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Spring 2002 · Vol. 31 No. 1 · pp. 113–15 

Book Review

On the Backroad to Heaven

Donald B. Kraybill and Carl F. Bowman. Baltimore, MD and London: John Hopkins University Press, 2001. 330 pages.

Reviewed by Walter Unger

Although they only comprise about twenty-one percent of the estimated adult membership of Anabaptist-related groups in the United States, the four Old Order communities surveyed in On the Backroad to Heaven arouse the greatest curiosity and face the most misunderstanding. This volume provides a fascinating overview of Old Order culture, beliefs, and unique way of life. It is the first book to systematically compare the four major Old Order groups.

Donald Kraybill, professor of sociology and Anabaptist studies at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, has authored, coauthored, and edited {114} more than fifteen books on Anabaptist groups. Carl Bowman is a professor of sociology at Bridgewater College in Virginia. He is coeditor of The Brethren Encyclopedia, Vol. IV (forthcoming), and Anabaptist Currents (1995), and author of Brethren Society: The Cultural Transformation of a “Peculiar People” (1995).

After an introductory overview of the four Old Orders showing their Anabaptist roots, the authors devote a chapter to each of the groups, describing the unique features of their beliefs and practices, and the strategies each group uses to sustain its identity. One chapter is devoted to common convictions and another to differences. The final two chapters deal with preservation strategies and ironies of a postmodern journey.

The key common commitment of Old Order groups, state the authors, is to Gelassenheit—a German word meaning “yielding and surrendering to a higher authority.” Gelassenheit is layered with many meanings in these communities: self-surrender, resignation to God’s will, yielding to others, gentleness, a calm spirit, contentment, and a quiet acceptance of whatever comes. Gelassenheit is the opposite of assertive individualism. Its meaning is woven into the fabric of Old Order life and underscores the most fundamental difference between Old Order culture and modern values.

The authors address some of the myths and misunderstandings that enshroud Old Order life. Here are a few examples of myths which are helpfully clarified: Old Orders are social antiques, ignorant and backward, declining and dying. The reality is that Old Orders are not cultural fossils but are constantly changing and shifting their cultural fences. While many Old Orders do drive horse-drawn carriages, and all of them ban certain types of technology, none of them categorically boycott modern devices. All four groups use state-of-the-art technology selectively and somewhat cautiously. A further reality is that Old Orders are far from ignorant. While formal education is limited, they have practical skills and wisdom. Hutterites and Old Order Mennonites are highly successful farmers, while Amish and Brethren are astute entrepreneurs. Finally, many Old Order groups, rather than declining, are thriving. Some are doubling almost every generation. Large families and strong retention rates, rather than missionary efforts, have produced growth.

The essence of, as well as the challenge to, Old Order life is discussed in the excellent closing chapter, “Ironies of a Postmodern Journey,” which describes ironies faced by all Anabaptist groups seeking to be true to their spiritual heritage. Old Order communities look to the past for their moral compass and are grounded in the collective {115} understandings enshrined in their Ordnung, i.e., rules and discipline. Developed over the generations, these rules for living provide a blueprint for an orderly way of life. Old Orders exemplify a truth most mainstream Anabaptist groups have forsaken: moral authority is not found in individual experience but in the counsel of the church. The community, not the individual, is the chief agent of ethical discernment. Kraybill and Bowman assert, “By rejecting human intellect, individual experience, and rational thinking as sources of moral authority, Old Order groups are oppositional groups even within their own religious traditions” (17).

The four groups in this study developed their identities in the late nineteenth century as a protest against modernity. Now a century later, postmodernists have undermined the certainty and credibility of the modern project, in a sense joining with the Old Orders in scrapping the claims of modernity, although with different kinds of doubts. So the authors raise the question, “If modernity itself is losing its cultural viability, if what Old Orders have set themselves against from their historical beginnings is fraying, how can they assure themselves of a sufficient reason for being?” (272).

Clear answers to this dilemma are not given, only warning and caution. Old Orders are cautioned not to think of themselves in the images created by the marketplace as merely the makers of buggies, trinkets, and quilts. If they succumb, “the Old Orders will have sold their souls for a pot of postmodern porridge” (276).

Supplemented by Anabaptist World USA (Herald Press, 2001) by Kraybill and C. Nelson Hostetter, students of Anabaptism have excellent resources. This latter work incorporates four chapters from Backroad to Heaven: Old Order Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren, but also gives data on all Anabaptist groups in the United States.

Walter Unger
President Emeritus
Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, British Columbia

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