by Lawrence Downing
For several years my wife and I lived in Central Pennsylvania. A drive through near-by areas provided opportunity to observe the Old Order Amish and various branches of the Mennonite groups, including the Black Bumper Mennonites. Members of this sub-group, unlike their Old Order Amish cousins, drive cars — black cars. Everything on the car is black, including the chrome bumpers — earning the label ‘Black Bumper.’ Any other metal is also painted black. Area car dealers specialize in ‘sanctifying’ [my word, not theirs] the new models that come out to assure nothing bright is visible. Black indicates an attitude of humility; bright colors are perceived to be a sign of worldly pride.
In the fields around Bird In Hand, Intercourse, Lancaster and other towns, one can watch the farmer direct his horses and plow down the rows of grain or corn. At harvest time, the horse drawn harvesters bring in the crops. On occasion one could see men swing their scythes and watch as the grain was hand-gathered into sheaves. Time seemed stilled in the Amish community. The men wear black baggy pants with buttons — zippers are forbotten; wide-brimmed black hats, and light blue collarless shirts. Beards are in among the Amish. The women wear long, blue or black dresses with perhaps a wisp of white trim. On a woman’s head, covering her hair, was a small white hat tied tightly round the chin. A few wore large dark colored hats, but these were the exception.
On weekends the roads in Amish Country are jammed with outsiders, tourists, who have come to see for themselves this quaint society, marvel at their industry and marvel over the prosperous farms and tidy towns. There is not doubt the Amish community thrives without our modern conveniences. The Outsiders, as Amish call tourists, also take advantage of Amish cooking traditions. They eat their full from family-style tables. Amish are known for the variety of ways they prepare pork and for shoofly pie.
The Amish are a striking example of the power that is group identity. They have made a decision to withdrawal from the world and its corruptive ways. They maintain a viable community that fulfills their social, political and religious needs.
There is no harm in valuing group identity. However, is a hold to the past, or the perceived past, consistent with what scripture teaches is a disciple’s priority? Are we to follow the voices that call us back to what is proclaimed to be a more pristine and righteous time?
It is instructive to remind ourselves when someone calls us back to a better time that frequently perception and historical reality do not match. This is not to say that the past has no value.
The past does have value and historic events do provide a context to help us understand the present. Ellen White’s statement that we have nothing to fear so long as we do not forget how God has led us in the past is valid today as in yesteryears. However, it is well to remind ourselves that we cannot recapture the past. We also note that accounts of past experiences or events are frequently based more in wishful thinking than reality.
When people tell me about the good old days and wish we could go back I ask, “What period of time would you like to trade for our day.” Answers include: The times of Jesus, or the 1950s, or the early 1900s when our church pioneers lived.
“Great,” I respond. “Let’s go back to Jesus’ time. You have a good chance of being a slave. You will be uneducated and live from hand-to-mouth. You will die before you are 50.”
“You want to go to the 50s? Fine. No antibiotics so you cannot fight many of the germs that afflict us. You’ll have to fight the Korean War. If you are a person of color, get used to the Jim Crow laws.
“Now, you want to live when the pioneers lived? Let’s do it! You will believe you are saved by keeping the Ten Commandments. You will probably be an Arian — you will believe Jesus was a created being and not equal with God the Father. You will believe that the door of mercy is closed to those who did not accept William Miller’s Advent call. ”
About this time the person cuts me off. “This is not what I mean. I want the good things that were there in those times, not the bad!”
“Were it so simple. You take the bad with the good. Still want to trade?”
“No, I guess we better stay where we are.” I agree!
Among some Adventists today the call back to those good old times when we really knew who we were and understood our purpose and were confident of what we believed has great appeal. Unfortunately, the siren call arises from a made-up world that exists more in imagination than fact. Read the early Adventist publications and you will find evidence that all was not smooth sailing among the early believers. Church leaders and members had serious disagreements about what they should believe and how they should behave. The arguments over the law in Galatians created significant controversy that pitted church leaders against one another and Ellen White.
Whether Adventists should serve in the Civil War stirred up all manner of heated discussion. One segment of the church concluded that open marriage was a biblically accepted practice. Other groups were religious enthusiasts — we would today call them Holy Rollers or Charismatics. They yelled, rolled on the floor and created public disturbance. The Holy Flesh component believed they could not sin. There was also the fanatic fringe that crawled about on hands and knees and babbled baby talk — in response to their interpretation of the biblical passage that said we are to become like little children. Are these the days and practices the voices call back to? When we call for reformation and a return to those good old days, we might well take care to define what it is we’re opting for and not reach back with blind eyes. What we grasp and hold to may be less desirable than first thought