NORTH NEWTON, Kan. — If not for great-great-grandparents who became indentured servants of Amish Mennonites in the early 19th century, Stan Bohn would probably not be a Mennonite today.
Bohn, a retired pastor, said he is one of a number of Mennonites who are discovering they have non-Mennonite branches in their family tree that were “grafted” into Anabaptism when indentured servitude was common in colonial America.
Many non-Mennonites in the mid-1700s through the mid-1800s became indentured servants to pay for ship passage from Europe to North America or to stave off poverty once they arrived. After they served their tenure with Mennonite farmers in regions such as eastern Pennsylvania, they often joined an Anabaptist faith group and passed on that faith tradition to several generations of descendants, Bohn said during a recent interview at his home where he lives with his wife, Anita.
“I feel very fortunate to have gotten linked up with a counter-cultural denomination in a roundabout way through the situation of there being a labor shortage in this country that created the indentured system,” he said. “It helped the people who couldn’t find work in Europe to afford a boat passage.
“I don’t know how parents felt about indenturing their children to somebody else. But on the practical side, indenturing took care of poverty, homelessness and orphan situations as well as providing vocational training.”
His great-great-grandmother, Leah Lewis, was an orphan, whose father, Samuel Lewis, was a soldier who died in the Revolutionary War, Bohn said. Four-year-old Lewis was born in America but was of English descent and said to be a relative of Betsy Ross, creator of the first American flag. Lewis was placed in the home of Christly and Martha Yoder, of Mifflin County, Pa., in 1809. As payment for her labor, she received food, shelter and schooling as well as two sets of clothes, a cow and a spinning wheel.
After her release she met and married James Morrell, indentured in 1815 when he was 7 years old to Jacob Zook of Mifflin County, where Morrell’s tenure ended when he was 21, Bohn said. Morrell’s father, Robert Morrell, signed the indenture. James Morrell was of Scotch-Irish descent, and his family had probably been Presbyterian. Similar to Lewis, he received food and shelter, as well as schooling. When he was released, he received $200, one good horse and two suits, one which was new.
They married in the Amish Mennonite community in 1827 and lived in Mifflin County for some time before moving to Fairfield County, Ohio. In 1853, they settled in LaGrange County, Ind.
Finding a family
The indentured-servant narrative unfolded many times in eastern Pennsylvania and involved other families with names considered typically Mennonite today, including Swartley and Delp, said John Ruth, an eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite historian.
An ancestor of Ruth’s was indentured in pre-Revolutionary War days. In 1732, Mennonite farmer Hans Clemmer of Lower Salford Township, Pa., came to Philadelphia to find an indentured servant among German-speaking people needing to pay their fare. He chose Ruth’s ancestor, Friedrich Altdörfer (Alderfer), a young Lutheran who had come to America from Steinsfurt, southeast of Heidelberg, Germany.
“Hans Clemmer, who paid Friedrich’s passage, was killed in an accident, and his young servant married Hans’ widow, Anna (Detweiler) Clemmer, and became a Mennonite,” Ruth said. “He became really successful, and his children all became part of the Mennonite stream.”
The Alderfer family for generations has been part of Salford Mennonite Church in Harleysville, where Ruth is a member.
“Sometimes indentured servants were very unhappy, and at other times it changed people’s life for the better, such as was the case with my family,” he said.
The story of people who became Mennonite through indenture has importance for 21st-century Mennonites, said Colleen McFarland, archivist for the Mennonite Church USA Historical Committee.
“We can tend to think the multiethnic aspect of today’s church is new,” McFarland said. “But the indentured servitude story reminds us that we have a fairly long tradition of those who have not been ethnically Mennonite finding their way into the Mennonite church.
“There actually was much cross-fertilization prior to the 20th century. But what was different from today’s immigration situation was that indentured servants came when no paperwork or documents were required, and new people were welcome as laborers and settlers.”
Melvin Gingerich wrote in the July 1961 issue of Mennonite Life that it has been estimated that nearly half of America’s colonial white population came through indenture contracts.
“There was no social stigma attached to this kind of service, in contrast to that of slavery, and often a servant married into the master’s family,” he wrote. “The great majority were absorbed into the general population after their period of indenture had ended. Soon after 1830, the system had practically disappeared in the American states because of the greater supply of available labor.”
While both Amish and Mennonites expanded the labor force through indentured servitude, “virtually none of them bought slaves, for they were opposed to slaves on religious grounds — either directly, or because of scruples against conspicuous consumption,” wrote Richard K. MacMaster in Land, Piety and Peoplehood, the first volume of the Mennonite Experience in America history series.
Despite very little proselytizing, Mennonites received non-Mennonite indentured servants, especially Germans, into their churches.
Because of this, Bohn said, he is blessed with a faith tradition that cares about community and social justice. This has led him to address poverty and race issues.
“I am glad I came from poor people rather than nobility,” he said. “In much of my ministry I’ve had the opportunity to work with poor people — including when I was a pastor in a low-income neighborhood in Kansas City and today in my volunteer work with Circles of Hope. It is a type of 18-month ‘indentured’ relationship within which we partner with people who are striving to get out of poverty.
“I have a lot of gratitude about getting hooked up with the Zooks and the Yoders from way back. This has brought me into an alternative view of Christianity that shapes and supports what I feel is important.”