Telling a story rooted in faith

June 29, 2003|by RICHARD F. BELISLE

Edsel Burdge Jr. holds to the theory in writing that you can't get the nuance unless you get the details, and it runs like a thread through his writing.

Burdge, 43, of Pinola, a Mennonite hamlet on Pinola Road off U.S. 11 north of Scotland, Pa., is in the fourth year of researching and writing the history of the Mennonite Church in Washington and Franklin counties.

There are about 5,000 Mennonites in the Cumberland Valley in 13 separate groups, Burdge said. About one-fourth are farmers.

His book, "Building on the Gospel Foundation," is subtitled "The Mennonite Church of Franklin County, Pa., and Washington County, Md., 1735 to 1970."


Slated for publication by Mennonite Publishing USA, the book is to come out next June and is expected to run at least 800 pages. So far, the manuscript is about 1,200 pages. It will be laced liberally with photos, old and modern, Burdge said.

The work was started by Samuel Horst, originally of Lancaster County, Pa., now professor emeritus of history at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., Burdge's alma mater.

Horst, 83, is getting on in years and felt he needed help with the book. Four years ago, he asked Burdge to help in the project.

"He's still involved. We're co-authors," Burdge said.

Burdge finds fodder for his book in old diaries; letters; public, church and military records; interviews with older members of the congregations; and other histories.

The Mennonite Church originated in Switzerland in the 16th century. The first members were called Anabaptists, or rebaptizers, by the Catholic and Lutheran churches of the time. Anabaptists believe a person can be baptized only upon their confession of faith. They find their beliefs in Matthew 28.

"It's necessary for a person to hear and respond to the Gospel of their own free will and accept Christ; then they will be baptized," Burdge said.

Mennonites wait to be baptized until they're between 12 and 20 years old, a time when they are old enough to decide to embrace the ideals of a religion that prefers to separate itself from the rest of the world.

Each congregation decides its own level of conservatism and manner of dress. Mennonites stand out in their plain clothes, suspenders, hats and beards for the men; bonnets and modest dresses for women. Many drive black cars. Some, like the Amish, drive horses and buggies.

More liberal Amish drive cars, Burdge said. Amish in cars and Mennonites in buggies are found in Franklin County. There are no Mennonites in buggies in Washington County.

"I have a neighbor who is an old order Mennonite who drives a buggy," he said.

There are about 1,500 baptized Mennonites in Washington County and they tend to be more conservative than those in Franklin County.

There are about 2,000 in Franklin County, Burdge said.

Early migration

The first Mennonites came to America in 1730. The migration continued into the early 19th century.

"They were pretty well established by 1825," Burdge said. "They were part of the Lancaster Conference.

"By the 1830s, the congregation was big enough to form a new Washington/Frank-lin Conference of old order German-speaking Mennonites. It remained as one group until the early 20th century when things began to change."

The country was changing, modernizing, and some Mennonites wanted to change with it, Burdge said.

"The question was how much should they accommodate those who wanted change. Dress was a big issue."

Sunday school and missionary work began to surface in the Mennonite church in early 1900s. Burdge makes reference to missionary work in the book's chapter on the history in the 1930s and '40s.

"In the summer of 1948 a local woman told worker Anna Grace Horst that they should visit the 'lawless people' in Mountain Green west of Willow Hill," Burdge wrote. "On July 11, 1948, Walter H. Lehman, Daniel Diller and two young boys of Henry Sollenberger - Harold and Menno - drove up the rutted road into Mountain Green. At the foot of the mountain the road forked. Uncertain as to which direction to take, they stopped at Frank Hockenberry's. He pointed them to the south fork with the words, 'They're heathen and need religion worse than we.' "

By 1949, according to the book, 37 adults were attending Bible classes.

"The response from the community was much better than any of us anticipated. Also much better than the folks in the community expected," Burdge wrote.

More changes come

The first of the 13 groups in the Washington/Franklin Conference broke off in 1930. As more changes came over time - in radio, television and dress - more groups formed until the 1960s when the community really began to fragment.

There was a major split in 1965 when more new Mennonite churches began to open in the two counties, some conservative, some less strict.

"The big issues were dress and the media," he said.

Burdge's church was founded in 1986. The men in the congregation decided they would wear beards, he said.

"The Mennonite Church as a whole could not decide what to do," he said. "Many people lament the divisions, but in my mind it creates more vibrancy in the church. It reflects the historic reality of people responding to society and what you can say yes to."

The arrival of the Internet brought even more change among some Mennonites. Most don't use it. Burdge has a computer for e-mail, but not the Internet.

Burdge has bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He taught in Mennonite schools for 12 years.

In addition to the Mennonite history, he is writing an eighth-grade American history textbook for Christian Light Education, a conservative Mennonite publishing company.

Burdge and his wife, Jennifer, have six children, ages 4 to 20.

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