I grew up learning a Mennonite history that located its roots in the Anabaptist Reformation of Switzerland in the 1500s. Those religious minorities endured persecution (memorialized in text and image in the 17th-century publication Martyr’s Mirror) until migrating to other European nations and eventually to North America. Schisms along the way have resulted in many Mennonite and Anabaptist groups in the United States. This map was published in 2009 and is somewhat outdated (for example, in 2018 the Amish population was over 300,000 and Mennonite Church USA population was under 80,000), but it gives an idea of the diversity of the term “Mennonite.”
The Mennonite community of my childhood in Iowa consisted mainly of white English-speaking people whose German-speaking Mennonite ancestors had come to the U.S. to escape religious persecution. However, this Eurocentric story is only one of many cultural, linguistic, and historical experiences of being Mennonite. Mennonite Church USA recognizes racial and cultural diversity and disparity through the Racial Ethnic Council and Undoing Racism work. The closely related denomination Mennonite Church Canada focuses on Indigenous Settler Relations. Scholars writing about North American Mennonites have begun to investigate issues of race and ethnicity: Felipe Hinojosa explores the history of Hispanic Mennonite congregations in the United States (Latino Mennonites, 2014); Tobin Miller Sherer describes the experiences of African American Mennonites (Daily Demonstrators, 2010); Ben Goossen argues that Mennonite identity became bound up in white supremacy in Hitler’s Germany (Chosen Nation, 2017 and Mennonites and the Holocaust Syllabus); and Austin McCabe Juhnke describes how a favorite English song from the 1969 Mennonite Hymnal embodies and builds boundaries around particular white identities (“Rethinking 606,” 2017).
The latter investigation – how music and singing perform subjectivity and group identification – is most salient to this project about religious sound in Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada. While a stereotype of Mennonites is white anglophone people with German-sounding surnames, in reality, more than 20 different languages are spoken and sung in Mennonite churches across North America. In 2018, the Mennonite Voices Together hymnal committee received a grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (in Grand Rapids, MI, with funds provided by Lilly Endowment Inc.) to study the linguistic, cultural, and musical diversity of Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada. In 2018 and 2019, I travelled with fellow committee members Darryl Neustaedter Barg and Bradley Kauffman to visit ten congregations that use languages other than (or in addition to) English in their religious life. The languages and musical styles people choose to use in a worship service say much about their history and their relationship to a historical “homeland” and the races and cultures around them. This gallery exhibit listens to the stories of six Mennonite congregations as they are told through their music. More pages will be added soon about congregations that sing in Indonesian, Spanish, French, Lingala, and English.
Exhibit design and production by Lauren Pond