Musings of the ASA Director Emeritus
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This blog compiles the occasional musings of Randy Isaac who was ASA Executive Director from 2005 to 2016 and is now ASA Director Emeritus.


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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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