How I became a Mennonite

Note: The following piece is from a larger essay about the revolution in my family that occurred when my mother ‘went forward’ at a revival service at the Lodi Mennonite Brethren Church in Lodi, California. I have taken down the earlier part of the essay because I am using that material in the book I am currently working on.

If given half a chance I would have stayed in the Mennonite world, married a Mennonite boy, and reared a Mennonite family of my own.  However, my father’s decision to start a rescue mission in Phoenix, Arizona, a place where there was no Mennonite Brethren church, effectively sabotaged that possibility.  

I was a junior in high school when my father, who had become active in California’s Rescue Missions, answered a call by the association of mission superintendents to start a mission in Phoenix, an endeavor that would become his life’s work. Mennonites regularly cooperated with other Evangelicals in mission work, and we remained members in good standing of the Lodi MB church, expected to attend a Baptist or Bible Church of some kind while we living in Phoenix.

Dad made regular trips back to the MB churches in California in order to raise money for the mission, but I now rarely saw any Mennonites at all.  The church I attended each Sunday was an independent Bible Church.  The girls who became my friends were part of its large youth group.  The boys I dated were those I met at that church.  Seventeen months after our move to Phoenix, in early September of the year I graduated from high school, I married one of those boys.  One year later I gave birth to my first child, a daughter we named Nina Renee.  Nineteen and a half months later, two and a half months past my twentieth birthday, I gave birth to my second daughter and last child, Benith Jean.

My Mennonite identity faded a bit during the years I lived in Phoenix, but it never completely disappeared.  In 1960, when my husband and I moved to Monroe, Washington, we noticed a Mennonite church and decided to check it out even though it was a General Conference Mennonite church—a branch of the Mennonites that the Mennonite Brethren looked at with suspicion as ‘modern’ and ‘worldly’.

We fell in love with that church.  Here was the solidity I had loved in the MB church in Lodi: rural people who lived simple, generous lives—hospitable people who welcomed us into their homes, enjoyed our youth and enthusiasm, delighted in our daughters.  The theology was definitely evangelical, but the sermons were simple expositions of scripture, not the emotional exhortations of the Baptist churches in which my husband grew up.  There was no every-Sunday altar call, and my husband and I were glad—guiltily glad—relieved to be with people for whom the focus of Christian life was living with honesty, generosity and hospitality.

Perhaps the only person in the church who could even begin to fit the charge of ‘modernist’ was the pastor.  Though definitely evangelical in his theology, he was not the kind of evangelical we had known before.  Owning and managing the Coast-to-Coast hardware store in town as well as pastoring the Mennonite church, he was active in the affairs of the entire community, not just the church.  Warm and welcoming, he seemed to feel no necessity of trying to convert anyone, seemed to accept the people in town just as they were.  This tolerant man became a good friend to our family.  It was in his library that I discovered a whole new dimension of what it means to be Mennonite.

A graduate of Bethel College in Newton, Kansas, Reverend Kopper had the largest private library I had ever seen.  Among the books was the multi-volume Mennonite Encyclopedia.*  Until the moment when I first opened one of the volumes and began to leaf through it, I’d had no idea there were Mennonite scholars, Mennonite historical research, or even any such thing as Mennonite history.  The Lodi MB church had been totally focused on the Bible.  It was the stories of the Bible we learned, not the story of the Mennonites.  Fascinated, I began to ask Reverend Kopper questions, and he offered to loan me a one of his books, C. Henry Smith’s The Story of the Mennonites.

Smith’s book was a revelation. Here was no pious religious history, but a book written by an academically trained historian who respected and obviously admired the people about whom he wrote, but one who also saw their limits and faults. There was nothing in the voice of the writer that put me off—no religious stridency, no evangelistic demand. I felt at home with that voice, trusted it. What I read gave me a whole new sense of the Mennonite people and what it meant to be Mennonite.

C. Henry Smith’s The Story of the Mennonites[i]

Reading Smith’s book I learned that the Mennonite people reach all the way back to the opening moments of the Protestant Reformation in Europe, to the early 1520s and reformers who took literally Jesus’ command to love not just one’s friends and family but to love one’s enemies as well, a love that required them to refuse to return evil for evil.  These people were convinced that being a Christian meant they must not “take up the sword.”  It meant refusing to use violence even to defend oneself or one’s family and friends.  It was a belief many of these people paid for with their lives. Anabaptist men and women who refused to be persuaded of their ‘error’ were tortured, drowned, beheaded, buried alive, burned at the stake.  Fifteen hundred of these terrible deaths were eventually documented.

The story Smith told stunned me. I felt as if a whole new dimension had opened up behind my family and all the Mennonites I knew. It was as if I could see a long line of people receding behind them all the way back to the Reformation and the early Anabaptist martyrs. I could see those early martyrs, and I could see their movement down the Rhine to Holland, their descendants splitting into two main streams, one crossing the ocean to North America, the other spreading across the shores of the Baltic to Danzig and the Vistula River delta, then into South Russia. This was not just church history—it was family history, my history. My Grandfather Willems’ parents had been part of the mass migration of Mennonites from Russia to North America in the 1870s. My Grandmother Willems had actually been born in Russia. If her parents had not moved to Canada in the early 1900s she would have been one of the Mennonites caught up in war, famine and the terror of the Communist Revolution that devastated the Mennonite colonies in Ukraine.

Why had I never realized this about my grandmother? Why had I never heard anything about this history of the Mennonite people? Why had I never been told about those martyrs who had suffered so terribly because they insisted that Christian faith required refusing violence of any kind? My family seemed to know nothing about this history. The people in the Lodi MB church seemed to know nothing about this either. The Mennonite people I grew up with seemed to have completely forgotten their history. That ignorance felt incredibly wrong.

Not all Mennonites had forgotten, though. Some Mennonites had preserved memory and the records that allowed C. Henry Smith to write his book. I was deeply grateful to him and all those who made his book possible. Because of them I now had this knowledge, this story that caught up my life and the life of all my family, a story that deepened the meaning and significance of our lives. We were just ordinary people, but whatever we did, for good or for ill, extended that story.

Smith’s book not only provided me with a powerful story in which to place my life, the story he told also provided me with a religious identity that legitimated rejecting that which violated my sense of right and wrong. It took time before I worked up the courage to face my doubts and objections, but when I did, the Mennonite identity that took shape when I read C. Henry Smith’s The Story of the Mennonites allowed me to cling to the good I had experienced in my religious heritage while sorting out and rejecting that which I had experienced as curse.

~ ~ ~

Dirk Willems, d. May 16,1569

Dirk Willemsz rescues his pursuer.
Engraving by Jan Luiken in Martyrs Mirror, v. 2, p. 387 of Dutch edition.
Source: Rijksmuseum.

“Dirk Willems was a Dutch martyred Anabaptist who is most famous for escaping from prison but then turning back to rescue his pursuer—who had fallen through thin ice while chasing Willems—to then be recaptured, tortured and killed for his faith.” * *

My Willems family has its roots in the Netherlands, and I would like to think we are related to Dirk Willems, but that is highly unlikely. The name Willems is common in the Netherlands. Still, just having the same name makes me glad, makes me feel that he is somehow “mine,” my chosen Anabaptist saint.

~ ~ ~

© Loretta Willems, September 2021

[i] C. Henry Smith, The Story of the Mennonites, 4th ed., revised and enlarged by Cornelius Krahn. (Newton, KS: Mennonite Publications Office, 1957).

*The Mennonite Encyclopedia is now online: It’s a great resource, filled with interesting information.

**The quote about Dirk Willems is from Wickipedia. I chose it because it is short, but you will find many longer entries for him if you search on Google.