Book review of “German Language: Cradle of Our Heritage”

As I sit down to write this review, I am thinking that this is probably going to be the hardest book review I have ever tried to write. Let me start with the story of how the idea to do a review of the book came to be.

We were in Lancaster County for the recent Christian Aid Ministries open house. While in the area, I thought I would drop in to visit Amos B. Hoover. I don’t know Amos real well, but we do have some family connections through my wife. I have also visited Muddy Creek Farm Library on several occasions and sometimes Amos would be in there.

I found out Amos was at Fairmount Homes, as his dear wife Nora was experiencing some health issues. He told me by phone to meet him in the entrance. He came zipping into the entrance area, and although he was using a walker it seemed obvious that he really didn’t need one. It seemed that he was possibly pushing the speed limit for the entrance area as he zipped in! 🙂

Sitting down, he quickly turned the subject to his latest project, the hot-off-the-press book German Language: Cradle of Our Heritage.

“Have you seen my latest book?” he asked.

“No,” I replied.

Reaching into the basket of his walker, he pulled out a copy and began to briefly tell me what it was about. “This tells the story of the switch from German to English in our churches,” he explained. Then with hardly a breath’s wait, he told me, “I think I will give you a copy if you will talk about it on Plain News.”

Well, I thought like it sounded like a good way to get a free copy of a book, and since I had contemplated at different times to do book reviews for Plain News, immediately I confirmed that I would do my part. Thus it was that this book kick-started the book review process for Plain News. Just two days later I received a copy of the previous book (The Missing Spoke) which I reviewed, but decided to review it first as it is a lot smaller book.

I tell that story partly as a disclaimer notice that I did get a free book if I would “talk about it on Plain News.” But I also add that I never agreed to, nor would I agree to, giving a positive review just to get a free copy. This review is the same as it would be as if I had bought a copy. In fact, you will see later on that I do have some doubts with some of the book’s suppositions.

But that is not the whole story of my short visit with Amos that morning. After his brief introduction and offer to give me a copy, I then queried him: “Amos, let me ask you a question now. I have come to the conclusion that the Mennonites lost some of their Anabaptist theology in the language transition. What do you think?”

“You don’t need to read my book, then. That is what it’s all about,” was his reply.

Well, the offer of a free book wasn’t rescinded even though I had already came to the same conclusion that he had (totally independent of him), so I took my book and brought it home with intentions of giving it a review on Plain News. Here goes …

The Contents

It didn’t take me long to see that this book is not a story book. I had somewhat expected, listening to Amos’ description of what he called his “most important work” that this would tell the story of the German-to-English language transition among Mennonites, in story form. For those who will not read a book that is not a story (historical fiction), don’t disappoint yourself with this book. This is raw historical data, with personal notes intertwined.

For me, I will not waste my time with historical fiction. So this book was a delight! When I read history, I want to know what really happened, not what the author imagines to have happened. Worse than pure fiction is half fiction and half fact. The reader doesn’t know when story-telling overtakes the facts. So, sorry, all ye readers of historical fiction; this book is not for you. But rejoice, all ye historians! This book is a treasure trove of raw, historical data! Yes, the author does have commentary sprinkled throughout the data, but it is always set apart from the data so that you know what is historical fact and what is Amos Hoover’s interpretation of that fact. Plainly said, once again, I love it!

The first part of the book contains about a dozen pages of the author’s view of the language transition. This is, however, the only systematic presentation of his thesis, until the very end when he again briefly repeats the same overview in different terms. The rest of the book is basically the data from which he drew his conclusion.

The Data

The data is set into three sections. The first, called Personal Interviews, Notes, and Observations is a compilation of just that. The author early in his life began to notice the disappearance of the German language in his Old Order Mennonite people and began to make notes in his diary, as well as writing down jots and tittles of other information that concern language use and other Mennonite habits, traditions, and opinions.

This was probably my favorite part of the book. This section, if read with a listening heart, reveals the soul throb of the common Mennonite in the latter parts of the 1800s up until the present time. While the author was born in the early 1900s, he knew and talked to people that were born in the 1800s. Some of those he talked to would have known people born in the Civil War era, and could share things that that generation taught, felt, and strived for. Thus the data stretches back to the middle of the 1800s.

While the main thrust of this book is about language, the author realizes that language use is not an isolated issue. Along with language change were changes in worship, theology, habits, and customs. For example, one of the “observations” that he notes in the book is that one old-timer recalled that a number of Mennonite men in the mid-1800s still wore beards (which are sort of anathema in many conservative Mennonite churches today). Sunday Schools, Singing Schools, clothing styles, business practices, and burial formulas are all included in the little “trivia” that this section records. Yes, the author sometimes adds his comments (often illuminating the background of the person or event), but essentially this section is raw historical data and opinions from others.

Some history books tell history in the form of church council verdicts, church split statistics, and statements of faith that give official reasons why things happened. This type of information is valid and useful. But I often wonder, “But what did the common person feel about the matter?” Or I ask myself, “So 25% of the split went this way, and 75% that way. But how convinced was each side? What percentage was in the middle and forced to take a side in a split? What nuances were involved?”

The data that Amos has preserved in this book is just that sort of data. The common John and Jane Anabaptist are given a voice in this book, and in fact probably a larger voice than the official verdicts of church councils. I will repeat, I love those voices! I love that my wife’s grandmother and grandfather, two “non-descript” Mennonites, have a voice in this book. Most history books would skip their opinions in favor of only the opinions of the Statements of Faith and the outcome of a minister’s meeting somewhere.

Two further parts of the book share selections from publications and other documents. Some of these selections are not well known, and the author is to be commended for translating and sharing them for posterity.

The last parts of the book are biographical sketches and a bibliography, as well as an index.

Summary of the Data

This book will be long appreciated by historians and sociologists as a source book. The pages are packed with data, including some graphics spread throughout to illustrate points and add a little flare to the abundant text. The data is roughly put into chronological order, or at least the order in which the author obtained the information. Perhaps the information could have been better organized into another form of presentation, but to be honest, the information is so vast and various that I suppose the presentation used is as good as any.

What the data is not? I repeat, this is not a story that your teenage daughter is likely to sit down and gobble up with delight. This book is raw history, the good, the bad, and everything in between. Historians will pull this book off their shelf time and again. Story readers will let it become a dust collector.

The Author’s Thesis

The above describes the contents of the book, mostly raw historical anecdotes, facts, and opinions. What about the author’s thesis (which is a smaller part of the book)? Did he draw the right conclusions from the data he presents?

That, of course, is debatable. I must say two very positive things about Amos’ presentation of the data:

  1. Amos did a superb job of including all sides of the debate in his data. He will lay out the opinion of someone who absolutely agrees with his conclusion, but the very next interview or quote may be the exact opposite. This is history, par excellence. Someone has said that if you are going to write history (and have people accept it), you have to be honest and fair. Amos certainly gets an A+ in this book for those aspects. Yes, his interpretation and opinion shows through, but he is not hiding the fact that plenty of people disagreed with his interpretation and opinion. As well, he includes data from all kinds of churches and people, from Nebraska Amish to Lutherans.
  2. Amos avoids uncharitable chewing on those who disagree with his interpretation and opinion. You will not find him calling others “heretics” and breathing out fire and damnation if someone or a group took a different view of the language issue. He laments their choice, but he does not stone them.

I mentioned in the beginning about my preconceived opinion that the Mennonites lost some of their Anabaptist theology in the language transition. Amos said I didn’t need to read his book, since I already believed what he wanted to convey. Did I find it thus?

In a strange twist of fate, I have to say that after reading the book I was less convinced that language was the culprit for the loss of early Anabaptist theology (among Mennonites) than I had previous to reading the book. The loss happened, but why?

The author is clear: language in itself is no issue to God. He [God] has no greater respect for German than for English, Greek than Hebrew, or any other combination. However, the author seems thoroughly convinced that the Mennonites today would be in better spiritual condition if they had retained the German language in their churches and homes.

May I digress? Even after saying that I feel the Mennonites lost something valuable in the transition to English? At least I have the confidence Amos B. Hoover will not stone me if I digress!

Sentimentalism?

Sometimes while reading the author’s commentary in the book, I got the feeling that perhaps he was letting nostalgic sentimentalism intermix with spirituality. This sentimentalism includes the preferential use of the Pennsylvania Dutch and/or German language. You will find statements that the German language can more clearly communicate certain spiritual truths (such as Gelassenheit), and that it is a more humble language. In fact, although he may not outright claim it for himself, the book repeats one certain phrase in several occasions: English brings pride and/or pride brings English.

Excuse me, but do I see some German superiority, some German pride, in that statement? 🙂

I do understand, after asking my rhetorical question, where this attitude came from and can see why it could develop among conservative Mennonites. After all, the people who were the fastest to switch to English were often the fastest to throw off Biblical obedience. They were the fastest to stop wearing plain clothing, for example, exchanging it for fancy clothing. So in the minds of some, English = pride.

Let’s park here and consider a couple of points that would contradict that equation.

  1. The Mennonites in Europe beat the American Mennonites to total worldliness, by at least 100 years. By the early 1900s, very few European Mennonites were non-resistant and dressing in plain clothing. They also dropped head coverings and other biblical mandates at about the same time. Now take note: these were largely German-speaking people with no pressure to adopt English! English had nothing whatsoever to do with their worldliness, and they got there faster than the English-speaking Mennonites in America.
  2. If you read the reasons why the Reformed Mennonites broke away from the main body of Mennonites, you will see that they felt that the main body was compromising and allowing carnality to continue unrebuked. Of course, most people recognize that the Reformed Mennonites painted with a very broad brush and that not nearly all of the main body was as carnal as their depiction of the worst end of the church. On the other hand, there were obvious lacks in the main body, and the main body did not deny that there were issues among them. This was in the early 1800s, indicating that worldliness got into the Mennonite church before English did.
  3. In current Old Order settings (that still use German) that I have personally experienced, there is plenty of worldliness, including telling off-color jokes and having way more interest in a deer hunt than the things of Christ.

The points above argue that German is no more of a safeguard against worldliness than English. Nor is English more of a safeguard than German.

German a more non-resistant language?

Being from a non-German-speaking background and a non-Mennonite background, a few comments in this book left me shaking my head. Let me share one, found on page 117:

It would seem to me that the Dutch I learned from my forebears is less assertive and more non-resistant than the expressions of the educated language of either English or [Standard High] German.

Eh-hem. Excuse me? Did I read that right? Pennsylvania Dutch is more conducive to non-resistance than other languages? Do I smell sentimentalism? I know of many people who came to non-resistant beliefs without knowing the first German or PA Dutch word!

Don’t Blame English!

The false conflation of “English” with “worldly” began among Mennonites already in the 1800s. A quote from Joe Wenger (from whom the horse-and-buggy Wenger Mennonites were named) reveals this subtle accusation:

There is really no problem with the language, but it appears that when German people make an effort to become English then pride is getting a foothold.

In his context, I know what Joe meant. Those who wanted to escape a life of separated discipleship in a biblical church will run to the society around them and join in. In his case, that worldly society around him happened to be English-speaking while he was German-speaking. I would posit that those who left the Mennonites to join with the English society around them would have just as well joined it no matter what language the surrounding society spoke. The language was incidental, not causal.

While Joe Wenger said it is not the problem of the language, his statement may also reveal a bit of a feeling of false humility. Do English people become more humble by becoming German? Can a person be proud that they are not English?

Ouch!

This is where some Old Order people have become confused, in my opinion: they have begun to blame English, rather than blame self-gratification. I have experienced the same thinking within a purely English context. The conservative Holiness churches of my childhood (totally English-speaking) spoke much about the “world” and “worldliness.” We looked at other churches and saw them as “worldly.” And they were. These “worldly” churches disobeyed Christ’s teachings, in dress, in entertainment, and in morals. What we failed to recognize is that “worldliness” isn’t all “out there.” Worldliness is within. By our constant referral to “the world” as “out there somewhere,” we tended to blind ourselves to the fact that worldliness is a heart condition, not a people group.

So instead of blasting the change from German to English, the Mennonites should have blasted the change from Christ-following to self-following … whether or not that included a change of dialect. In fact, they should have blasted that change using the German language and also blasted it using the English language, and even throwing in some Spanish if need be!

Those who blame a language for bringing in pride may be lacking some discernment, sad to say.

The Mennonite Miss

Speaking of lack of discernment, that brings me to my final point: I still believe that the Mennonites lost something very important when they switched to English from German. How can that be when I have just concluded that anyone who blames English is lacking discernment?

Let me explain …

When the Mennonites hit American shores, they found something that they had never experienced in their 200+ years of history: religious freedom and unbounded economic opportunity. Sad to say, it appears that what persecution and poverty could not achieve, liberty and prosperity did. The Mennonites became—in general, not wholesale—lukewarm. They could have thrown their efforts into evangelizing the Native Americans, like the Moravians did. They chose to build up their farms instead. They could have sent out evangelists into the frontier settlements, like the Methodists. They chose to stay home and build farms and businesses instead. They did hold to the basic teachings and traditions of their forefathers, but had lost their zeal. This is called lukewarmness. It is not total apostasy, but it neither is it the firebrand zeal that characterized early Anabaptism.

When the mid-1800s rolled around, English began to take over as the predominant language in North America. Public schools were required to teach English in many places. As the Mennonite children learned English in school, they began to lose their German. In some cases, the children found it hard to understand the German sermons and Bible. Naturally, they more easily lost interest in church, and church became something to endure, not a place to receive inspiration and instruction for life.

Here is where, in my opinion, the Mennonites of the mid-1800s dropped the ball. Remember: a language has never caused worldliness; apathy and lukewarmness do that! The fact is, the main body of the “Old” Mennonites had become lukewarm, and it became that way while it was still an all-German church.

The Transition Loss

So what happened? Concerned Mennonites generally took two approaches to the language transition. Some said, “The English ways of our neighbors are tempting and destroying our young people. Let’s knuckle down and tighten up the holes so that our young people don’t slip away from us into English society.” These became Old Orders.

Others said, “Our young people are losing interest in church because they don’t understand the German preaching and songs. Let’s switch to English so we can keep our youth.” They then switched to English and replaced their German hymnals with English ones. They began to have revival meetings (protracted meetings) with English preaching and Sunday Schools. These were the “progressives” … who later lost many or all of their Biblical ways. This gave all the more impetus to those who said that English = worldliness.

It was a tough situation for the Mennonites, with parents being primarily German-speaking and the children or grandchildren being primarily English-speaking. In the transition, both sides were guilty of dropping the ball, in my opinion. What the Old Orders lost was their ability to articulate the faith to their children. Instead of a living, vibrant, joyous expression of faith, they continued to worship in a language that some (most?) of them really didn’t have a full grasp of, and with traditions that had little meaning to the next generation (although they may have been good traditions in and of themselves).

On the other hand, the people that switched to English made a huge mistake as well: they often picked up the English materials (hymnals, Sunday School materials, devotionals, and theology) of the Protestants. Instead of translating their old Anabaptist materials (or better yet, writing fresh ones!), they were now feeding on Protestant theology.

If you don’t think there was a change in outlook, compare (for example) the theology and outlook of the Christian Hymnal (published by the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite) with the Ausbund (or the Hutterian Brethren Gesangbuch). The difference between the two, in my opinion, is the difference between a steak, salad, and potato meal vs. a bag of chips and a Popsicle.

Thus it is that I (and a good number of other people) feel that the Mennonites lost something when they switched from German to English, but it was not the English language that is to be blamed. It was that they dropped the ball and ended up replacing the old Anabaptist thinking with Protestant thinking, because they used Protestant English material instead of creating English Anabaptist material. Let me note here that a few of the Mennonites in the 1800s seemed aware of this and tried to avert it, but it seems that they were certainly not the majority.

Now that I have rambled away on this point, let me also say that the author of German Language: Cradle of Our Heritage would likely agree in general with what I have tried to explain. My critique is that he sometimes lets some of the English = worldliness idea slip through, and may even be guilty of subconsciously believing it to a degree. But this slippage is minor and the reader can make his own discernment. Amos has generously supplied the data for us to study and ponder the nuances of the whole situation.

My Takeaway

I said in the first sentence that writing this review would be hard. There is much more that could be said about the book and the subject matters that it covers. My mind was stimulated in various directions while reading it. I only covered about a fourth of the notes that I took for this review, and the review is still too long.

If you are a historian, you will love this book for its data. If you are not a historian, perhaps you should become one? This book is probably not going to be an easy read unless you enjoy history.

Perhaps the specific issues are different, but a Mennonite in 1897 faced the same pressures that we face, the same temptations: what will we do with the relentless pressure of the godless society all around us (no matter what language it speaks)? What will we do with the siren call within us to forget others and build our own little empires (that language is universal)? Will future generations have to write about us that we were lukewarm, even more lukewarm than the Mennonites of two centuries ago? Will God have to tell us that on the judgment day?

Good job, Amos! I appreciate your labors! And thanks for not stoning me if I take a slightly different interpretation of your well-compiled set of data! Again I say, well done and thank you!

~Mike Atnip

 

To buy a copy of this book, contact:

Muddy Creek Farm Library

296 Wheat Ridge Drive

Ephrata, PA 17522

 

717-354-7635

(No price is listed in the book.)

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We are children of God who live out our Christianity in the context of the conservative Anabaptist faith tradition. Sometimes we are referred to as "the Plain People."

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