This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Plain groups: work-family bond resists worldly ways

HURRICANE MILLS, Tenn. — Today’s North American economy presents daunting challenges for building the ideal faith community, according to David Martin of Cheyenne, Wyo.

“Why does there seem to be among us an increase of emotional stress and mental difficulty?” he asked, speaking to about 400 people at the 12th Anabaptist Identity Conference March 16-18.

“How many sisters in your congregation are on depression medication? You’d better understand what that means, and you’d better figure out what to do about it. . . . They’re living a life God didn’t create them to live, and they’re struggling with it.”

Event organizers Nathan, left, and Matthias Overholt, brothers from Sarasota, Fla., and their families lead singing during the 12th Anabaptist Identity Conference in Hurricane Mills, Tenn. — Rachel Stella/MWR
Event organizers Nathan, left, and Matthias Overholt, brothers from Sarasota, Fla., and their families lead singing during the 12th Anabaptist Identity Conference in Hurricane Mills, Tenn. — Rachel Stella/MWR

Martin’s talk on “Mennonites and the Industrial Revolution” was typical of the conference, a gathering of people from plain Anabaptist groups to “awaken the conscience and arrest the alarming desertion of our people from radical Christianity,” according to the event description.

Adults, youth, children and babies from Old Order Amish to people new to Anabaptism packed into tight quarters at The Well of Hurricane Mills, the building of a nondenominational church. The talks were interspersed with singing, book shopping and meals that were organic or free of genetically modified organisms.

Martin shared his own story of growing up in a farming community and finding it impossible to buy his own farm when he got married. Like many of his peers in the same situation, he went to work for someone else.

“In one generation we had, without any fanfare or any notice, completely changed the basis of our lifestyle,” he said. “We went from being a community to being job holders.”

He pointed out that while farming is often considered an ideal occupation in plain communities, most of the early Anabaptists were tradesmen.

“Trades before the Industrial Revolution were family-oriented, and that’s the difference,” Martin said. “Men worked in connection with their families. The idea of occupation was sort of a heritage.”

Martin referred to “creation principles” that the post-industrial economy opposes.

“The industrial society does not have a place for children,” he said. “God made us to get married young and have lots of children. Try that in today’s world; it’s hard to do; it’s difficult. In the plain churches, there’s been a lot of adjusting not toward creation principles but toward industrial principles. Family size gets smaller; marriage gets postponed; children get postponed. There’s something serious going on here.”

Christian communities should find positive ways to encourage the birth of more children, Martin said.

“What if instead of trying to discourage [birth control], we would vigorously celebrate fruitfulness and support families and encourage families and coming under them and lift them up rather than putting them in situations where they don’t have any options?”

Justice for workers

Martin said many of the principles of American capitalism are not biblical.

“Most of the people that generate a great deal of wealth generate it on the labor of other men,” he said. “That’s American capitalism; that’s how it works; that’s how men get very wealthy. . . . It’s up to you to decide in the quietness of your own conscience whether that’s right or not.”

In the ideal godly community, “every man has his own small enterprise,” he said. “We ought to structure our communities as a goal to having every man have his own vine and his own fig tree,” he said, citing 1 Kings 4:25, Micah 4:4 and Zech. 3:10.

He said plain communities needed to deal with economic inequality among them before debating their varying external practices.

“So many of our people are trying to keep the old ways . . . [but] our hearts are worldly, and we’re going after the world’s system and we’re swallowing up the world’s values,” he said.

Martin recommended business owners talk with potential employees to determine their families’ financial needs, including health care, when determining wages.

“If you don’t pay him enough to cover all of it, how’s he going to survive working for you?” he asked. “We have to be honest about what it costs to live when we’re determining a wage.”

Legal challenges

David Bercot of Chambersburg, Pa., spoke from a legal background about preparation for legal hostility to Christian practices.

“The government obviously has a very vindictive spirit against Bible-believing Christians,” he said, referencing fines to business owners for refusing to serve same-sex weddings. “It might be a little better under the present administration, but it’s not going to go away.”

He advised business owners to leave professions where they might be pressured to compromise their convictions.

“We just have to get out of those professions,” he said. “We have been used to it as kingdom Christians for centuries and centuries. There have been a lot of professions we’ve just gotten out of a long time ago, and so I think we’re a little bit more used to this sort of thing than a lot of other professing Christians who are now facing these tests.”

He encouraged the audience to see Muslims as natural allies for religious freedom.

“I hope that, both out of our general Christian charity and out of our wisdom, that we realize the Muslims are our allies in this country,” he said. “Many of our convictions are also their convictions as well.”

History was a prominent theme of the conference, with a four-part series on Dutch Mennonite renewal movements, though only a handful of people in attendance identified with that ethnic background.

Other topics included organic farming, the church planted by the 12 apostles and an appeal for a conservative Anabaptist church plant in Greece.

A live phone line allowed people to listen from home. Recordings of the conference talks were to be posted online at

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