From Generation To Generation? Faith and Culture in One Russian Mennonite Immigrant Family (Part 2)
In some ways it seems to be true that “An apple does not fall far from the tree.” We all understand that DNA is a powerful carrier of physical traits. (I have, for example, been told by strangers who know my family that I “look like an Enns.”) Of course we know that we cannot rely on DNA to transmit faith or culture from generation to generation, though in some conservative Mennonite communities religious continuity is so strong that it seems that faith is being carried in the DNA. In a recent edition of the Mennonite Weekly Review (November 18, 2008, p. 4), for example, letter writer Paul Shrock reported that “All of (sisters) Esta’s and Eunice’s 160 children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren except three of the adopted/foster ones relate to a conservative Mennonite group.” But how effectively are faith and culture passed from generation to generation in a more progressive group like the Mennonite Brethren (MB) who are more highly assimilated into mainstream American culture and society?
Though the descendants of Dietrich T. Enns do tend to be evangelical, few have entirely forgotten or “defected” from their Mennonite heritage
This is Part Two of a two-part report on a survey of cultural and religious continuity and change in one MB immigrant family from Russia. In 2001 Dr. John Tinker (California State University, Fresno) and I attempted to contact all 455 living, adult descendants of my great-grandparents, Dietrich T. and Margareta Enns, who arrived in the United States from southern Russia in 1884. In addition to their Mennonite Brethren religious beliefs and practices, the family also brought with them many of the Dutch and German norms, values, and cultural traditions that their ancestors had developed during sojourns in Prussia and then in the Mennonite colonies in southern Russia. Mennonites in Russia and the early generations in America were an “ethno-religious” community in which faith and culture were interrelated and mutually reinforcing. But how much cultural and religious continuity do we see in the descendants of this immigrant family? And when later generations do depart from the faith and culture of their forebears, where do they find their new spiritual and cultural identities?
In Part One of this report (Direction 38, no.1 : 79–91), we noted that a remarkable eighty-four percent of the 274 descendants of Dietrich T. Enns who responded to our questionnaire continue to express appreciation for their Mennonite religious and/or cultural heritage. But we also concluded that much of the cultural continuity that we observed is more “symbolic” than substantive or institutional. (See Part One of our report for information concerning our methodology, data on cultural continuity and change, and conclusions concerning “symbolic ethnicity.”)
But what about the faith dimension of ethno-religious continuity among the descendants of Dietrich T. Enns? How many are members of an MB church? How many continue the radical Anabaptist convictions and practices of Menno Simons and others of their sixteenth-century spiritual ancestors? When people do abandon their Anabaptist religious heritage, do they become irreligious, as Sherkat predicted? Do they become “exiles” who have left the flock and lost their love for the Anabaptist faith? Are they “ethnic bystanders” who affirm the culture but not the faith of their birthright community? Are they “closet” Anabaptists who have joined mainline denominations but quietly retain their Anabaptist convictions? (Kraybill and Hostetter suggested this typology.) Have they moved toward “New Age Spirituality” or the Charismatic Movement? As we shall see, many of the descendants of D.T. Enns express a “symbolic” appreciation for their Mennonite religious heritage but few are well informed about or hold to the radical convictions and practices of their Anabaptist forbears. The summary of data concerning religious beliefs and practices which follows is organized around the “Four C’s” in Catherine Albanese’s definition of religion: Creed (beliefs), Community (organization), Cultus (rituals), and Code (norms).
RELIGIOUS CONTINUITY AND CHANGE
- Creed. Religions provide explanations about the meaning of life
- Orthodox Beliefs. Few of our respondents have abandoned the Christian faith or become irreligious. Fully 94% agreed that they think of themselves as Christians and 93% agree that they have “no doubts” about the existence of God. Very few expressed agreement with several statements of beliefs which are outside the boundaries of traditional Christian orthodoxy, such as astrology (3%), reincarnation (6%), contact with the dead (6%), and the belief that “the life experienced through our senses is all there is” (6%). Few (15%) agreed that “All of the great religions of the world are equally good and true.”
- Evangelical Convictions. Most of our respondents (83%) agree that the miracles that are reported in the Bible “were supernatural acts of God which actually happened just as the Bible says they did.” A respectable 82% agree that they have tried to lead someone to Christ. A “born again” experience was reported by 77%. Almost as many (76%) agree that “The Bible is the inspired, authoritative word of God, without error not only in matters of faith, but also in historical, geographic, and other secular matters.” At 70%, somewhat fewer agree that “All persons who die not having accepted Christ as their redeemer and savior will spend eternity in a place of punishment and misery.” Slightly over half (55%) agree that “God created the earth and all living things in six 24-hour days.” But 67% agree that “When I think about my own faith, I think of myself as an Evangelical.” Approximately three quarters of the descendants of Dietrich Enns, then, appear to share beliefs that are typical of American evangelicals.
- Anabaptist Emphases. We asked our respondents to indicate their agreement or disagreement with five items on the “Anabaptism Scale” utilized in previous Mennonite Church Member Profiles (Kauffman and Harder, Kauffman and Driedger) with the following results:
- “Baptism is neither proper nor necessary for infants and small children.” — 65% agree.
- “If Christian believers proclaim the Lordship of Christ and truly follow Him in all of life they can expect to incur severe criticism and frequent persecution from the larger society.” — 57% agree.
- “Churches should practice a thorough church discipline so that faltering or unfaithful members can be built up and restored, or in exceptional cases, excluded.” — 55% agree.
- “Jesus expects Christians today to follow the pattern which He set in His own life and ministry, including such things as putting evangelism above earning a living and deeds of mercy above family security.” — 49% agree.
- “Anabaptist teachings more accurately reflect the Word of God than the teachings of other denominations.” — 28% agree.
Almost all of the members of this extended family, then, profess belief in God and think of themselves as Christians. Fewer than 10% have become “irreligious” as predicted by Sherkat. Approximately three quarters of our respondents appear to have found their spiritual home in American Evangelicalism, despite the fact that just over one half of our respondents express agreement with four of the five items taken from the “Anabaptism Scale.”