Into a promised land
Georgia’s Amish Mennonites keep the faith
BY JANE F. GARVEY * PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROBB HELFRICK
Lela Brenneman, a first-grade teacher for 27 years at the Montezuma Mennonite School, engages children in vigorous play, a vital element of Amish Mennonite family life.
When you turn west off Interstate 75 at exit 127, south of Perry, Georgia suddenly seems like another world, something far from Georgia. Silos and dairy farms have a certain look to them. The German influence on Pennsylvania farming perhaps has an echo in this part of the state.
One reason may be the presence of a strong Amish Mennonite community in Middle Georgia. Although the sect’s history here isn’t as old as it is in Pennsylvania, as they only arrived 50 years ago last year, they’re as much a fixture around Montezuma as they are around York, Penn. While no one calls Middle Georgia “Dutch” country, the Amish Mennonite community that lives and works along Highway 26 has staked a claim in Georgia that makes folks think of them as part of the social makeup of the region.
The use of the term “Dutch” to describe these folks in Pennsylvania is a misnomer. English speakers unaccustomed to German misinterpreted the German word “Deutsch,” meaning German. People calling themselves both Amish and Mennonite came to Pennsylvania because founder William Penn wanted his colony to be open to religious people of all faiths. “A holy experiment,” he called it. And he invited them to participate in it.
With missionary zeal as part of their way of life, the Amish and Mennonite religious immigrants who settled there in the 18th century began a community whose descendants have spread to 22 states, Canada and other countries. Just who are these people?
Both Amish and Mennonites represent a break from European Protestantism. Both arise from the Anabaptists, a very conservative and traditional Reformation-era sect that espoused adult baptism and separation from the larger society. Persecuted as heretics by Catholics and Protestants, they fled to mountainous areas, took up farming, withdrew from contemporary society and held services in homes rather than churches.
Farmer Lloyd Swartzentruber uses modern technology to work his crops.
In the early 16th century, a young Dutch priest named Menno Simons joined the Anabaptist movement, and from his teaching and preaching descended Mennonites. The term was originally derogatory, according to Bishop Donnie Swartzentruber of the Montezuma community, because it derived from the word “Menists” coined by Simons’ critics. “But we’re followers of Christ,” says Bishop Swartzentruber, “not followers of one man.”
More than a century and a half later, Swiss Bishop Jacob Amman broke from the Mennonites and his followers were dubbed “Amish.” Flash forward to the 18th century, when members of both groups arrived in Pennsylvania to participate in Penn’s “holy experiment.” The two groups agree as to basic ideas regarding adult and believers’ baptism, nonresistance (taken from the Sermon on the Mount) and fundamental Biblical doctrine. But they differ in dress, approach to technology, form of worship service and some interpretations of the Bible.
What motivated these 10 to 15 families to come from Virginia to Georgia in 1953? “The arrival of the Navy in Virginia Beach kind of crowded us out,” says Bishop Swartzentruber, who points out that more than 100 families now sustain three churches in the Montezuma area—a phenomenal growth rate.
Deborah Yoder (left) and Eunice Overholt, two barefoot Mennonite girls in their simple dress and gauzy caps, survey a summer's day on Elmer Hershberger's farm.
Visitors quickly recognize their attire: The women wear plain, usually solid-colored dresses with hems at mid-calf, and white caps on the bunned and never-cut hair. They wear no make-up. The men wear plain clothing, beards and, sometimes, suspenders and brimmed hats.
But while Old Order Amish drive horse-and-buggy rigs, plow with animal power, and eschew electricity and modern conveniences, Georgia’s Amish Mennonites deftly wheel automobiles around their farm-centered environs and eagerly embrace the aspects of modern life that foster their vision of God, community and family.
“Have you seen our Web site?” asks Edna Yoder who, with her husband, Crist, owns the White House Farm Bed and Breakfast near Montezuma, where guests can experience their farm lifestyle (see “Getaway,” page 31). “It loads a little slowly sometimes,” she continues, bouncing her grandson on her knee. This community has warmly embraced selected features of modern life beyond tractors and electric ovens. But don’t look for them at the movies. Or watching television and listening to radios. Or attending fairs and carnivals.
At the other end of Mennonite Church Road, where it intersects Georgia Highway 26, Yoder’s Deitsch Haus restaurant and the nearby gift shop function as beacons for the community, showcasing its members and their considerable business acumen. Brothers Michael and Benjamin Yoder manage the restaurant and bakery. The boys are among the nine children of Alva and Sarah Yoder, one of the pioneering families. Since its founding in 1984, the restaurant has drawn hungry customers from far and near.
Across the parking lot from the restaurant is a gift shop, managed by John and Linda Yoder. While some items are made in the Montezuma community, the quilts typically come from outside the area. There are dolls, books about Mennonite life and history and intriguing, country-style gifts. Jellies, jams and preserves come from communities in the Midwest.
“Our lifestyle and our way of doing things get to be a focus of people’s attention,” says Michael, 37, who sports a neat short beard, blue shirt and dark pants.
He says the seeming melding of tradition and modernity in this group is an evolution. For the first years the community was here, it reflected mostly an Amish lifestyle. “The basic principles haven’t changed, but our appearance may be a bit different from what it was then. Our goal is to live a godly life and to be a witness to the people in the community who we associate with,” he continues. “We’re just living as close to Bible principles as we can and, therefore, we look different. Our aim would be for people to see Jesus in our lives and not just our lifestyle.”
Diana Yoder displays a handmade quilt available for sale at Yoder's Gift Shop, near the Yoder's Deitsch Haus restaurant.
Their school system is integral to that lifestyle. Pete Whitt, principal, explains how it guides youngsters to the eighth grade in a Bible-based curriculum. “But it’s a complete curriculum,” he says of the Christian Light Education program, based in Harrisonburg, Va. Content includes math, history and geography.
Four teachers and an assistant instruct the school’s 58 or so youngsters. Whitt says teachers can be trained at institutes in Virginia and Pennsylvania. After completing eighth grade, children continue their studies at home. The boys study trades, according to whatever business their fathers operate, and the girls learn homemaking, gardening and sewing. Girls who don’t marry may become nurses or teachers, Pete says. In any case, at about age 16 or 18, they take the GED—and tend to score very well. “We’re not bragging about that,” demurs Bishop Swartzentruber. “But passing the GED has been no problem.” Swartzentruber, who farms and raises chickens, has established a welding shop for his son, Wendell, 22.
Family is central to this system of values, Bishop Swartzentruber points out. “We encourage group games and plenty of playing together,” he says. Despite the rigorous emphasis on duty, God and family, there are no glum spirits in this community.
The influence of Georgia’s Amish Mennonites extends beyond its members to the larger society, according to local leaders. Longtime Macon County resident Bill Sawyer, president of the county chamber of commerce and CEO of the countywide development authorty, lauds their contributions.
“They’re some of the most benevolent individuals I’ve ever met in my life,” he says, warming to the subject. “To a man, woman and child, they are a group that exemplifies Christianity. If there’s a disaster, they’re the first or second group on the scene.”
Last year’s 50th anniversary year seemed like a big deal to people who aren’t members of the community, but not for community members themselves. Life goes on among this seemingly never-changing band of families. The next half-century promises to be pretty much just like the last one, with community members keeping neat farms, doing their chores, cooking at the restaurant, raising their kids and praising God in the manner they have choosen for their people.
Decatur-based freelance writer Jane Garvey grew up in Middle Georgia, not far from the Mennonite community, and has fond memories of many family meals at the restaurant.