Plain groups gather to ‘arrest the alarming desertion of our people’

Nathan, left, and Matthias Overholt have been organizing the Anabaptist Identity Conference since 2002. — Patrick Matthews Nathan, left, and Matthias Overholt have been organizing the Anabaptist Identity Conference since 2002. — Patrick Matthews

Plain Anabaptists gathered March 21-23 in Millersburg, Ohio, for the 18th Anabaptist Identity Conference to preserve and strengthen their faith, practice and witness. Conference speakers looked to scripture, Anabaptist history and the early church as the standard for radical Christianity.

The conference drew several hundred Plain Anabaptists from the United States and Canada. Estimated numbers ranged widely, from 400 to 800. This included Old Order Amish, New Order Amish, Nebraska Amish, Beachy Amish-Mennonites, Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonites, Nationwide Fellowship, Franklin and Washington Conference, Charity Christian Fellowship, Dunkard Brethren, Old Order River Brethren, Old German Baptist Brethren, Ohio-Indiana (Wisler) Conference, Weaverland Conference and other unaffiliated groups. Russian Baptists also attended. Depending on the day, 100 to 200 more listened through a phone conference line.

A conference flyer said the purpose was to “awaken the conscience and arrest the alarming desertion of our people from radical Christianity.”

For conference attendees, radical Christianity means straightforward interpretation of and obedience to biblical commands regarding nonresistance and swearing of oaths, outward separation through dress, head coverings for women, permanence of marriage, submission, church discipline and two-kingdom theology.

Anabaptist Identity Conference attendees browse Sermon on the Mount Publishing’s book table. — Patrick Matthews
Anabaptist Identity Conference attendees browse Sermon on the Mount Publishing’s book table. — Patrick Matthews

Nathan Overholt, a conference organizer and founder along with his brother Matthias, said that people come to this conference to work out what it means to follow Jesus and how to follow particular commands.

Overholt said in an email that “our people” are recognized by distinctive dress and their radical Christianity. Conference organizers are concerned that Plain Anabaptists are assimilating to evangelical Protestant theology.

The Overholts are also concerned about progressive Mennonites’ drift toward the larger culture, because these Mennonites are not recognizable on sight as Anabaptists and therefore lose their witness.

Speakers spent considerable time discussing history and peoplehood. Andrew Ste. Marie of Michigan gave an opening talk about why Christians should study history, focusing on Psalm 78. He recommended reading The Anabaptist Vision by H.S. Bender and suggested biographies of Conrad Grebel, Jakob Ammann and Michael Sattler. The living are to learn from the past and advance the kingdom of God.

In a devotional, Delbert Shetler of Ohio shared his experience of care from his Amish community after he was the lone survivor of a car accident that killed the driver and two of his children. His barn needed repair, but he could not manage the work himself because of his injuries. The community rebuilt the barn, and Shetler said he still doesn’t know who paid for the materials. The labor was donated.

“Friends, we daren’t lose what we’ve got,” he said. “We’re designed to need each other.”

John D. Martin, an adviser to the Anabaptist Identity Conference, said needing each other is necessary for salvation.

“God does not have in mind that we are saved individually,” Martin said in his presentation on the Sermon on the Mount. “It’s not about going to heaven after we die; it’s about getting to heaven while we live,” and this happens communally.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if [all] Anabaptists lived alike?” asked one man during another devotional. “We are imperfect,” he admitted, but that should not keep Anabaptists from “striving to show the kingdom of God on earth.” It is the work of Anabaptists to show the world what this should look like, he said.

Speakers often expressed discomfort about the broader culture’s impact on Plain Anabaptists. A presentation on Anabaptists and artificial intelligence by Chester Weaver recommended caution and resistance, noting that AI is already a part of everyday life for groups that use the internet.

In another presentation, Weaver showed and discussed a 1967 documentary, Mennonites: The Peaceful Revolution. The film included interviews with Goshen College students who had decided to leave traditional Mennonite life. Many comments from the audience ranged from frustrated to indignant.

“Don’t engage with culture,” one man said. “Create a counterculture.”

But creating a counterculture does not mean withdrawing from the world. Hearken House, an Anabaptist-related ministry, reported on its work with returning prison inmates who had committed sex offenses. Blessings of Hope, founded by ex-Amish men, discussed hunger in the United States and how the organization collects and redistributes food that otherwise would be thrown away.

Submission and authority were themes. Justin Denlinger of Hartville, Ohio, spoke about women’s head coverings as a symbol of authority in the God-man-woman hierarchy. Women wear head coverings to show they are submitted to men.

But men need to submit to God and to men in positions of authority in the church. Addressing men, Denlinger said that if children and women aren’t listening to them, perhaps men should be asking themselves, “Am I submitting to my authorities?” Even the Apostle Paul submitted.

He said Plain Anabaptists are often accused of being hypocrites and legalists. But the risk of hypocrisy is not a reason to stop practicing what is commanded.

Youth sing from the Christian Hymnary in an impromptu chorus during the Anabaptist Identity Conference. — Patrick Matthews
Youth sing from the Christian Hymnary in an impromptu chorus during the Anabaptist Identity Conference. — Patrick Matthews

“Can baptism save you? Can head covering save you?” he asked. “No, but our obedience [does].”

In a panel discussion, Ste. Marie reminded attendees that while head covering and modest dress may be biblically mandated, they do not protect women and girls from harm. He gave an example of Plain women who had been sexually abused by family members.

“Let this [sin] not even be named among us,” he said.

Ray Miller, a member of the Old Order Amish in Ohio and a local conference organizer, added that any sexual abuse should be reported to the civil authorities. Some people may feel more comfortable reporting to a bishop, and he emphasized that the bishop will also call the authorities.

Philip Showalter of Windsor, Ky., delivered a spirited critique of Plain Anabaptists buying into the broader culture’s materialism. “We are seeking things right with the world around us,” he said. Plain groups have flourishing farms, businesses and bank accounts, but “our walk with God comes second.”

His talk prompted many comments and questions. Someone asked if he could trust Plain business catalogs for business advice; Showalter advised caution. In response to another question, Showalter suggested talking to church members for discernment before expanding a business.

“A businessman should not be consumed by business,” he said. “God owns the business.”

David Bercot, a member of an unaffiliated Mennonite congregation in Chambersburg, Pa., echoed Showalter’s critique by pointing to Dutch Anabaptists after the Netherlands’ independence from Spain in 1581. The Anabaptists received religious toleration, but then they became wealthy.

“The world couldn’t beat them with fire and the sword,” Bercot said, but it “got them with money.”

But money is also necessary. Toward the end of the conference, Nathan Overholtz  announced that the planning group had counted the donations, and they were $10,000 short of covering expenses. He asked ushers to pass baskets.

During the concluding panel discussion, Ray Miller made another announcement: The money had been counted, and it was enough to break even. There might even be some left over. Any money beyond 2024 expenses would be used for the next conference.

Eileen Kinch

Eileen Kinch is digital editor at Anabaptist World. She lives near Tylersport, Pennsylvania, with her husband and two cats. She Read More

Anabaptist World

Anabaptist World Inc. (AW) is an independent journalistic ministry serving the global Anabaptist movement. We seek to inform, inspire and Read More

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