Friday, October 23, 2015

Of Blood Moons And Mennonites

                                                      A familiar skyline.

On September 28, 2015, there was a rare blood moon eclipse. (Isn’t the Blood Moon a great name for a crime novel)? For once I was in the right place at the right time.


The best place to see it was off the East  Coast  of the States- which is exactly where I happened to be, cruising up to Nova Scotia, in a boat with a nice study for writing novels- and no internet.
It was a Super moon (when the Moon is closest to the Earth) so it looks big and very bright. A Super Moon is also known as a Perigee Moon.


All this will not happen again until 8th October 2033. I think it started kicking off at some point after midnight and sometime before 2 am. My body clock was saying it was lunchtime. But it often does.

Here are my pics, taken from a boat on the high sea in a very strong wind surrounded by Mennonites.

It is called a Blood Moon because of its reddish glow due to ‘Rayleigh scattering.’ Insert any Bouchercon joke you wish here....


Some Christian pastors claim that these eclipses of 2015 fulfil a Biblical prophecy of forthcoming difficult and trying times.

One Christian group that was keeping a close eye on the proceedings were the Mennonites.  There was some kind of Mennonite convention on board and the boat was full of these lovely people. When I saw them in the boarding area I thought they were Amish... the men were all tall and bearded, wearing braces and what I would call "farmer’s trews". The women all had the same style of dress but in different materials, and small hats, pinned on the back of their heads, under which was a coil of very long hair.  There was also a strong smell of Ralgex.
As my total knowledge of the Amish comes from this..


You can understand my mistake

                          A very bad photo of the Mennonite Ladies and I, hiding from the wind.

But then I saw one of them on a mobile phone and another surfing the net on his tablet... and I thought not Amish but Mennonite.

They are a strikingly attractive people.  I thought of  Scandinavian decent from their blue eyes, blonde hair and high cheekbones. Indeed those on the boat were all very similar to look at, and there was a fair few hundred there. 
So I looked a little closer into their background.

There is much debate as to whether they are a religious denomination with members of different ethnic origins or just an ethnic group with one religious denomination.

They are one of the Anabaptist denominations, named after Menno Simons (1496–1561) of Friesland. They have been persecuted by just about everybody over the years. They fled from Switzerland originally, due to persecution by the Roman Catholic and Protestant states. Their huge commitment to pacifism means they flee rather than fight.

In 2015 there are about 2.1 million Anabaptists worldwide, including Mennonites, Amish, and Mennonite Brethren. Some Mennonites dress as those we encountered, others are referred to as "plain people" (indistinguishable from the general population).

They are in 87 countries with the largest populations being in India, Ethiopia, Canada, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the United States according to Wikipedia.

The one thing that struck me, was that they seem very happy people. They were always laughing. Telling jokes, with a very genteel larking about.

They joined me out on deck after midnight for the eclipse. Being a Scot I had sought out a wee nook that was sheltered from the howling wind. The Mennonite ladies who had joined their menfolk to see the spectacle were nearly being blown over board so I gestured that they should join me on a sofa that had some protection from the gale.  I didn’t speak as it was pointless to do so in that weather so they sat beside me, thinking that I did not speak English.

Of course, I shamelessly eavesdropped on their conversation- 
A waiter came up to offer them a beer. ‘We are Mennonites, we don’t drink', said Mr Charming (who was very handsome in a John Walton Senior kind of way). As the waiter walked away, he winked and muttered 'When there is anybody watching....'

He then asked the others what they had thought of the sermon that morning – ermm, well. MMM. Turns out none of them had actually been.  They then started playfully making the case for each other to attend the next morning sermon... as they would be too tired after watching the eclipse. The unlucky one got 'voted in'.  There was plenty of chat about mobile phones, tractors, cheese, tractors, milk and tractors.

I read that they raise a lot of money for hurricanes, floods, and other disaster relief and give a lot to long-term international development programs as well as becoming politically involved with peace and social justice issues.

Their European history seems to retell the same tale of persecution from A to B where they flee A,  B allows them to farm on land that has been considered unfarmable. They make a success of it and then the land is reclaimed by the B state, forcing the farmers to pay high tax to stay there… and the tax got higher, often being higher than the money they raise by the farming, so they had to buy their way out to another community (C) where they were welcomed because of their honesty and hard work, they would start farming.. the farms would become profitable, they would be taxed....

“The Mennonites often farmed and reclaimed land in exchange for exemption from mandatory military service. However, once the land was arable again, this arrangement would often change, and the persecution would begin again. Because the land still needed to be tended, the ruler would not drive out the Mennonites but would pass laws to force them to stay, while at the same time severely limiting their freedom. Mennonites had to build their churches facing onto back streets or alleys, and they were forbidden from announcing the beginning of services with the sound of a bell.”

Their refusal to take up arms has often led to them being persecuted.

This sense of being moved on has given then a very strong sense of community and probably, their habit of living and worshipping very simply.

 As with every faith, cracks appeared – they did try to stay together but different groups wanted variation on their theme of peaceful simple life. Amman and his followers split to become the Amish and now there are every variation on the theme -Old Order Amish, New Order Amish, Kaufman Amish Mennonites, Conservative Mennonite Conference and Biblical Mennonite Alliance.
I think most of ones I encountered came from Pennsylvania judging by their conversation, and I read that there are over 300 separate congregations there, making it one of the largest hubs in the USA.

                                       From the internet  but this is a typical Mennonite girl

As previously said, the women have exquisite bone structure, the teenage girls huddled together and giggled like Austin’s heroines. I wondered if these conventions act as some kind of dating agency.

 Within their faith, the single are supposed to be chaste (not chased). They believe marriage should be a lifelong, monogamous and faithful covenant between a man and a woman. While divorce is rare, when it does occur it carries no stigma if abuse of any kind is involved. And they allow gay marriage, and in 2014, the Mountain States Mennonite Conference licensed an openly gay pastor.
They had their first female pastor in 1911!!

 The distinguishing characteristic is one of emphasis rather than rule; peace, community and service.  
Europe is the only highly populated continent where the number of Mennonites is falling. Everywhere else, their numbers are growing.
“Africa has the highest membership growth (increase of about 11% every year esp. in Ethiopia).
African Mennonite churches had a 228% increase in membership in the 80s and 90s in Tanzania, Kenya, and the Congo. The Mennonites were restricted in South Africa because of the government's distrust of pacifist churches but they have been expanding since 1994. Because of the increase in African membership, the Mennonite World Conference was held in Zimbabwe in 2003.

Caro Ramsay  23 10 2015


  1. Does that make you a Moonite?

    I grew up in Western Pennsylvania where admittedly the presence of the Amish and Mennonites was not as pronounced as in the East, but I still carry a fascination with how they've (mostly) successfully resisted the influence of modern times. Thanks for bringing back the memories.

  2. I think they might have done a fine job of taking the best of modern times while managing to exclude the nonsense. And they read crime/mystery fiction!

  3. My great-grandfather Kaser (with an umlaut over the 'a') came to the U.S. from Switzerland when he was 18 (around 1866-7), married his wife in the Bluffton, Indiana Apostolic Christian Church, which is closely related to the Mennonite movement. They eventually moved to Oregon around 1882, and while most of the family has drifted away, one branch of (very prolific) cousins is still very much a part of the local Apostolic Christian Church. The local church split in the early 1930s, due to philosophical differences, one group become more 'fundamental' (conservative, no colorful, frilly clothes, no fancy cars, church services in "Old German", no singing, no musical instruments, etc), and the other more progressive. The more progressive group then split again in the 1950s, again on conservative/progressive differences, and my cousins mostly belong to the most progressive of the three local branches. I just attended the annual Mennonite Festival that's held every October at our local fair grounds, which is a fundraiser for just the charitable activities that you mentioned in your post. And yes, they are, for the most part, wonderful, nice, cheerful folks!

    I, alas, am a wayward wanderer, adrift with four sheets to the spiritual winds...

  4. Caro, what a GREAT post. I wish I had been along on that cruise. I saw only a glimpse of the eclipse before the clouds rolled in in NYC. I am happy to know more about the Mennonites. While researching Invisible Country, I learned about their migration to Paraguay.
    I do love that movie, though, I must say.

  5. What an interesting post.
    I remember my family driving to Pennsylvania years ago and we saw Amish and Mennonite communities. I think what impressed me at a young age was the communal dinners with enormous bowlfuls of good, hearty food.
    The year 1994 was when the African National Congress government began in South Africa and the apartheid ruling party and system was ousted. So it's interesting that it was then that the Mennonites could exist and grow.