Literature, Mennonites in -- United States and Canada (English, 1895-1980s)

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The earliest fiction written in North America on Anabaptists/Mennonites concerns the Swiss Brethren of the Reformation period. True to the End (Philadelphia, ca. 1895), written by Henry S. Burrage, a Baptist church historian, follows history closely--perhaps too closely to result in good fiction. It is, however, a sympathetic treatment. The only liberty the author took with the facts of history was to have the first Swiss Brethren have themselves rebaptized by immersion upon discovering from further study of the Bible that their first baptism as adults, namely by pouring, was invalid. It was published in a German translation as Getreu bis ans Ende (Cassel, Germany, 1905 and 1920; 5th ed. 1922).

A less sympathetic, but prolific writer was Helen R. Martin, whose favorite subject was ridicule of the Pennsylvania Dutch. Among her novels are several dealing with the Mennonites and Amish of Pennsylvania. Tillie, a Mennonite Maid (N.Y., 1904), Sabina, a Story of the Amish (N.Y., 1905), and The Betrothal of Elypholate (N.Y., 1907; a collection of short stories) have Mennonites or Amish as their principal characters; in The Schoolmaster of Hessville (N.Y., 1920) the Mennonites play a minor role. In all of these works Martin treats the stricter branches of the Mennonite family, viz., the Amish and the "New" Mennonites (Herrites). In Martin's writings the Mennonite faith, indeed whatever savors of Pennsylvania Dutch, is something to be sloughed off in the process of personal growth and development.

Two early serialized attempts at fiction appeared in Mennonite periodicals. Jake, a Story of Plain People, by S. M. Grubb, was published in The Mennonite in 1911 and deals with the Mennonites of Eastern Pennsylvania, though not very happily. In 1922-24 the Christian Monitor published The Clemen Family by John Horsch which is a fictional narrative of events among the early Swiss Brethren. It was, however, not a literary success, since the characters are lost in the mass of historical facts.

The novels by B. Mabel Dunham of Kitchener, ON, who was herself a descendant of Mennonites, are highly sympathetic and effective treatments of the early Mennonite settlers of that area. The Trail of the Conestoga (Toronto, 1924) deals with the immigrants to Waterloo County, Ontario from Pennsylvania, and their early settlement in Canada. Toward Sodom (Toronto, 1927) gives a picture of the religious problems created later in the same settlement by isolation from and nonconformity to the "world" and the consequent loss of many young people to other creeds and faiths. Her point that the trend toward the city ("Sodom") is fatal to Mennonitism is debatable. Kristli's Trees (Toronto, 1948) is a charming novel for adolescents, also dealing with the Mennonites of Ontario. Dunham's Grand River (Toronto, 1945) is a wider descriptive and historical account of the settlement of this section of Ontario, and includes the Mennonite contribution to the total development of the province.

In 1925 Elsie Singmaster's volume of short stories Bred in the Bone (N.Y.) appeared, with an Eastern Pennsylvania locale. Many of these stories deal with the stricter branches of the Mennonites and Amish, but in a very different way from the writings of Helen K. Martin. Singmaster, one of America's great short story writers, wrote stories with an artistic finish. Furthermore her interpretation, though often amused, is never derisive, and always gentle. Her "juvenile" novel, I Heard of a River (Philadelphia, 1948), which deals with the Palatine German immigrants to Pennsylvania, including the Mennonites, touches on Mennonite nonresistance.

A most unfriendly interpretation of the Amish of Northern Indiana is given by Ruth Lininger Dobson in her novel Straw in the Wind (N.Y., 1937). Even from a stylistic point of view this novel is far inferior to Dunham's works. J.W. Yoder, himself a Mennonite of Amish descent, has presented an idyllic account of the Amish in Pennsylvania in his two semi-fictional books, Rosanna of the Amish (Huntingdon, 1940) and Rosanna's Boys (Huntingdon, 1948).

The Mennonite immigrants from Russia, specifically the Gnadenau (KMB) Mennonite settlement in Kansas, are the subject of two novels written in the second quarter of the 20th century. The Flamethrowers (Caldwell, 1936) by Gordon Friesen, a son of the settlement, is highly inimical, and written from a "leftist" point of view; its characters are not typical. On the other hand, The Locusts (N.Y. and London, 1943), by Otto Schrag, is sympathetic to Mennonites, although some of the author's interpretations of their way of life may be questioned. The Locusts was also published later in German as Die Heuschrecken (Munich, 1948). Helen Clark Fernald's treatment of the same community in Plow the Dew Under (N.Y., 1952), and Catherine Nickel's Seed from the Ukraine (N.Y., 1952) are not on an adult plane as literature.

Elizabeth A. Schroeter's slightly fictionalized autobiography, From Here to the Pinnacles, Memories of Mennonite Life in the Ukraine and America (N.Y., 1956), is an interesting account of the experiences and problems of a Mennonite Brethren immigrant of 1913 from the Ukraine to California. It includes not only episodes "as nearly as possible as they took place," but also "the ceremonies exactly as they were practiced." It is based upon a diary begun at the age of seven. All but the last 60 pages deal with Russia.

Travelogues and semi-autobiographical writings have been produced by a considerable number of North American Mennonites. H. J. Krehbiel's A Trip Through Europe (Newton, 1926), Frieda Kauffman's Auf Wanderwegen, Plaudereien uber eine Europareise (Newton, 1935), and Arnold Dyck's Meine Deutschlandfahrt, Eine Reiseplauderei (North Kildonan, 1950) tell about trips to Europe. S. C. Yoder's Down South America Way (Scottdale, 1943) and Eastward to the Sun (Scottdale, 1953) tell of a journey to Europe and India to visit Mennonites and their missions, and of a trip to the Mennonite missions and colonies in lower South America. Three MCC relief workers, Verna and Willard Smith in Paraguayan Interlude, Observations and Impressions (Scottdale, 1950) and Samuel A. Yoder in Middle-East Sojourn (Scottdale, 1951), relate experiences and observations, the former in Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil, and the latter in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Palestine. Autobiographical reminiscences are related by Hillegonda van der Smissen in Bilder aus meinem Leben (Newton, ca. 1935; in English, Sketches from My Life, Newton, ca. 1935), S.C. Yoder in Horse Trails Along the Desert (Scottdale, 1954), and Dorothy McCammon, We Tried to Stay (Scottdale, 1953). The last of these, a moving account of the experiences of a missionary couple in Communist China, was rated as one of the ten best religious books of the year by the Saturday Review.

In Canada Frederick Philip Grove, who was a teacher in Winkler, Man. and married Katherine Wiens, a Mennonite, touches on Manitoba Mennonite life in his novels Our Daily Bread (Toronto 1929) and In Search of Myself (Toronto, 1946). Paul Hiebert's novel Sarah Binks (Toronto, 1947) deals with pioneer conditions in Western Canada and is a satire on self-important literary criticism.

High Bright Buggy Wheels (N.Y., 1951) by Luella Creighton is set in Ontario among some of the stricter Mennonites, possibly Brethren in Christ. Creighton shows an appreciation of the idyllic aspects of their rural religious life, but little understanding for their faith.

A number of young Mennonite (MC) women wrote Christian fiction for young people, several of their works dealing with Mennonite life or doctrine. Not Regina (Scottdale, 1954) by Christmas Carol Kauffman, is a novel on Swiss Anabaptist beginnings and persecutions. Eunice Shellenberger's Wings of Decision (Scottdale, 1951) has nonresistance as its theme. Helen Brenneman's But Not Forsaken (Scottdale, 1955) is an interpretation of refugee experiences based on the author's experiences as an MCC relief worker in the refugee camp at Gronau, Germany after World War II. It is of superior quality, probably the best fiction produced by an American Mennonite writer up until that point in time. In addition to her historical novel, Kauffman wrote a number of religious novels for adolescents, not specifically on Mennonite themes. They include Lucy Winchester (Scottdale, 1945), Light from Heaven (Scottdale, 1948), Dannie of Cedar Cliffs (Scottdale, 1950), and Life with Life (Scottdale, 1952). Edna Beiler has written many good juvenile stories which have been published in the Youth's Christian Companion and Words of Cheer. Ten of the Words of Cheer stories were reprinted as Ten of a Kind (Scottdale, 1953). She also writes stories in Christian Living. Esther Eby Glass has many good stories for adolescents to her credit appearing in the Youth's Christian Companion since about 1947.

Other books on a late adolescent level include Marcus Bach's Dream Gate (Indianapolis, 1949), which gives insight into the life of a boy in a Hutterite settlement in North Dakota. Blue Hills and Shoofly Pie (Philadelphia, 1952) by Ann Hark contains some valuable descriptions of Amish life.

Some of the most delightful books on the Amish are those which were written for children. Among these are Henner's Lydia (N.Y., 1937), Skippack School (N.Y., 1939) and Yoni Wondernose (N.Y., 1942) by Marguerite de Angeli; Little Amish Schoolhouse (N.Y., 1939) and Amish Moving Day (N.Y., 1942) by Ella Maie Seyfert; Lovina, A Story of the Amish (N.Y., 1940) and Appolonia's Valentine (N.Y., 1954) by Katherine Milhous. Plain Girl (N.Y., 1955) by Virginia Sorensen is the pleasant story of an Amish girl in a public school, intended for older children.

Barbara Smucker, a Mennonite author, wrote the thoughtful and impressive Henry's Red Sea (Scottdale, 1955), relating the escape of a group of Russian Mennonite refugees from Berlin in 1948 on their way to final settlement in Paraguay. It is meant for children. Elizabeth Bauman's Coals of Fire (Scottdale, 1954) contains eighteen fictionalized true stories for youth which illustrate nonresistance; six of the stories are Mennonite.

The North American stage has featured plays and musical comedies based on Amish life and customs and other Mennonite themes. Papa Is All (N.Y., 1942) by Patterson Greene makes an average comedy of the universal theme of the overly strict father; it focuses on a conservative Mennonite group. Plain and Fancy (N.Y., 1955), by Joseph Stein and Will Glickman, was a very successful musical comedy on the stage, and gives a sympathetic interpretation of the Amish. John Rengier's By Hex (1956), which reworked some of the ideas in Plain and Fancy, was less successful.

A number of North American Mennonites have written high quality religious lyric poetry. Jacob Sudermann, Joanna Andres, and Miriam Lind have published poetry in various Mennonite periodicals. Lind has to her credit a volume, Such Thoughts of Thee (Scottdale, 1952), containing excellent poems, most of which are on religious subjects.

Leo Beachy (1874-1927) of Grantsville, Md. wrote familiar essays on nature and people from his vantage point on Mount Nebo in the Allegheny Mountains. These essays were published as a series in the Christian Monitor and then in booklet form as Letters and Pictures for Isabelle (Scottdale, 1915).

In the United States, Leigh Brackett wrote a science fiction novel about the aftermath of an atomic holocaust, The Long Tomorrow (1955). The conservative and skillful Mennonite farmers are among the survivors of the Great Destruction, virtually controlling the government. They seek to maintain a simple agrarian civilization, resisting any return to a technological and urban society. But human nature has not changed. Two young Mennonites, Len and Esau Coulter, are not satisfied with the drab and anti-intellectual life of their community. They discover the secret place where a large computer is hidden with the information necessary to rebuild the old technological world. Having developed a sense of curiosity, Len repeats the fall into sin, as it were, and is unable to return to the simple community from which he came. The novel ends with the suggestion that technology will again lead to disaster.

In James Michener's novel Centennial (1974) Mennonites play a major role. One wonders what sources the author used for his Mennonites. While they are good farmers and generally thrifty, honest, and good people, the Mennonites in this novel seem to be preoccupied with their sexual and marital norms. Moreover, there is no suggestion that Mennonites are peace-loving, non-violent people. As in earlier novels about Mennonites (e.g., H. Martin, Tilly: A Mennonite Maid, 1904), there is in this novel the suggestion that in order to become free and self-fulfilled, Mennonites have to shed their past and leave their backward community.

In Canada, Anne Chislett has written a successful drama about a rural Ontario Amish community during World War I. Quiet in the Land (1983) recreates accurately the denominational distinctives of the Amish, portraying the diversity of human conflict within a particular milieu. Like Rudy Wiebe's Peace Shall Destroy Many (1962), Chislett shows that, while it is possible to hold on outwardly to traditional regulations with regard to peace and nonviolence, it is more difficult to love real persons, including members of one's family and church. The play has been staged successfully before appreciative audiences.

See also Literature, North American Mennonite (1950-85); Literature, Russo-German MennoniteLiterature, North American Mennonite (1960s-2010s)


Robacker, Earl F. Pennsylvania German Literature. Philadelphia, 1943.

Bender, Elizabeth Horsch. "The Mennonite Theme in Contemporary American Fiction." Proceedings of the Fourth Conference on Mennonite Cultural Problems. Newton, KS 1945: 107-34.

Bender, Elizabeth Horsch. "Three Amish Novels." Mennonite Quarterly Review 19 (1945): 273-84.

Bender, Elizabeth Horsch. "The Dream Gate." Mennonite Quarterly Review 24 (1950): 289 f.

Royer, Mary. "The Amish and Mennonite Theme in American Literature for Children." Mennonite Quarterly Review 15 (1941): 147-49.

Cressman, J. B., review of The Trail of the Conestoga and Toward Sodom. Mennonite Quarterly Review 5 (1930): 68-72.

Umble, John, review of Rosanna of the Amish. Mennonite Quarterly Review 15 (1941): 143-47 and of Rosanna's Boys. Mennonite Quarterly Review 23 (1949): 115-17.

Suderman, Elmer. "The Russo-German Mennonite Theme in the American Novel." Master's thesis, University of Kansas, 1948.

Berg, G. "Mennonites in Fiction--Gnadenau." Mennonite Life 2 (October 1947): 23 f., a review of Flamethrowers.

Peters, Victor. "Frederick Philip Grove." Manitoba School Journal 9 (October 1948).

Clemens, J. R. "Pennsylvania Mennonites in Print 1940-1950." Mennonite Life 7 (1952): 83-85.

Burkhart, Charles. "The Amish Theme in Recent American Theatricals." Mennonite Quarterly Review 31 (1957): 60-62.

Chislett, Anne. Quiet in the Land. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1983.

Michener, James. Centennial. New York: Random House, 1974.

Brackett, Leigh. The Long Tomorrow. New York: Ballantine Books, 1974.

Wiebe, Rudy. Peace Shall Destroy Many. 1962.

Letkemann, Susan Rempel, review of Anne Chislett's Quiet in the Land, in Mennonite Historian (Winnipeg) 11, no. 4 (December1985).

Miller, Levi, review of James Michener's Centennial in Gospel Herald (22 September 1981): 717-19.

Sudermann, Elmer F. "Mennonite Culture in a Science Fiction Novel [Brackett, Long Tomorrow]." Mennonite Quarterly Review 49 (1975): 53-56.

Reviews of the many of the other titles listed above can be found in either Mennonite Quarterly Review or Mennonite Life.

The complete text of Plain and Fancy was printed in Theatre Arts for July 1956: 33-63. Recordings of the complete performance are also available on disks. The text was also published as a libretto in French's Musical Library as Plain and Fancy. A Musical Comedy. Book by Joseph Stein and Will Glickman, Music by Albert Hague, Lyrics by Arnold B. Horwitt. New York: Samuel French, Inc., 1956.

Author(s) Elizabeth Horsch Bender
Harry Loewen
Date Published 1990

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Bender, Elizabeth Horsch and Harry Loewen. "Literature, Mennonites in -- United States and Canada (English, 1895-1980s)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 29 Sep 2023.,_Mennonites_in_--_United_States_and_Canada_(English,_1895-1980s)&oldid=143639.

APA style

Bender, Elizabeth Horsch and Harry Loewen. (1990). Literature, Mennonites in -- United States and Canada (English, 1895-1980s). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 29 September 2023, from,_Mennonites_in_--_United_States_and_Canada_(English,_1895-1980s)&oldid=143639.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 372-374; vol. 5, pp. 252-257. All rights reserved.

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