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Folklife in technologically-advanced societies is one of three constantly interacting spheres of culture -- elite, popular, and folk -- each of which is transmitted through a different medium.

Elite culture, for instance, is academic culture, transmitted through formal learning situations such as lecture halls, textbooks, and laboratories. Popular culture is mass culture, transmitted through mass media such as newspapers, television, radio, and films. Both are consciously sponsored by "official" agencies -- elite culture by the academy, popular culture by commercial interests. Folk culture, on the other hand, is transmitted by oral tradition (word of mouth) or customary imitation in face-to-face encounters. it is less official and less innovative than the other two spheres. Thus understood, folklore is not the quaint and curious ways of isolated, backward people. Everyone has folklore. In fact, it is made up of the most essential -- because everyday and unselfconscious -- elements of everyone's life.

Since folklore abounds especially in close-knit groups, particularly those separated somewhat from mainstream culture, the folklife of Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites should be fuller, richer, more revealing than that of less culturally distinct groups. However, since the study of these groups' folklife has lagged behind the study of their history, sociology, and religion, this remains an attractive assumption that still needs to be proven. For instance, only one comprehensive survey of the folklore of a Mennonite community has been carried out by a professional folklorist -- namely, Rolf Brednich among the Russian Mennonites of Saskatchewan (1977).

The various aspects of folklore and folklife mentioned in this article are dealt with briefly in related articles. These brief articles survey the results of some completed studies, supply a modest amount of new information, and, perhaps most important, suggest areas for further research. in most areas of folklife, initial surveys of genres, items, and practitioners -- both current and historical -- still need to be done. Beyond that, many detailed case studies need to be carried out so that Mennonite folklife may be scrutinized in the same disciplined way that the traditions of other ethno-religious groups -- such as the Jews, Mormons, and (Russian Orthodox) Old Believers -- have been studied.

In considering Mennonite lore, it soon becomes clear that most of the items and genres are probably not unique to these people, but, instead, are borrowed from surrounding culture. For instance, Melvin Gingerich has shown that elements of presumably "distinctive" Mennonite folk costume (dress) early in the 20th century were borrowed from dominant culture and then used by Mennonites for a longer time than their neighbors and, most important, for special purposes.

Many other such instances can be cited. Scott T. Swank has demonstrated that all German settlers -- rich and poor, plain and fancy -- in early Pennsylvania lived in sparsely furnished houses. In the late 20th century the Amish are the Pennsylvania-German people who maintain that tradition most strictly, although for them it has assumed morally symbolic meanings.

Likewise, the typical church building for German Protestants in the rural American Midwest was the simple-gabled, clapboard-sided building, usually with multi-paned, clear glass windows. The Old Order Mennonites are the group that has maintained that folk building design most rigorously, with the result that their meetinghouses -- refined through the years into a finely proportioned design -- now seem unique in the rural landscape.

In more recent folklore, (Old) Mennonites (Mennonite Church) in the early 1980s enthusiastically told the story of three Mennonite women on an elevator in New York City with baseball star Reggie Jackson. Although the story seemed to Mennonite tellers to be uniquely "Mennonite," it was actually an urban legend borrowed from mainstream American culture and adapted to the Mennonite experience, with special implications for the understanding of current Mennonite attitudes regarding nonconformity, urban life, race relations and gender roles.

Hence, the collection, description, and classification of Mennonite folklore is not enough, although it is a necessary first step in approaching the field. What is also needed are contextual studies that analyze the special meanings that the various folk traditions bear within these groups. Especially for current verbal folklore, analyses of performance situations that follow the "ethnography of speaking" approach are crucial in order to discover things about Mennonite authority, community, and personal interaction that are unavailable from other sources.

The Mennonite Encyclopedia's coverage of folklife (partially replicated in the Canadian Mennonite Encyclopedia Online) is by genres, derived from the typical threefold analysis of the field-oral, customary, and material traditions: (1) Oral Folklore: ballads, folk music, humor, nicknames, rhymes, stories; (2) Customary Folklore: brauche, burial customs, dance, ethnicity, festivals, folk medicine, relief sales, weddings; (3) Material Folk Traditions: ceramics, clocks, folk arts, Fraktur, furniture and woodworking, museums, quilts.

Discussions of folklife topics here exclusively with Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites in North America; little is said about Mennonite groups in Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa. This is because of the scarcity of information regarding those folk cultures, as well as the sheer impossibility of accounting for the many varied folk traditions present in worldwide Mennonitism.

The area of customary lore is particularly neglected in encyclopedia entries, because of the immense number of traditional practices that create denominational and community identity throughout the Mennonite world. In addition to the customary entries listed above, books below that survey Mennonite customs include the sociological studies by Hostetler (Amish, Hutterites) and the novels by Reimer (Russian Mennonites), Stambaugh (early 20th-century Lancaster County Mennonites), and Yoder (Amish).


Beck, Ervin. "Reggie Jackson Among the Mennonites." Mennonite Quarterly Review 58 (1984): 147-67.

Brednich, Rolf. Mennonite Folklife and Folklore: a Preliminary Report. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada, 1977.

Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Study of American Folklore. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 1986.

Dorson, Richard M. Folklore and Folklife: an Introduction. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1972.

Gingerich, Melvin. Mennonite Attire Through Four Centuries. Breinigsville, Pa.: Pennsylvania German Society, 1970.

Hostetler, John A. Amish Society. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Hostetler, John A. Hutterite Society. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

Reimer,  Al. My Harp is Turned to Mourning. Winnipeg: Hyperion Press, 1986.

Stambaugh, Sara. I Hear the Reaper's Song. Intercourse, Pa.: Good Books, 1985.

Swank, Scott T. "Proxemic Patterns" in Arts of the Pennsylvania Germans, ed. Swank and others. New York: Norton , 1983: 35-60.

Toelken, Barre. The Dynamics of Folklore. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.

Yoder, Joseph W. Rosanna of the Amish. Huntington, Pa.: Yoder Publishing Co., 1940.

Author(s) Ervin Beck
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Beck, Ervin. "Folklore." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 5 Jul 2022.

APA style

Beck, Ervin. (1989). Folklore. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 5 July 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 306-307. All rights reserved.

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