This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Plain Anabaptist conference seeks common ground

MOUNT HOPE, Ohio — A sobering commitment to nonresistance in wartime was the theme given the most attention at the 13th Anabaptist Identity Conference.

Hours of lectures on the experiences of nonresistant Christians during the American Revolution, the Civil War and World War I made up the bulk of the talks given March 15-17 in the horse sale barn at the Mount Hope auction complex.

Brothers Nathan, right, and Matthias Overholt of Sarasota, Fla., sing with their families during the Ana­baptist Identity Conference March 15-17 in Mount Hope, Ohio. The brothers founded the conference in 2007 to bring plain Anabaptists together to strengthen their heritage and witness. — Rachel Stella/MWR
Brothers Nathan, right, and Matthias Overholt of Sarasota, Fla., sing with their families during the Ana­baptist Identity Conference March 15-17 in Mount Hope, Ohio. The brothers founded the conference in 2007 to bring plain Anabaptists together to strengthen their heritage and witness. — Rachel Stella/MWR

Chester Weaver of Itasca, Texas, closed the history series with grim stories of persecution of Anabaptists in the United States during World War I, asking his audience repeatedly how they would respond to such trials today.

“Our neighbors love us,” he said. “They come to Holmes County [Ohio] from all over the world to see us. A hundred years ago, we were the dogs, the despised dogs. Do you think that could reverse itself again? Very easily.”

In a question-and-answer session, John D. Roth, editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review and professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College, asked how nonresistance looks today when there hasn’t been a draft for two generations.

“The flat answer is: we’re soft,” Weaver replied. “And if this would come upon us, I’m not sure if we’re prepared. . . . Stories [of historical nonresistant witness] are one of the best ways to prepare these people in our softness. . . . The next time, if a conscription happens again, the girls are going, too. The girls will face it the same as the boys.”

Weaver warned listeners of rising anti-Christian sentiment.

“With the changing moral and religious revolution that’s going on in our country, it could be that all the preparations we could possibly make will still amount to nothing, because we are people, in some people’s eyes, who believe a hate message,” he said.

Crops and humans

One contentious topic in some plain Anabaptist circles is the use of certain chemicals and procedures in agriculture to maximize productivity. The conference organizers take the view that food production should be organic or as close to that as possible.

Jerry D. Miller of Walnut Creek, Ohio, referenced Rev. 11:18, which warns of God’s judgment that involves “destroying those who destroy the earth.”

“Why is it in modern agriculture today, the three words that are used most dominantly all end in -cide, the Latin word for death?,” he said. “Here we are — nurturers, carers for the land, and we spread death. Insecticide, pesticide, herbicide — there’s something about that picture that does not rest well.”

He talked about how even the smallest invisible life forms have a cycle of life, death, decomposition and resurrection, and said those lives should be respected.

“Why have the Anabaptist churches — when we have held back in so many ways and been conservative in so many ways — endorsed the most modern technology available in our farming practices?” he said. “We think nothing of planting GMO corn. Never in a million years in nature will you find the DNA of a pig in a corn plant or a tomato plant. It doesn’t happen.”

Miller then suggested the acceptance of transgender people was a symptom of disrespecting God’s creation.

“They’re so confused,” he said. “They can’t decide if they’re a male or a female. Why? . . . Maybe it’s because we have not respected life in the least of its forms. Maybe we haven’t respected God for what God is. I would suggest that a culture or a community or a society that is willing to alter and snip and remake what God has created and called good is [not] far away from altering and snipping and remaking humans.”

Apocrypha, remarriage

Church historian David Bercot of Chambersburg, Pa., gave talks on subjects such as the Apocrypha, accepted as Scripture by some Christians, referenced in Martyrs Mirror and still in use among some Old Order groups. Citing their use among the early Christians, he recommended greater appreciation for them.

He gave a talk on the mark of the beast referenced in Revelation, saying that no one knows exactly what it is, but that Christians should not worry about accidentally receiving it.

John D. Martin of Chambersburg, Pa., closed the event with a defense of the majority view among plain Anabaptists that prohibits remarriage of a divorced person while the first spouse is still living. In an interview, he clarified that this was not a widely contentious topic but that it was a teaching that always needed strengthening.

Plain common ground

Conference organizers Nathan and Matthias Overholt, brothers from a Beachy Amish community in Sarasota, Fla., founded the AIC event in 2007 “to awaken the conscience and arrest the alarming desertion of our people from radical Christianity,” according to the program flier.

The conference draws representatives from a variety of Mennonite, Amish, Brethren, Hutterite and unaffiliated church groups who maintain traditional emphases on nonconformity and simplicity, expressed in plain dress, separation from the world’s politics and varying degrees of distance from modern technology and entertainment.

The conference has no formal registration and operates on financial donations. More than 600 people were served at the most-attended meal, but Nathan Overholt said he counted more than 800 during one of the talks.

Attendees were from 27 U.S. states, Canada and Australia. Nathan Overholt remarked on the various head coverings and beard styles.

“There are some here without coverings, and that’s great; we’re glad you’re here,” he said.

An additional 255 people tuned in at least part of the time via a conference phone line.

On one side of the barn, a large wagon was set up as a platform for the speakers. Listeners sat in folding chairs on the floor or in bleacher seats in the back. The other side of the space near the kitchen held long tables for meals, a few book tables and a partitioned corner labeled “nursery.”

Children and youth listened to the speakers with the adults. The immense size of the room allowed people to walk around, browse the book tables or carry on conversations. Several parents took walks with very young children, while older children quietly ran around.

A bigger vision

According to Matthias Overholt, many repeat attendees who aren’t from a traditional Anabaptist background flock to the conference for encouragement and fellowship. A common interest of those from traditional Anabaptist groups is Bercot, who initially aimed his teaching on early Christianity toward evangelicals but found an admiring audience among plain Anabaptists who see their own practices as similar to those of the church in its first three centuries.

Matthias Overholt said it’s important to maintain traditional practices across generations because the message of the kingdom of God can’t be transmitted outside a cultural context.

“I look at plain clothes, if that’s accompanied by a smile, as a tremendous witness,” he said.

A major goal of the conference is to emphasize the common ground held by plain Anabaptist groups, even if their particular applications vary somewhat.

“We want to give people the vision that the kingdom of God is much bigger than their home congregation,” Matthias Overholt said.

His wife, Sarah, agreed.

“We want to try to encourage all the Anabaptist groups to go back to their different congregations and strengthen what remains,” she said. “We all have so much to learn from each other.”

What about divisions?

During a question-and-answer session addressed by a panel of all the conference speakers, an anonymously submitted question asked how plain Anabaptists should respond to the fractures between Mennonite Church USA, Lancaster Mennonite Conference and the Evana Network over whether to affirm same-sex marriage.

John L. Ruth, a historian and writer from Harleys­ville, Pa., addressed the question.

“I don’t know much about Evana, except that I believe they are a very conscientious group that doesn’t want to fudge the simple Bible teaching that we have always lived by,” he said. “How do I relate to them? With respect, appreciation, with regret that their method is the old tried-and-true Anabaptist solution of splitting. . . . It’s not a good part of our testimony.”

Martin, the moderator, asked, “How do we respond to MC USA?”

“With pity,” Ruth answered, followed by a quiet laugh from the audience. But he immediately turned to self-criticism.

“I think we need to be repentant in the fact that we’re good at disparaging, and I just don’t know what that has accomplished,” he said. “. . . The thing on homosexuality is insoluble on a human level.”

‘A shadow side’

In an interview, Roth cited the tension between plain Mennonites and mainline Mennonites.

“MC USA serves as a kind of foil — a warning about what most groups don’t want to become,” he said. “It fits in a long tradition of defining yourself by who you’re not. I get that.”

Roth said he had a deep respect for the plain tradition. He grew up in Holmes County, and his wife comes from an Amish family.

“I have a lot of friends here,” he said.

He said he was interested in the different ways Anabaptism has formed cultural expressions flowing from its emphasis on Jesus as a model for daily life that should result in a visible corporate witness. However, he said, that emphasis on a disciplined communal life leaves little space for compromise.

“It’s often the case that the virtues you identify yourself with have a shadow side,” he said. “There are a lot of shadow sides.”

Yet Roth was encouraged by the spirit of unity between Anabaptist groups to meet each other at the same event and agree on common ground.

“I’m just really grateful that something like this exists — where I can see 12 different covering styles, and they all have charity with each other,” he said.

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