'Horse-and-buggy' Mennonites thrive

Limited mobility strengthens Wenger group's family ties

Published: Saturday, Sept. 16 2006 12:00 a.m. MDT

A Wenger Mennonite family leaves a Sunday morning church service in their horse-drawn buggy in Lancaster County, Pa., in August 2005.

Daniel Rodriguez, Associated Press

MARTINDALE, Pa. — In this bucolic corner of Lancaster County, Allen Hoover can use some modern conveniences approved by his church to help make his machine shop run smoothly: a telephone, a word processor and even a fax machine.

But if Hoover needs to travel, driving a car is out of the question. His only options are hopping on a bicycle or hitching a horse to a black buggy.

Hoover, 45, belongs to the Wenger Mennonites, formed nearly 70 years ago by a schism among the county's Old Order Mennonites. Both groups embrace a simple, agrarian lifestyle similar to the Amish in several ways — but disagreed over whether to embrace automobiles. As "horse-and-buggy" Mennonites, the Wengers considered limited mobility essential to preserving a community in which church and family life are tightly interwoven.

Now, it seems, that decision has helped the Wenger community grow.

"It's a culture of the old way of doing things," Hoover said. "This whole culture of families working together, communities working together as a unit, would be in danger of disappearing if we would have the means of transportation."

The Wengers have experienced remarkable growth since their formation in 1927, according to "Horse-and-Buggy Mennonites: Hoofbeats of Humility in a Postmodern World," the first scholarly study of the community.

The original group of 1,000 adults and children has grown to nearly 18,000 people living in nine states. Although they are vastly outnumbered by the nation's Amish population of around 200,000, the Wengers are growing at a faster rate, with their numbers doubling every 19 years, said Donald B. Kraybill, a sociologist of Anabaptist studies at Elizabethtown College and a co-author of the Pennsylvania State University Press book.

"There are dozens and dozens of books on the Old Order Amish," Kraybill said. "What to me was curious is that this is a very significant Old Order group that's growing and is growing more rapidly than the Amish ... but has never been studied."

Both the Amish and Mennonite religions are rooted in a 16th century movement known as Anabaptism, which called for adults to be baptized before joining the church. The Mennonites took their name from Menno Simons, a Dutch Catholic priest who broke away from his church in 1536.

Kraybill and James P. Hurd, an anthropologist at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn., spent more than a decade interviewing Wenger Mennonites, poring through source documents detailing church customs, and gathering population statistics.

A key finding was that the Wengers have high birth rates, about eight children per family, and 90 percent of the community's children become full church members through adult baptism at around 18 years old.

"My assumption was ... that it's a small group that's going to die out pretty fast," Hurd said. "I found quite the opposite."

Wenger Mennonites were originally part of an Old Order Mennonite branch that split from the more progressive Lancaster Conference in 1893 over issues such as the introduction of Sunday school and the use of English during church services, instead of the German dialect known as Pennsylvania Dutch.

In 1927, the 1,000 adult members of the Old Order Mennonite Church split almost exactly in half over the automobile. The opponents, who argued that accepting cars would fragment the community, became Wengers, led by bishop Joseph Wenger. Those who favored the car became Horning Mennonites, following Bishop Moses Horning.

The populations of the two sects grew at about the same rate until the early 1980s, when the Hornings' growth slowed. Kraybill attributes the trend partly to the Hornings depending less on farming for their livelihood and leaving agriculture to establish businesses.

"Part of the issue with the car is that more mobility makes it easier to get into business," Kraybill said. "Once you get into business, the children are no longer as much of an (economic) asset, and family size tends to shrink."

The core population of Wengers in Pennsylvania is concentrated around Martindale, an unincorporated village about 10 miles northeast of Lancaster. But over time, the population spread to other states as Lancaster County's farmland became more scarce and more expensive for young married couples starting families.

By comparison, the Amish have adapted by staying in the county but shifting their focus from farming to small business, said Ben Martin, a bishop who oversees five of the county's 10 Wenger churches.

Martin suspects this is because the Wenger Mennonites are permitted to use tractors with steel wheels for farming, while the Amish are limited to using equipment driven by horses or mules, which limits production. Ivan Martin, who is not related to the bishop, is among the Wengers who have found homes in out-of-state settlements. Martin, 52, moved with his wife to Penn Yan in New York's Finger Lakes region in 1977; they were the 25th family to arrive.

"Being young, it merely looked like an adventure to me," said Martin, who owns a wood shop. "It seemed as through the land was more affordable and available up here."

The influx of Wengers and other Old Order Mennonites has helped rejuvenate the area's farming economy, said Judson Reid of the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Yates County. For example, the number of dairy farms has more than doubled in the county over the past 20 years, bucking a declining statewide trend, he said.

"It used to be that you would see a lot of sagging barns, weeded lots, weeds overtaking buildings," Reid said. "Today, you have a bucolic, manicured bread basket."

Though Martin is far from where he grew up, he credits the Wenger church's centralized structure with keeping the larger community together and enabling it to thrive across state lines. All congregations must follow the same rules, no matter where they are based.

"Having a culture such as ours is conducive to family and community," he said. "Cars seem to, I think, spread families around. That means you end up in different communities with different church choices, and less of the guiding principles of home."

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