Four Mennonite Sons

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There was, one hundred years ago, a Mennonite family with four sons. They lived near a small rural village on the outskirts of a bustling city, with their three sisters, and two parents. Life was simple. They would get up early, milk the cows, then clean the stalls, before heading in for a hearty breakfast at mom’s dining room table, then out for the fieldwork or to cut firewood. The seasons of planting and harvesting were busy times, but there was always plenty of work year-round. There were community events, almost always involving donated labor, to raise a barn or help some struggling neighbor harvest their crops, but life revolved around the daily chores, tending to the animals, the repetitive cycles of the crops, occasional trips to town and church attendance.

In their spare time, evenings before going to bed or after dinnertime on the slower seasons, these boys would read. They had a keen interested in history and current events. The books gave them a window into the world beyond the horizon, beyond the slow pace of his agricultural lifestyle, where great men made important decisions, tales of war, of how his Anabaptist ancestors had suffered intensely for their faith, stories of missionaries traveling to exotic locations, reports the new technology that promised to change everything, and all of this captivated these young men. Their 8th-grade education and sheltered agrarian lifestyle may have left them in wide-eyed wonderment—like the first time they saw that WW1 surplus Jenny JN-4 biplane flying over the family farm—but this did not make them ignorant or lacking in intelligence.

The eldest son, Joseph, was the spitting image of his father, he had seen the farm grow, had participated in the hard work and toil right from the beginning, this simple lifestyle was as ingrained in his heart as the dirt was ground into his calloused hands. He had his dad’s work ethic, would never complain about physical labor, and he had that wiry strength common to farm boys. It is said that once, as a teenager, one of the town boys seeing this naive Mennonite, tried to pick a fight, even landing a blow, before John gave his antagonist a big bear hug, repeated “I don’t want to fight” and then put the stunned bully down. That bully would go on to be the mill owner, a friend, who would always tell that story, but John would laugh and claim that it was exaggerated, a tall tale. John, who had basically inherited his father’s farm, would continue to implement new techniques, was very successful, a respected member of the local community, married his sweetheart and they faithfully attended the church of his childhood.

The second oldest, the ever-inventive Henry, found a way to improve a farm implement, he started manufacturing in the shop on his dad’s farm, but soon outgrew the shop and purchased some land nearer to the city where he built his first factory. By following his passion for business, employing his hardworking heritage, he became very wealthy and could afford to treat his child to luxuries he could not have even imagined at their age. His life was always full of activities, parties, baby showers, vacations (his wife loved the beach, how could he say no?) and, of course, the daily grind of running an industrial production schedule. His life was dominated by the clock, by the calendar of events, the sports teams, politics, etc. He loved technology and one day brought home a brand new cabinet radio/record player that he had purchased at Sears. But, as busy as they were, and despite leaving his father’s old-fashioned church behind, religion still played an important role in the life of his family and he did his best to instill conservative values, his charitable giving (not for attention) made him a noteworthy character and admired amongst those in need.

Hudson was the third of the sons, said to be named after the famed Protestant missionary to China (although it may have been the automobile of the same name), was the more earnest of the four sons. One day an evangelist came to town, despite attendance being discouraged by the church elders, he (with his brothers) was in the audience. The message tugged at his sensitive heart, he rose to his feet shaking, walked the sawdust trail, and had a “born again” experience. Now, truth be told, he had never really been that rebellious, he had had some terrible guilt about seeing some female peers taking a dip in the pond and spending an extra moment observing, but he had always been thoughtful, considerate, and conscientious sort. But now, freedom from his sin, he was determined to serve. He taught at the newly formed Mennonite high school, eventually became a founding member of Mennonite World Aid, an outreach of the conference created to appease those longing to be missionaries, and even did a stint in post-WW2 Europe. He raised his large family to be Anabaptist (although he saturated them with fundamentalist literature) and was followed everywhere by his adoring perpetually pregnant wife.

Then there was Clyde. Clyde was the black sheep of the family, saw John as naive, not too interested in technology like Henry (other than his camera) and certainly far more cynical than Hudson. He didn’t have much appreciation for the farm life. He soon realized that his church was taught by ignorant rubes who got their “ordination” by seeming sincere enough to nominate and then picking up the right Bible. He at first decide to do the Mennonite missionary thing, but he was more or less there to observe and take pictures, and then headed off to university to satiate his hunger for knowledge. Yet, beneath all of this ‘liberal’ smugness, was a compassionate and caring heart. He would go on to write books, people loving to hear about his experience growing up as a traditional Mennonite (although things had really changed significantly before he was old enough to remember) and he was eventually hired as the pastor of the big conference church. Unlike his forebearers, he used his pulpit to spread about social issues, encouraging diversity, reprimanding the “ethnic church” for not caring enough about minorities, the poor, victims, etc.

All of the sons remained Mennonite. And yet all, besides John, had dramatically changed what it meant to be Mennonite. Even John’s life became more chaotic and cluttered than that of his father’s, some of his sons gave up farming (land was too expensive) and worked at his brother Henry’s factory, others (also smitten by an emotional ‘revival’ preacher” carried out Hudson’s vision, but all remained active in their congregations. Henry’s sons embraced the comforts of modern life, they drove muscle cars, listened to popular music and were a little wild before settling down. Of course, Hudson’s sons, all home-schooled (a necessity on the mission field) were a mixture of sheltered and exposed, they all thought of their father as sort of saintly character and were determined to spread ‘Anabaptism’ to the corners of the world. Then there was Clyde’s only child, an avowed feminist, decrying the patriarchy, privilege, police brutality, and basically indistinguishable from the other trust-fund babies who shared his far-leftist views—to him Jesus was basically a political tool, a means to shame his more practical cousins, and a philosopher superseded by Karl Marx.

Nothing about the new generation was the same as their grandfathers. Horses had been long replaced by tractors, the suburbs had encroached on the farmland inheritance and the influence of the ‘liberal’ cousins was having an impact on Joe’s old Mennonite orthodoxy that had been unquestioned for decades, more and more switched from farming to carpentry or manufacturing as economic realities pressed into their communities. More of Henry and Hudson’s descendants (who still crossed paths as conservative Mennonites) became disenchanted with the status quo, some looking for a more lively worship experience, others being disillusioned by the Protestant influence started to question the foundation of their religious tradition, some were angry about hidden abuses, and there were special conferences held to discuss the “Anabaptist identity” crisis. The trappings of modern life had slowly but surely crept into their lifestyle, smartphones were prevalent, pornography caused anxiety amongst many and the austerity of the past would have been appealing if they had the time to stop and think about it.

5 thoughts on “Four Mennonite Sons

    • You are the first person to read this and ask the right question. I actually put this to one of my intelligent friends, asking them to explain my story (the meaning, etc) and was hoping they would go there. They were likely distracted and didn’t offer anything in that regard.

      Anyone, who said I’m only one of the brothers?

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      • It seems to be the very pressing question in the Annabaptist world of story and vision: Where are we going? Who are we?

        Joseph: We have the conservatives who think the way we’re doing things right now is purfectly fine.

        Hudson: We have the evengelicals who think we should just become evengelical annabaptists. These seem to be either the status quo with pietistic language or something radically different where the tradition is to be transformed in a more evangelical direction.

        Henry: We have the big business types who think we should be about making money, being “successful,” and competing in the buisness world.

        Clyde: Then we have the educated, liberal, social justice Anabaptists who think we should be working for social justice, fighting against capitalism, being the kingdom of God. ect.

        I find myself closer to Clyde than anyone else, though I don’t go nearly as extreme as he does.

        Its interesting to think about how the four sons, as four different visions/stories/directions would get along with each other.

        Joseph would be fine with Henry. Henry would be fine with everyone but Clyde, though he might butt heads with Hudson. Hudson wouldn’t get along with anyone except himself. Clyde would be open to working with Joseph (changing the regular person). he would feel appauled by Henry, he couldn’t stand the language of Hudson even though their would be some overlap with Hudson’s desire to “reach out” and Clyde’s desire for social justice.

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      • All four brothers (yes, even Clyde) represent aspects of my own personality, which became apparent to me while writing, although some of those different aspects (namely Henry and Hudson) get the driver’s seat more than the others.

        Cylde does occasionally have control, but as an expression of my disappointment with the system and usually goes very badly because he is motivated by anger or cynicism rather than faith. He’s the Judas character, the one who claims to have all the right goals and is critical of those who do not live up to a particular ideal, yet is secretly only motivated by power and control. I mean, at best he is a more knowledgeable embittered version of Hudson and at worst he is practically Satan.

        I can give a pretty good critique of Capitalism. I mean who couldn’t who worked in a factory making a barely satisfactory wage when the owners arrived in various vehicles each worth three years of my salary, eventually built mansions worth tens of millions, and then would give us “we’re in this together” pep talks. Sure, we are. The deck is definitely stacked in favor of some. It would be nice to simply use government benevolently to right every wrong and usher in the Utopian ideal. Unfortunately, Socialism, at least outside of Christianity and participation being completely voluntary, seems to always end up being hell on Earth.

        My truer Mennonite form is Hudson. Sure, Henry dominated many decisions (usually as a compromise) and yet my sincerity always drew me towards those who most embodied that spirit. Which is no surprise. It is the type of church I was born into, the Hudson’s making up our leadership with their Evangelical fervor with the Henry’s filling the offering plates with a guilty grin. It is an interesting codependency, in that the Hudsons secretly (or openly) believe themselves to be the humble betters of the others and the Henrys (who truly are the hands that feed) alternately resentful of being taken advantage of and also ashamed for not meeting the ideals of the Hudsons.

        Anyhow, I was never fully able to be a Hudson. My last act as a Mennonite an attempt to bridge that impossible gap. And I’m really not sure where that leaves me. Maybe father Menno had another son who found Orthodox Christianity and lived happily ever after? Who knows?

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  1. But your point on being more than one brother is on point as well, as Paul Vanderklay would say, I certainly have all four of them in my conciousness congress, vying for control. I’ve been shaped, and continue to be shaped by all four (less so with Henry) though some of them have a bigger share of seats in the congress.

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