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My Ancestral Story

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Wednesday, February 7, 2018

I’ve taken a break from musing on matters of science and faith to read more about my Mennonite ancestors. This digression will summarize highlights of that legacy. I’ve been reading the book by Royden Loewen, Family, Church, and Market: A Mennonite Community in the Old and the New Worlds, 1850-1930. It is one of many works that details the history of this Anabaptist tradition.

The Mennonites are named after Menno Simons, the Reformationist who in 1539 published the Dutch-language Dat Fundament des Christelyckens Leers. Those who followed him and other Anabaptist writers moved from Switzerland to Netherlands in the 16th century but their uneasy relationships with the Dutch led to a migration to Prussia in the 17th century. In the 18th century, Catherine the Great lured a large number of these Prussian Mennonites to South Russia, now Ukraine, to develop agriculture there. The Mennonites flourished in Russia where they were granted official status as “foreign colonies” that exempted them from the Russian government system and its policies such as military conscription.

In 1812, Klaas Reimer founded a sub-group called the Kleine Gemeinde, which translates to “Small Congregation.” My heritage comes from this community. They developed an agrarian, religious and family based social structure that thrived in that region. There were several splinter groups that formed within that community and it endured a major schism in 1866. Then in the early 1870’s, Russia eliminated the “foreign colony” exception and forced the Mennonites to conform to Russian government. That radical shift, together with a shortage of farmland for growth, prompted the great emigration of the Kleine Gemeinde to North America in 1874. Over a thousand members of this community emigrated that year, part of the total of 16,000 Russian Mennonites who emigrated in that decade, diminishing the Mennonite population there by one third.

The approximately 166 families of the Kleine Gemeinde split into two groups in response to the conflicting recommendations of their advance scouts. The larger group of 110 families went to Manitoba and soon founded the city of Steinbach. The smaller group of about 56 families, including my ancestors, settled in Nebraska, near Fairbury. For thirty years, the Nebraskan community grew and prospered but eventually became landlocked. The critical heritage of giving each child an equal amount of land, coupled with a tradition of large families, inevitably led to a shortage of land. A group of about 36 families, approximately a fourth of the Nebraska colony, elected to move to Meade, Kansas, in 1906. My grandparents were part of that group and that is where I grew up.

The Meade Mennonite community endured droughts and severe winters and the Dust Bowl to become a well-established community. It exists today but not in its once-dominant agrarian economy. Much of the sod that was broken to become farmland has now returned to its prairie status. The absence of an underground aquifer for irrigation and the lack of oil or gas reserves underground disadvantaged its economic health. Today there are still scattered farms and the community exists with two Mennonite churches but the society is far more integrated into the broader Meade community and the global economy than it was throughout the first half of the 20th century.

What struck me is the long history of ultimately futile efforts to preserve both social structures and religious cohesiveness. Economic realities and market forces inevitably forced changes in family and social structures. And faith commitments could not prevent the frequent splintering of groups based on differing emphases on matters such as baptism by immersion, acceptance of religious experience, and focus on pietism. Other branches of Mennonites such as the Amish and the Old Order Mennonites have been more successful in preserving historic social structures but the effort and the cost of doing so is evident to all. On the other hand, the Kleine Gemeinde in Meade essentially disintegrated in a schism in the early 1940’s, leaving a somewhat independent group of Mennonites that is gradually blending into the broader evangelical community.

For me, this story highlights one of my own personal conflicts between science and religion. Forget the issues of origins and evolution. The issue of epistemology is what strikes me as the core conflict. The history of my people illustrates the divergence that is seemingly inherent in religion. No matter how focused a group may be on preserving a community of faith, differences arise and lead to splinter groups. There seems to be no epistemology that leads to a convergence of ideas. All new groups seem to thrive or break into a series of subgroups. In contrast, science has a workable, though far from perfect, methodology for resolving differences. Though with some erratic directions, science tends to be convergent with most groups coming to agreement as the data mount. Occasionally, fringe groups hang on for a long time, but the mainstream scientific community moves to convergence. This makes it hard to integrate science and religion without also separating them from each other. It is futile to closely connect science to any one particular religious position. But the alternative is to distance science from all of those positions or at least integrating science with such a high level, general theology that conflict exists only where the religious position dictates a particular scientific claim. This, I submit, is for me the real conflict.

Tags:  Ancestry  history  Mennonites 

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Carlos F. Pinkham says...
Posted Wednesday, February 7, 2018
I submit there is "a perfect methodology for resolving differences" among Christians. It is the realization that you and I have a loving relationship now and forever with the Almighty Lord God, Creator of the Universe. We should recognize ALL else PALES in comparison.

Thus, if our churches and more importantly, our people, could realize the singular, overwhelming significance of what we have in common, the seemingly divisive differences that arise within and between churches and the people that they consist of would be seen much more clearly for what they really are -- totally petty and UNimportant. As my first Adult Sunday School teacher, Michael Masoian, taught me, ‘We should agree to disagree agreeably.’" In other words, we should humbly argue to understand (or learn), not to win.

Unfortunately, pride and its resulting offspring, stubbornness, are formidable enemies of reason. And their cousin, laziness, which is born from our willingness to allow others to do the hard work God calls us to do by studying His Word thoroughly and diligently, is their weapon of choice.
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Randall D. Isaac says...
Posted Friday, February 9, 2018
I do not disagree with you but I note your frequent use of words like "if" and "should". You describe a utopian view of religion which we can all agree as being ideal. But it isn't reality, as you acknowledge. Real religion as viewed and practiced by billions of people is incredibly diverse and covers a broad spectrum of conflicting ideas.
That's why I take a dismal view of broad generalizations about science and religion. For science, one could argue it is fairly reasonable to define it as mainstream science and not any of the myriad fringe deviations. But what is mainstream religion? We may all define it differently. Yes, I too like to boil Christianity down to what I consider its core concepts. But at that point, it loses so much specificity of its connection to science that it is in danger of NOMA.
To say that there is no inherent conflict between science and religion is true in a fundamental sense but only if one asks countless religious groups to shed the specific claims of their religion.
In essence, if we say there is no conflict, we are telling young-earth advocates that their religious commitment to literal inerrancy is wrong and they must change their religion in order to remove the conflict. Or, simply, "if you have a conflict, then your religion is wrong." That's what many people hear when someone says "there is no conflict between science and religion. I feel we should admit there are real conflicts and that they can be resolved only with what are often significant changes in religious views.
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Carlos F. Pinkham says...
Posted Friday, February 9, 2018
I agree with you and see you point about the possibility of Science and Faith becoming NOMA. However, living in sparsely populated Vermont, I have no choice but to attend a church whose members are mostly blue-collar workers and Biblical literalists. I have given them the 12 fundamental principles of Christianity ( and after coming to a realization that we agree with each principle followed by a second realization of the overwhelming significance of what we have in common, I am allowed, and even encouraged, to voice my opinions as long as we both respect each other’s convictions. In other words, I feel there is more power in my argument than might otherwise be apparent. Yes, there is conflict between science and religion, but that conflict can coexist peacefully.
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David E. Singer says...
Posted Saturday, February 10, 2018
I identify with your desire for epistemological certainty with regard to matters of faith. And I agree that scientific investigation, by contrast, leads to a convergence of understanding. But as a layman I see science as having the easier task. After all, the scientific method so circumscribes its terrain of inquiry as to leave out the really difficult questions of life. Science deals with the how--the mechanics; religion with the why, the who and other fundamentals such as love relationships. Questions such as "Why is there something rather than nothing?" science cannot fathom. Science is great at digesting and explaining all that is quantifiable and the repeatable. Questions of value, meaning and purpose remain outside its domain. And, in matters of faith, much of the time there's not one right answer. Relationships can be messy and complicated. Hence a maximum need for grace.
Our Christian faith tradition doesn't skirt this ambiguity. The book of Acts, chapter 15, tells of the first church council, called to referee an intense dispute about the minimum requirements to be in Christian fellowship. Every faith tradition is littered with similar disputes.
The revelation we have, sketchy as it is, must be examined with reverence and humility. The first epistle of John encourages us to listen to our hearts when it comes to faith issues; that's hardly a scientific formula.
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