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Copyright 2023 © by Jim Potter
While my children’s book illustrator, Gina Laiso, Integrita Productions, is closer to sending me a draft of the book with color illustrations, I continue historical research on the Amish in preparation for my sequel to Deputy Jennings Meets the Amish.
Looking for Old Order Amish, finding Mennonites
Last week I learned of an Amish Mennonite cemetery ten miles from our front door. I asked myself: How could I not know about this? Curious, I started searching Find-A-Grave’s website before my in-person visit. In my opinion, the second-best place to make historical connections is by reading headstones or gravestones. The best opportunity is interviewing an old timer.
Here are my questions generated from learning about the cemetery that was never lost: 1) Had there been a mostly forgotten Amish community in McPherson County, just up the road? 2) If so, had it organized as an Amish settlement, and if it existed, 3) when? 4) If it had been organized, when did it disband? 5) The on-line cemetery sign said, “Amish Mennonite Cemetery 1877,” but what did that term mean in the late 1800s when most of the burials took place? Were the settlers Mennonites of Amish origin, or Old Order Amish living amidst an increasingly progressive “change minded” Mennonite world? And finally, 6) What does the term “Amish Mennonite” mean today?
The term “Amish Mennonite” can be confusing because over time it has held different meanings. Followers of Jakob Ammann were originally called “Amish Mennonites,” or “Amish” for short after they “sorted out” from the Mennonites.
However, other writings explain that the term “Amish Mennonites” was adopted through reform movements among North American Amish, mainly between 1862 and 1878. These Amish moved away from the old Amish traditions and closer to the Mennonites, becoming Mennonites of Amish origin. Over the decades, Amish Mennonite groups removed the word “Amish” from the name of their congregations or merged with Mennonite groups.
The conservative Amish called themselves “Old Amish,” but outsiders eventually labeled them “Old Order Amish” because they defined their concerns in terms of a traditional understanding of the Ordnung (“order”)–church standards and regulations. [A History of the Amish, Third Edition, Steven M. Nolt, © 2013 by Good Books]
Today, some students of history may explain that the Beachy Amish Mennonites and the Amish Mennonites are not Amish because of their different cultural practices, not because of differences in religion. For example, the Old Order Amish continue to use horse-and-buggies, reject electricity from the grid, and speak Pennsylvania Dutch, as a way of preserving their traditions and community.
The term “Amish Mennonite” has different meanings because people have every right to self-identify as they wish. Being an “Amish Mennonite” rather than a “Mennonite” may be a way for people to identify with their Amish roots, recognizing the importance of their cultural and spiritual journey, but also finding common cause with the larger group of Mennonites.
In my research, I could not find an Old Order Amish settlement in Hayes Township or anywhere in McPherson County. Instead, I learned that by the mid-1880s the Amish Mennonite cemetery had begun as a “Miller family cemetery” and was referred to as the “west Liberty cemetery” which could have referred to the geographical area since there was a Liberty school to the SE. This was prior to the establishment of West Liberty Church, organized in 1883, and it’s official incorporation in 1892 as West Liberty Mennonite Church. * (It was located four miles north and four miles west of Inman.)
Once incorporated, the church started their own cemetery on the church grounds. Prior to 1892, church members who died were buried in the “Amish” cemetery located a mile south and one-half mile east.
To try and understand the early Hayes Township community, I chose to research a sampling of the people who are buried at the Amish Mennonite cemetery. One person is Elizabeth Holdiman Frey who was born in 1847, in Schuylkill, Pennsylvania. After her mother died and her father remarried, she was raised in Wheatland, Illinois.
In 1865, while living in Wheaton, Elizabeth, age 18, married Daniel Mentzer Frey, age 25, born in Warwick, Pennsylvania in 1840.
By the time the Freys arrived in Kansas about 1876, after living in Iowa, they had five children, and by 1899 they had four more offspring.
The tenth child never survived. As a result of childbirth in 1890, Elizabeth and the newborn baby died. Today, Elizabeth’s gravestone stands out in the Amish Mennonite cemetery with no trace of an infant’s grave marker.
Here’s Elizabeth’s obituary printed in the Hutchinson News on November 23, 1890:
Mrs. Elizabeth Frey, wife of Daniel M. Frey, who died at her home nine miles north of Hutchinson on Thursday morning, was buried last Friday. Rev. J. H. Keeler preached the funeral sermon from Psalms 1xxxx12 at the Mennonite church twenty-one miles north of Hutchinson. Rev. Zimmerman made a few remarks in the German language at the close of the ceremonies.
Mrs. Frey was a Christian loved and respected by all who knew her, as the crowded church proved. She exhorted all her children to meet her in heaven, and then passed quietly away. She leaves a sorrowing husband and nine children to mourn her death. Her age was 43 years, 10 months and 20 days.
I haven’t researched all twenty-four identifiable adults buried in the Amish Mennonite cemetery. Two members of the West Liberty Church buried in the cemetery (considered the church cemetery prior to the church opening their own cemetery next to the church) are Levi Lantz (1811-1887) and Lizzie M. Schrock (1850-1887). The last two people buried in the Amish Mennonite cemetery, but by then called “Union Cemetery,” were a married couple, Jacob J. Burkholder (1845-1926) and Nettie Unruh Burkholder (1855-1934).
We know that Nettie was born in Germany, united with the Mennonite Church at age 16, and immigrated to America with her parents in 1874. They landed in Philadelphia. Nettie and Jacob married in Indiana and moved to Kansas in 1880, settling on a farm eight miles NW of Inman, McPherson County. Her funeral services in 1934 were at West Liberty Mennonite Church.
Jacob united with the Old Order Amish Church when he was about twenty years old. “Later in life he became a member of the conservative branch of Amish to which church he remained a member until his death.” Since the above information is from the Gospel World (Vol. XVIII, No. 51- March 18, 1926), this means I may have located my first Old Order Amish member buried in the so-called Amish Mennonite cemetery.
If we only knew what was meant by the “conservative branch of Amish.” Could that mean conservative Amish Mennonite or conservative Mennonite? If so that might help explain Nettie and Jacob following a similar religious path in the same household.
I can still get confused about the differences between the Old Order Amish, Mennonites, and Amish Mennonites. Maybe, instead of their differences, I should be focusing on their similarities.
Until next time, happy writing,
* “Around five Old (MC) Mennonite families arrived in SW McPherson County in the early 1880s. One family moved from a Mennonite settlement in Marion County: Mathias Cooprider and his (3rd) wife, Susanna (Heatwole) (Brunk) Cooprider. The others moved from LaGrange County, Indiana: David D. & Veronica (Miller) Yoder, Samuel C. & Annie H. (Yoder) Miller, Reuben C. & Maggie C. (Bontrager) Yoder, and J. C. Bontrager and wife (?).” South Central Frontiers: A History of the South Central Mennonite Conference by Paul Erb, © 1974.
** In 1892, Daniel, 52, married Mary Elisabeth Lucas, 28, in Hutchinson, Kansas. After relocating to Oklahoma, they had five children together. Daniel died in 1925, Mary in 1937.
*** George R. Brunk Sr. (1871-1938), grew up on the western prairie near Marion, KS, then lived in McPherson County, KS, as a young man. At age 21 he was ordained to the ministry of West Liberty Church and at age 26 ordained to the office of Bishop. In 1900, he married Katie E. Wenger in VA, but they raised their family in McPherson County until 1909. Moving to Virginia, Brunk became known for his charismatic leadership and for editing “Sword and Trumpet,” an unofficial Mennonite paper. [His son, George R. Brunk II (1911-2002) is known for conducting huge summer “revival meetings” for weeks at a time under a massive tent, all across the Mennonite world.]
**** Thanks to Melissa Smith, McPherson Public Library, for sharing helpful resources.
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