Voice of his people

Finding a common Anabaptist faith at an Old Order Mennonite funeral

Pleasant View Old Order Mennonite Church near Dayton, Va. Minister Lewis G. Martin was part of Riverdale Old Order Mennonite Conference, also known as Virginia Old Order Mennonite Conference. — Elwood Yoder Pleasant View Old Order Mennonite Church near Dayton, Va. Minister Lewis G. Martin was part of Riverdale Old Order Mennonite Conference, also known as Virginia Old Order Mennonite Conference. — Elwood Yoder

On a bright morning in late December, I journeyed to an expression of Anabaptism very different from mine. At Pleasant View Old Order Mennonite Church near Dayton, Va., I found common faith in the singing, messages and relationships.

I visited Pleasant View to attend the funeral of Lewis G. Martin, a minister in the Riverdale Old Order Mennonite Conference who had generously provided information for my research, writing and editorial work.

There are more than 15 Mennonite groups in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The cultural differences between my community — Virginia Mennonite Conference of Mennonite Church USA — and the Old Order groups in Rockingham County are about as far as the divide stretches.

Two Virginia Conference pastors joined me on Dec. 27 in paying respects to Lewis G. Martin, who had died at the age of 90.

Driving to the funeral, we passed horse-drawn buggies and slowed down for black-clad mourners walking to the meetinghouse. Buggies with horses tied to hitching posts filled the church lot, line after line. Cars were parked across the road in a field.

Ordained 50 years ago, Martin was widely known and appreciated. I met him only a couple of times, but he often provided information about the Old Order community to former editors of the Shenandoah Mennonite Historian and me. He understood that someone needed to speak from within the Old Order community to Anabaptists beyond.

Martin spoke to many groups touring the Old Order community. He took time away from his harness and leather goods shop, his bivocational means of making a living, to answer questions about his people.

Six years ago, when a busload of Mennonites touring the Old Order community stopped at the Pleasant View meetinghouse, Martin spoke to us. He ably interpreted the meaning of the 1901 division from which the Old Orders came. He discussed the late-19th-century troubles in Virginia Conference that led to starting the Virginia Old Orders. He shared details about their worship, sermons and singing. I still value the notes I took.

At the funeral, I found deep meaning in the words and four-part harmonies of songs from a 19th-century hymn book. Only the words appeared in the book, but soon I joined the approximately 450 people lifting their voices in song. The men around me sang the bass part, and I quickly caught on. The singing was slow and mournful, reflecting heartfelt loss. The harmonies and theology about eternity led me to think about my own frailties and brief time on this planet.

Because the Virginia Old Orders have fellowship with groups in other states, the four sermons preached during the two-hour service included ones by ministers from Berks County, Pa., and an Old Order community in Canada. Both visiting ministers had a Pennsylvania German accent, though they spoke in English, because Virginia Old Order Mennonites speak English.

Next to me on the wooden bench was a man with a young son on his lap. Another son, 6 or 7 years old, sat at the end of the bench. Both boys sat quietly, did not have toys to play with, and did not go out during the service. Their father answered my whispered questions. There was no program to look at, and no one announced the names of the ministers, but my new friend helped me as I scribbled notes. Twice we knelt for long prayers.

The windows were open, allowing a breeze to keep the audience comfortable. Every bench was filled, so dozens of boys and young men stood outside and listened through the windows. With no microphone, it was hard for me to hear, and I suspect the fellows outside heard very little.

The Pleasant View meetinghouse has an electric line attached, but it is only used to power the furnace in the basement. There are no electric lights.

Men wore plain black coats and black hats, which they hung on hooks on the walls. Women and girls sat on the right, from the perspective of one facing the audience. A 3-foot wall divided the room in the center. The women and girls wore black, including their tightly tied bonnets. At the front, about 10 ordained men sat on a raised platform behind a long minister’s pulpit.

The funeral of Lewis G. Martin became another step on my journey to find a common Anabaptist faith among friends and neighbors in the Shenandoah Valley.

My heritage is Amish-­Mennonite, going back 11 generations to the 17th- century Amish division in Europe, when Yost Yoder chose the Amish side of the split. My parents left the Amish and joined the Conservative Mennonite Conference in 1950. I joined the Mennonite Church in 1981, merging into MC USA at the turn of the century. I have hundreds of relatives among Plain Anabaptist groups in Central America and the United States.

In two years, we will remember the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Anabaptist movement in Zurich, Switzerland. May we — in all our Anabaptist communities, regardless of our differences — find common faith in God, Jesus Christ our Savior and the limitless love of the Holy Spirit, which joins us in Christian unity.

Elwood Yoder lives in Harrisonburg, Va., and attends Zion Mennonite Church, Broadway.

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