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A Long Tradition of Simplicity and Nonresistance

April 13, 2012 - Jodi Burnsworth
Mennonites in West Virginia are among the state’s most conspicuous religious denominations. Like other similar groups, such as the Amish, Dunkards, and Quakers, they have historically been distinguished from the general population by their attire and their dedication to pacifism. While some Mennonites today in the Mountain State are more progressive, many still practice a tradition of plain dress and simple living. The majority of them continue to wear traditional clothes, but few shun cars or electricity.

The ethno-religious group has its foundations in the Protestant Reformation and Anabaptist movement of continental Europe. Anabaptists practiced and preached what were then considered revolutionary ideas. They only conducted baptisms of those deemed old enough to understand and chose to partake in the ritual, and promoted the separation of church and state. Anabaptists took many of Christ’s words in the Gospels literally, refusing to participate in civil and military affairs and abstaining from swearing oaths. After Catholic priest Menno Simons joined the church in 1536, his strong influence led his followers to be called Menists, Mennonists, and ultimately Mennonites.

The first Mennonites arrived in Pennsylvania in 1683. They and other heterodox churches came to the colony in search of economic opportunity and to escape persecution in Europe. Blocked to the west by long mountain ridges and American Indian tribes, settlers moved south from Pennsylvania along the Great Appalachian Valley, taking with them the culture of the old colony. The first informal Mennonite community in what is today West Virginia developed when preacher Isaac Kauffman settled near Lewisburg with his family in 1788. They most likely held service in their homes, as was the practice for Virginian Mennonites at that time. However, most remained east of the continental divide, concentrated around the Shenandoah Valley.

With the outbreak of the Civil War conscientious objectors went west to into the mountains to avoid being forced to fight. Among them was John Heatwole, a preeminent potter, who lived near Seneca Rocks. Following the war, circuit riders began traveling through Hardy, Pendleton, Randolph, and Tucker counties in greater numbers. Later around the turn of the century, Mennonite congregations would form in the areas covered by circuit riders; itinerant preachers were replaced by resident ministers.

The first Mennonite church in the new state was built around 1884 in the area of Seneca Rocks. It was later moved in 1913 to Onego, where today the meeting house is known as the Roaring Creek Mennonite Church. Around 1890 another early church was erected in Hardy County near Lost River. New congregations were formed throughout the 20th century, continuing to be concentrated in the eastern panhandle and along the Virginia border. However, the number of Mennonites in the state is still small, dwarfed by that of their Anabaptist kin, the Church of the Brethren. As of 2000, there were 13 Mennonite congregations and 568 adherents in the state. Denominational affiliation is highly divided within the group, with various congregations belonging to the Beachy Amish Mennonite Church, Mennonite Christian Fellowship, Mennonite Church USA, Mountain Valley Mennonite Churches, and the Southeastern Mennonite Conference.

Special Contribution by Zachary D. Swick, AFHA AmeriCorps


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