was “Aryan, noble and Protestant” if he wished to inherit the Berleburg Castle.
Carina Axelsson fits none of these requirements. She has a Mexican mother, was born a Catholic, and her parents are not noble.
Thankfully, the family’s standards have changed, and they have been working for two decades with lawyers to overturn the will. Finally, the highest level of justice in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia ruled in their favor, establishing that the prince is the rightful owner of the castle. The way was paved for the marriage of the prince and Axelsson, which happened yesterday.
Less thankfully, that meant we could only go in the castle’s courtyard, not inside for a tour. Because the queen of Denmark would be on site, security was high, and security closed the gates soon after we arrived. We even saw two paparazzi waiting with their cameras.
Our visit was still meaningful. My grandfather, David I. Miller, had been in the castle’s archives decades earlier, so I was able to piece together the story that follows. And . . . not all of the story takes place at the castle. As you might guess by now, my ancestor was not the Berleburg prince. He was a farmer at nearby Homrighausen, which we were able to visit after the castle gates were closed. Somehow I think Hermann Bender, his eyes rolling, would appreciate this!
In 1738 Count Casimir, ruler of the small kingdom of Wittgenstein-Berleburg, imprisoned my great-great-great-great-uncle Hermann Bender, an Amish-Mennonite farmer. The dispute—over whether Bender could keep a dog—seems almost laughable now. But it reflects important eighteenth-century realities in an era fraught with difficulties for both Anabaptists and their rulers.
In a region (located in modern-day Germany) where many rulers exiled and killed Anabaptists, Casimir’s treatment of Bender was actually quite benign. In fact, the pietist-influenced prince was deeply shaped by Nicolaus von Zinzendorf and other leaders of a Protestant renewal movement that emphasized devotional spirituality and discipleship. These associations also led the prince to practice a religious toleration ahead of his time. According one 1828 book, Casimir had expressed both “confidentially and publicly that all who were persecuted either because of religion or their opinions” could take refuge in his kingdom. Bender and dissidents of many other stripes took the prince up on his offer.
Casimir’s faith, however, clashed with the demands of princely rule. As a count, he was expected to build a beautiful castle. But as an ascetic pietist, he sought to quell his interest in the splendorous arts to focus instead on spiritual things. He also worried that he might be overtaxing his subjects, something he feared God might hold against him in the final judgment.
As a count, he was expected to reign with authority. As a Christian, he felt compelled to deal patiently and compassionately with his wife and subjects. This he struggled to do. In one passage of his diary, Casimir wrote, “I am deeply troubled that I did not ward off evil, about my wrath that went unbridled towards my wife and everybody else during the noon hour . . . My behavior was cruel, let alone Christian; it was brutish . . . Oh Thou, God of peace and unity, Lord Jesus Christ, give guidance.” Casimir was a conflicted Christian count.
Hermann Bender found himself caught between Casimir’s princely obligations and his desire to practice Christian compassion. The tension arose from a contract that the two men signed in 1731. Bender, grateful for safe refuge in the count’s kingdom, had agreed to manage and farm some of Casimir’s fields at Homrighausen in the forested mountains north of the castle. The problem was that these fields were located in prime hunting grounds, and the very animals that Casimir wanted to hunt were feeding on Bender’s crops.
Archival documents, discovered in the early 1980s by my grandfather David I. Miller in the Bad Berleburg castle, show that Casimir and Bender reached a compromise. Bender could use a dog to fend off the deer and wild boars, but it must “not harm the wild animals.” More specifically, the dog must be of small size and slowed by a “good tüchtiger” (club stick) that hung around the its neck and dangled between the legs to slow it down.
The bottom line: The prince was willing to grant religious freedom to persecuted dissidents, but they had better not mess with his recreation! Indeed, the importance of hunting to the rulers at Bad Berleburg is still apparent nearly three centuries later. Stuffed animals—including fish, deer, elk, bear, and boar—and drawings of hunting expeditions are on display all through the castle’s interior. In fact, the Casimir’s descendants even now are reintroducing the European bison to the region.
Five years into Bender and Casimir’s arrangement, the dog compromise was not working. The wild game continued to eat his crops. And so Bender petitioned the count to be released from the contract. But Casimir was in the middle of construction to expand the size and grandeur of his castle, and the project was stretching his resources to the limit. Needing the money, he refused to grant Bender’s request.
When the Amish farmer persisted in voicing his grievances, the count responded with anger. Casimir charged Bender with acting “aus bosem Eigensinn” (out of evil stubbornness) for threatening to abandon the land. As the months passed, he fined Bender and called him a liar. Eventually, the count imprisoned him. Only after a long stretch of confinement—and after Bender’s assurance that he would not break the contract—did Casimir release him. The relationship, however, was permanently marred, and Bender and many in the Amish-Mennonite community (minus Bender’s stepson, who remained to finish out the contract) soon migrated eastward to Hesse.
It is easy, as I just did, to narrate this dispute in black and white. In the context of the violent Reformation (in which Catholics killed Lutherans, Lutherans killed Catholics, and everyone killed the Anabaptists), clean narratives are popular. One memorable version, from William Estep’s The Anabaptist Story, reads, “In the darkness the Anabaptists shone like so many meteors against the night.” Darkness and night, of course, referring mostly to Roman Catholicism.
Using this narrative approach, Bender could easily emerge as a pure, persecuted pacifist forced into prison and finally exile. In fact, his move to Hesse was yet another stop in a series of migrations, the first having taken place from Switzerland. A third migration, as persecution and economic pressures built, would take place in the late eighteenth century when next generation moved to Pennsylvania. For other Anabaptists, the search for religious freedom and arable land would lead them to Russia, Canada, Mexico, and Paraguay. There’s no question about it: Anabaptists were treated roughly.
But Anabaptists didn’t always play nicely themselves. Bender, suggests my grandfather in an article, was an entrepreneur with “an aggressive and restless personality.” Though as an Anabaptist he was not permitted to own land, he may have been quite wealthy; he certainly felt empowered enough to conduct intense negotiations with Casimir. Other early Anabaptists appear in their writings as vituperative and self-righteous prophets. Moreover, their theological pacifism obscures a “nonviolent” culture that has sometimes taken patriarchal or coercive shape. Consider the Münster Anabaptists, the sexual predation of John Howard Yoder, and a “rape culture” in some traditionalist Anabaptist communities. Sympathetic, even hagiographic, narratives of Amish and Mennonite communities overlook Anabaptist capacities for violence. How disconcerting that those who love the idea of peace still have trouble living in peace.
Moreover, the “meteors against the night” metaphor does not fully reckon with the complex realities of their big, bad Catholic, Lutheran, and Pietist persecutors. Were many of them privileged, power-hungry guardians of empire who cared more about hunting than their leaseholders? Of course. But some, like Count Casimir, also wrestled profoundly with the dilemmas of social responsibility and nurtured a serious devotional life. Catholics too nurtured revival, and even their persecution of Anabaptists, as Brad Gregory describes in Salvation at Stake, was intended to save souls by limiting the spread of heretical ideas.
There may be much to admire about the Amish farmer’s apparent pursuit of justice. But we should be circumspect about demonizing Casimir as a tyrant or romanticizing Bender as a peace-loving, proto-democratic egalitarian.
There were fines and imprisonments. There were beheadings and drownings and burnings at the stake. There were exiles. Some Anabaptists in Switzerland were sold into slavery to work on galley ships. Principally used in the Mediterranean Sea, these galleys were flat-built vessels with one deck and navigated with sails and oars in shallow harbors to load and unload bigger vessels. According to one history, “Here they were associated with a low class of people, perhaps the most hardened of criminals, with no hope of ever seeing their families and friends.”
Driven out of Bern, the Emmental Valley, and Zurich by this persecution, my ancestors migrated to more tolerant climes. Some moved to the sparsely inhabited Jura mountains. Quite a few moved to eastern France, especially near Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines. But most moved north, especially to Hesse. The small villages in this central German state were the next sites on our pilgrimage from Rome to Rotterdam.
In Mengeringhausen, we followed the line of the Schwarzentrubers from Trub. After marrying Anna Zimmerman in 1719, Vinczenz Schwarzentruber moved to Waldeck, where he became the manager of a dairy farm. Then in 1759, he managed the farm of the Schaaken Convent, founded in 1189 near Korbach. Today, just ruins remain. But they made for a great place to play Sardines in 2022.
Vinczenz’s descendants, Christian and Jakob (born in 1798 and 1800), lived in nearby Mengeringhausen. The town is famous for its crooked steeple, which bends and rotates, on the downtown St. Georgkirche Lutheran church. As an Amishman, Jakob almost certainly did not worship at this church, which was built in 1393 and rebuilt in 1423. (The Renaissance pulpit was made in 1598 and presents Martin Luther as one of the highlights of Christian history.) But as he built his life in Mengeringhausen, Jakob did walk by it—and through the rest of this cute town of 3,800 full of half-timbered buildings. He got married, suffered the death of his wife, remarried, took charge of two stepsons, and was ordained as an Amish minister.
He also worked at the nearby GalgenMuhle (Gallows Mill), which we visited. The name did not mean that anyone was hanged on gallows. It simply refers to the type of rope and pulley system used for raising and lowering and moving the millstones. The old mill is now a classy hotel and restaurant named Hotel Luisen Muhle. Interestingly, Lisa also can trace her roots to GalgenMuhle. In fact, her ancestors lived at the mill—and may have employed my ancestor Jakob.
For reasons that were probably economic, Jakob and his family decided to migrate to the United States. As one of the stepsons wrote in his diary, “On the 9th of May 1833 we started on the great journey. We wanted to start in the morning at 8 o’clock, but on account of bidding so many goodbye [sic] . . . our departure was delayed until 2 o’clock in the afternoon. . . . The wagon . . . drove off and went through Mengeringhausen, where the curious crowd which stood and looked out of the windows, wished them an obliging farewell and a happy journey.”
In America Jakob became Jacob. He served as a minister in Grantsville, Maryland, and then moved to Kalona, Iowa, where he became the first Amish bishop there.
We thought we had family roots in the Black Forest. After further research, we found out we really don’t. But we spent a few days hiking in this beautiful area on our north-bound pilgrimage path. Here’s a photo essay of a hike to Hohenbaden Castle from our Airbnb.
Also check out anything by John Roth, along with Brad Gregory’s book Salvation at Stake on why Anabaptists were willing to die–and why Catholics and Reformed Christians were willing to kill for their faith.
And here’s a portion of my mother’s script as she led us around Zurich. This is what she said at the spot on the Limmat River where Felix Manz was drowned:
In December 1526, the Zurich Council instituted the death penalty for teaching and preaching Anabaptism within the city and the canton of Zurich. A few weeks later, young Felix Manz became the first victim of the new law. On January 5, 1527, the day of execution, the verdicts against Manz and Georg Blaurock were publicly read on the Fish Market Bridge. The executioner led Mantz from the Wellenbergturm, which once stood in the middle of the river at the site of the present Quaibrucke, to the place of execution. Manz was accompanied by two pastors of the Grossmunster. One of them urged Manz to recant in order to save his life. Manz paid little attention to him. Felix’s mother and his brothers and sisters were there also and encouraged him to keep the faith. Manz then thanked God for the opportunity to give his life for the truth. The executioner ran a stick under Felix’s knees and over his elbows and tied him up that way. They rowed him out from the Schipfge. It was three o-clock in the afternoon when Manz was held under water until his life had gone. His lifeless body was later buried outside the cemetery walls of the Saint Jacob’s Church. This church, but not the cemetery, still exits on the Stauffacherstrasse.
That same afternoon Georg Blaurock, not a Zurich citizen but an outsider, his clothing stripped to the waist, was chased through the Marktgasse, the Munstergasse, and the Niederdorfstrasse, by a mob of people armed with rods and switches and rocks. At the Niederdorf Gate (no longer in existence but near the Banhof Bridge), he was forced to swear an oath never to return. At first he refused to do so, but finally he took the requested vow. Then he symbolically shook the dust off his shoes over the city. Blaurock began a missionary journey which eventually carried him into northern Italy, where he was captured and executed two years later.