Roots and Branches: A Narrative History of the Amish and Mennonites in Southeast United States, 1892–1992
Martin W. Lehman. Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2011. 245 pages.
Roots and Branches tells the story of Mennonite churches in the southeastern United States, principally Florida, with an accent on congregational leadership and development. In volume one, Lehman charted the story of Mennonite and Amish farmers, business people, tourists, and eventually church planters who had moved to the South, beginning in 1892. In volume two he explores the congregational and institutional legacy of those pioneers during the last third of the twentieth century. The Amish make few appearances in this second volume; instead the emphasis is on the congregations and conference structures of the so-called (Old) Mennonite or “MC” Mennonite Church.
Two themes are prominent in Branches. The first is the cross-cultural and interracial nature of church and ministry in the American South, and the ways in which that experience stretched ethnically-Germanic Mennonite newcomers to the region. In this regard, Mennonite Brethren readers may notice parallels to the story of the Mennonite Brethren North Carolina District. Moving out of northern rural Mennonite enclaves, Mennonites in Tampa and Saint Petersburg, Florida, or Atlanta, Georgia, quickly found themselves in a new cultural environment. Initial church-planting efforts were among African-American migrant worker communities, but by the late twentieth century also included significant numbers of immigrant-based churches whose members had roots in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and the Caribbean-Garifuna diaspora. As well, there were churches comprised largely of northern retirees in the city of Sarasota and a congregation in Gainesville closely connected to faculty and students at the University of Florida. In 1992, when Lehman’s narrative more or less ends, the Southeast Mennonite Conference included 2300 members in twenty-eight congregations. By 2008, the book’s epilogue notes, the “conference was the most diverse of the twenty conferences in Mennonite Church USA and . . . was being ‘called to the front of the pack’ to show what Mennonite Church USA should look like” (207). Lehman has served us well by documenting this story as a “narrative history.” However, the book is short on analysis, and some readers will wish there was more context and reflection on the racial-ethnic diversity theme.
The other prominent theme is ecclesiology and polity. In the early and middle decades of the twentieth century, the Mennonites who moved to Florida and nearby states organized churches under the auspices of various northern (Old) Mennonite conferences. By the late 1960s there was no single Mennonite conference in the southeast. Instead, there were almost two dozen churches tethered to five different northern conferences. Lehman recounts the slow and careful process by which these churches decided they had more in common with one another than they did with their northern counterparts. The decision was not easy because many white Mennonites in the South cherished their familial and ecclesial ties to the North, and in some cases mission churches were financially dependent on northern conference budgets for their survival. Eventually, most of the congregations in the region formed the Southeast Mennonite Convention, which supplemented but did not replace northern conference ties. The convention then evolved into Southeast Mennonite Conference, a structure parallel to the northern conferences of the Mennonite Church. This story of emerging polity played out against other narratives, including the reorganization of the (Old) Mennonite/“MC” Mennonite Church around 1970 and the emergence of, and ongoing debate over, congregational versus conference authority with the denomination. Along the way, Lehman also gives attention to institutions associated with the convention/conference, including Sarasota Christian School and Sunnyside Village (a retirement center). Perhaps most significant was Southern Mennonite Camping Association and its Lakewood Christian Retreat. Indeed, it seems that the camp often provided the common experience that gave southern Mennonites a distinctive identity and built cross-cultural relationships.
Lehman was deeply involved in the history he recounts in this volume—a fact he does not hide. Beginning in 1950 he and his wife, both from Pennsylvania, served as church planters in Tampa, Florida, and he continued as a pastor, in some capacity, until 1980. In 1975 he became the first staff person for the Southeast Mennonite Convention, and in 1980 he became a full-time general secretary for the conference, serving until 1991. The book is richly footnoted, drawing especially on the monthly newsletter of the convention/conference. But the book also relies quite clearly on Lehman’s memories and personal insights. That personal perspective comes through in a number of places, but perhaps most poignantly when he writes about the conference’s discussions on human sexuality.
Martin Lehman ministered in the southern United States for more than forty years. With Roots and Branches he continued his ministry into retirement by providing these congregations and the rest of us with a history of God’s work among diverse people and their work of incarnating a Mennonite witness.