MARTHA RAFFAELE, Associated Press Writer Sat Aug 26,
2:47 PM ET
MARTINDALE, Pa. – In this bucolic corner of Lancaster County, Allen
Hoover can use some modern conveniences approved by his church to
help make his machine shop run smoothly: a telephone, a word processor
and even a fax machine. But if Hoover needs to travel, driving a car is out
of the question. His only options are hopping on a bicycle or hitching a
horse to a black buggy.
Hoover, 45, belongs to the Wenger Mennonites, formed nearly 70 years
ago by a schism among the county’s Old Order Mennonites — whose
simple, agrarian lifestyle is similar to the Amish in several ways — over
whether to embrace automobiles. As “horse-and-buggy” Mennonites, the
Wengers consider limited mobility essential to preserving a community in
which church and family life are tightly interwoven.
“It’s a culture of the old way of doing things,” Hoover said. “This whole
culture of families working together, communities working together as a
unit, would be in danger of disappearing if we would have the means of
Bolstered by a steadfast resistance to assimilation with the outside world,
the Wengers have experienced remarkable growth since their formation
in 1927, according to “Horse-and-Buggy Mennonites: Hoofbeats of
Humility in a Postmodern World,” the first scholarly study of the community.
The original community of 1,000 adults and children has grown to nearly
18,000 people living in nine states, including New York. Although they are
vastly outnumbered by the nation’s Amish population of around 200,000,
the Wengers are growing at a faster rate, with their numbers doubling
every 19 years, said Donald B. Kraybill, a sociologist of Anabaptist studies
at Elizabethtown College and a co-author of the Pennsylvania State
University Press book.
“There are dozens and dozens of books on the Old Order Amish,” Kraybill
said. “What to me was curious is that this is a very significant Old Older
group that’s growing and is growing more rapidly than the Amish … but
has never been studied.”
Both the Amish and Mennonite religions are rooted in a 16th century
movement known as Anabaptism, which called for adults to be baptized
before joining the church. The Mennonites took their name from Menno
Simons, a Dutch Catholic priest who broke away from his church in 1536.
Kraybill and James P. Hurd, an anthropologist at Bethel University in St.
Paul, Minn., spent more than a decade interviewing Wenger Mennonites,
poring through source documents detailing church customs, and
gathering population statistics.
A key finding was that the Wengers have high birth rates, about eight
children per family, and 90 percent of the community’s children become
full church members through adult baptism at around 18 years old.
“My assumption was … that it’s a small group that’s going to die out pretty
fast,” Hurd said. “I found quite the opposite.”
Wenger Mennonites were originally part of an Old Order branch that split
from the more progressive Lancaster Conference in 1893 over issues
such as the introduction of Sunday school and the use of English during
church services, instead of the German dialect known as Pennsylvania
In 1927, the Old Order would split almost exactly in half over the
automobile. The opponents, who argued that accepting cars would
fragment the community, became Wengers, led by bishop Joseph Wenger.
The core population of Wengers in Pennsylvania is concentrated around
Martindale, an unincorporated village about 10 miles northeast of
Lancaster. But over time, the population spread to other states as
Lancaster County’s farmland became more scarce and more expensive for
young married couples starting families.
By comparison, the Amish have adapted by staying in the county, but
shifting their focus from farming to small business, said Ben Martin, a
bishop who oversees five of the county’s 10 Wenger churches.
Martin suspects this is because the Wenger Mennonites are permitted to
use tractors with steel wheels for farming, while the Amish are limited to
using equipment driven by horses or mules.
“There’s a higher percentage of farming in our group than the Old Older
Amish,” Martin said. “Usually the acreage is bigger on a farm in another
state … and since (the Amish) have to plow everything with mules or
horses it handicaps them a little more.”
Ivan Martin, who is not related to the bishop, is among the Wengers who
have found homes in out-of-state settlements. Martin, 52, moved with his
wife to Penn Yan in New York’s Finger Lakes region in 1977; they were the
25th family to arrive.
“Being young, it merely looked like an adventure to me,” said Martin, who
owns a wood shop. “It seemed as through the land was more affordable
and available up here.”
The influx of Wengers and other Mennonites has helped rejuvenate the
area’s farming economy, said Judson Reid of the Cornell Cooperative
Extension in Yates County. For example, the number of dairy farms has
more than doubled in the county over the past 20 years, bucking a
declining statewide trend, he said.
“It used to be that you would see a lot of sagging barns, weeded lots,
weeds overtaking buildings,” Reid said. “Today, you have a bucolic,
manicured bread basket.”
Though Martin is far from where he grew up, he credits the Wenger
church’s centralized structure with keeping the larger community together
and enabling it to thrive across state lines. All congregations must follow
the same rules, no matter where they are based.
“Having a culture such as ours is conducive to family and community,” he
said. “Cars seem to, I think, spread families around. That means you end
up in different communities with difference church choices, and less of
the guiding principles of home.”