Our Sunday school lessons this month are from the book of Exodus. The life of Moses and the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt is a fascinating period of history. The Hand of God is clearly seen as events unfolded.
As I studied to teach yesterday's lesson, I thought about the fact that the Hebrew people lived in Egypt for 430 years. That's a long time! How did they manage to maintain their identity and not become mixed with the Egyptians or assimilated to their culture? They were separated from the Egyptians by their occupation (slavery), language (Hebrew), and faith in God. These three things made it possible for them to remain a separate people while living in Egypt for more than 400 years.
How long is 400 years? The first permanent English settlement in America was made at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1616. Jamestown celebrated its 400th anniversary in May 2016. We have another 30 years to go until Europeans have been in America as long as the Israelites were in Egypt. How has America changed since 1616? How has life changed?
After the founding of Jamestown, nearly another 100 years passed before the first European settlement was made in Lancaster County in 1710. These first settlers were Mennonites who bought land in the Pequea area. For the next 200 years, Mennonites (in general) maintained their identify as a separated people by their occupation (farming), language (German), and Anabaptist faith. They stuck to the twin doctrines of nonresistance and noncomformity through times of peace and war alike.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, things began to change. Mennonites began establishing colleges and adapting practices of Protestant groups such as Sunday school, revival meetings, etc. As the Mennonite population increased, farm land became scarce. Families began to leave the farms and become involved in business which required the use of the English language. The switch to the English language was boosted by the hatred of the public for Germany during two World Wars.
When no longer separated from the world by occupation and language, only their Anabaptist faith was left as a mark of separation. As Mennonites (in general) became more and more assimilated to the culture, the first of the twin doctrines to fall was noncomformity. Mennonites could no longer be identified by their simple dress, homes, and churches. Sadly, today Mennonites are fast losing the doctrine of nonresistance which is the one remaining difference between Anabaptists and Protestants.
But all is not lost. There is a large number of conservative Mennonites who are maintaining the historic Anabaptist doctrines of nonresistance and nonconformity. There is also a large number of Old Order Mennonites and Amish who are maintaining the German language. Many have moved to other areas where they established new settlements in order to maintain their occupation of farming. The conservative and Old Order groups which are maintaining their identity are growing more rapidly than those who have become assimilated to the culture.
On April 5, 2014, Ervin Stutzman, executive director of the Mennonite Church USA, gave an address titled "Can the Quiet in the Land Keep Their Peace" at the Annual Banquet of the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society. He said:
"Until a century ago, the two words "nonconformity" and "nonresistance" expressed the Amish and Mennonite church’s stance vis-à-vis the outside world and its approach to war. These two concepts were so closely joined that some referred to them as Siamese twins. Conservatives warned that if the church lost its nonconformity in matters such as the practice of distinctive dress, they would also eventually lose nonresistance in both principle and practice. This may well be true since willingness to dress distinctively is a strong indication of group conformity as a sect and unwillingness to assimilate into a culture. The more that a church group assimilates into the surrounding culture, the more difficult it will be to maintain a stance of nonparticipation in the nation’s wars.
In light of the changes that have taken place over the past several generations, can the quiet in the land keep their peace?
Yes, I believe the Amish and the other Anabaptist groups who insist on visible practices of nonconformity can likely keep a focus on nonresistance, at least on not going to war. For them, nonresistance and nonconformity can remain as "Siamese twins." To the extent that they remain as sects apart from society, they’ll at least have a reason for not participating in the nation’s wars."
(Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage, July 2014)
I'm not saying we all need to be German-speaking farmers or that Sunday school and revival meetings are not good. But we do well to examine our lives and evaluate the direction we are moving. Have I relaxed my standards and begun allowing things in my life that I would not have done ten years ago? Am I moving closer to the Lord or the world? If we become assimilated to the culture and accept the world's practices and values, we will get the world's problems. The only way to maintain separation from the world is to be separated unto God.