We Came Seeking Peace

(A devotional shared with the Board of Brethren & Mennonite Heritage Center, May 2024)

Our spiritual and biological ancestors came to the Shenandoah Valley seeking peace. In the 1750s, Dunkers migrated to Virginia. By 1860, Dunkers had seventeen church buildings in the Shenandoah Valley. It helped with migration when the Great Valley Road improved in the 1840s, making travel to Rockingham County easier for the second and third wave of Dunker immigrants.

The Mennonites also came seeking peace, migrating to Virginia in 1728. However, their settlements were short-lived as they were forced back to Pennsylvania during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). They returned in large numbers after the Revolutionary War, again seeking peace, settling in the Linville Creek region of Rockingham County. By 1860, their perseverance had borne fruit, with seven congregations established in Virginia.

Dunkers and Mennonites came to Virginia amidst the enslavement of Africans. They sought peace after European settlers pushed the Catawba, Iroquois, Algonquian, and Siouan further west.

During the American Civil War, seventy-two young men, about half of them Dunkers and half Mennonites, headed north, seeking to escape the clutches of Confederate conscription. Though they sought peace, the men were caught by two scouts, only two, and then imprisoned in Richmond. There, the Dunkers and Mennonites convinced the Confederate government of their principles of peace and nonresistance, and the legislators gave the Brethren and Mennonites exemption from fighting in the war.

Our Brethren and Mennonite paths of peace continued to intersect into the twentieth century. In the early 1900s horse and buggy era, Mennonites couldn’t always go to their church because of distance, mud, or snow, so they visited nearby Brethren, Baptist, and other denominational churches. Mennonite Samuel Blosser figured out how to artificially incubate chicken eggs in 1885, while Brethren businessman Charles Wampler Sr. was the first to incubate turkey eggs in 1922.

In 1909, Henry and Bettie Keener led the vigorous twentieth-century Mennonite mission movement in West Virginia. Henry moved to Harrisonburg from Maryland, attended Bridgewater College, and was ordained by the Mennonites for mission work.

The Brethren, Quakers, and Mennonites united in their pursuit of peace and worked together after World War I. Their collective efforts led to the creation of the Civilian Public Service, which allowed conscientious objectors to perform alternative service during World War II.

During the 1960s, Charles Zunkel, pastor of Mill Creek Church of the Brethren, chaired The Rockingham Council on Human Rights. Zunkel worked on a steering committee with John A. Lapp and Eugene Souder, both Mennonites. The Council on Human Rights used the church’s influence and teaching for needed social change without conflict and violence. They worked to acquire housing for African Americans in Harrisonburg, integrate public schools, reform the hospital to assist African Americans better, and sought to have restaurants serve African Americans. Zunkel and Lapp went together to attend Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in August 1963.

A full-page Daily News-Record ad appeared on January 31, 1967, strongly opposing the U.S. war in Vietnam. The writers addressed their letter of concern about Vietnam to the U.S. President and members of Congress. About half of the several dozen well-known Valley signatories were Brethren, and half were Mennonites.

In 1973, leaders from sister denominations attended when four to five thousand Mennonites met under a large tent at EMC for their national gathering. Dr. Wayne F. Geisert, Bridgewater College President and Moderator of the Church of the Brethren, attended the week-long Mennonite Conference in Harrisonburg. During the 1970s, Brethren and Mennonites worked together in a local chapter of New Call to Peacemaking.

A Church of the Brethren farmer, Fred Smith, joined Mennonite Pastor Eugene Souder, and they chaired the Rockingham Concerned Citizens in 1979. They worked hard but did not stop Coors from building a brewery in the Shenandoah Valley. Souder raised moral concerns about alcohol, and Smith opposed the pillaging and commercialization of 2000 acres of prime farmland.

Since the early 1990s, the Brethren and Mennonites have worked together to produce a thirty-five-volume Believers Church Bible Commentary. Scholars like Christina A. Bucher, Church of the Brethren, and Mennonite theologian Willard Swartley led the project. Many of us sing from Hymnal: A Worship Book, a testament to our shared values and beliefs prepared by churches in the Believers Church tradition. A dozen musicians from the Church of the Brethren and an equal amount from the Mennonite Church (MC) worked on the hymnal project, produced in 1992.

Since 1989, many Ukrainian families have migrated to the Valley, seeking peace like Mennonites and Brethren. The Ukrainian immigration story is much like the Mennonite and Dunker stories of the 19th century—each group came seeking peace. A JMU professor credits the Mennonites and Brethren for helping many immigrant families in the past four decades, like the Ukrainians who came seeking peace.

John Jantzi, administrative executive of the Shenandoah District of the Brethren, grew up Mennonite in central Ohio. Jantzi’s father taught me at Rosedale Bible College when I was a young man. Jantzi and I come from the same Mennonite background. Our fathers were both named Elmer, and both lived from 1925 to 2007. Both John and I came to the Shenandoah Valley seeking peace.

I’ve driven to the farms of two millennial Mennonite families from Augusta County who attend Zion Mennonite Church in Rockingham County. They bring their children on a 45-minute one-way drive to Broadway, Virginia, where my wife and I attend. We’ve traveled to visit them on several occasions, taking them a meal when a baby arrives or showing up for a cookout. Both families live along Westview School Road, and I was surprised recently to discover that the Shenandoah District Church of the Brethren office is at the corner of Westview School Road and Valley Church Road; we’ve driven by the office many times, not knowing it was there.

Perhaps that’s an analogy of Mennonites and Brethren in the Shenandoah Valley. We’ve lived side by side in Rockingham and Augusta Counties for 250 years or more, often passing each other. However, for twenty-five years, we have worked together at this wonderful Brethren & Mennonite Heritage Center, an invaluable resource for all to come and learn the story of denominational cousins who came seeking peace.