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The Old German Baptist Brethren

The Old German Baptist Brethren: Faith, Farming, and Change in the Virginia Blue Ridge

Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    The Old German Baptist Brethren
    Book Description:

    Since arriving nearly 250 years ago in Franklin County, Virginia, German Baptists have maintained their faith and farms by relying on their tightly knit community for spiritual and economic support. Today, with their land and livelihoods threatened by the encroachment of neighboring communities, the construction of a new highway, and competition from corporate megafarms, the German Baptists find themselves forced to adjust._x000B_Charles D. Thompson Jr.'s The Old German Baptist Brethren combines oral history with ethnography and archival research--as well as his own family ties to the Franklin County community--to tell the story of the Brethren's faith on the cusp of impending change. The book traces the transformation of their operations from frontier subsistence farms to cash-based enterprises, connecting this with the wider confluence of agriculture and faith in colonial America. Using extensive interviews, Thompson looks behind the scenes at how individuals interpret their own futures in farming, their hope for their faith, and how the failure of religiously motivated agriculture figures in the larger story of the American farmer. _x000B_

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09265-7
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Prologue: Of Soil and Stories
    (pp. ix-xii)

    Despite romantic notions of “the land” often associated with agriculture, small farms are not natural places that exist apart from human communities. Rather, farms are the work of people interacting with nature over time, in often unromantic and hardscrabble ways. What people do, believe, and say about their work on farms, in turn, becomes inextricably tied to places, so that in addition to holding crops, the soil of a farm becomes a repository for words. Through narratives, natural history combines with human history and a piece of ground fills not only with layers of work but also with human stories...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Note on Photographs
    (pp. xv-xv)
  6. Introduction: Nonresistance and Change
    (pp. xvii-xxxvi)

    They offered no resistance to assaults against them as they made their way down the narrow trading path to Virginia. If under attack by displaced Iroquois or by outlaw highwaymen, they prayed that God’s will be done and turned the other cheek. Some died in the process. Dressed in conservative black clothing, German Brethren traveled at first with Moravians venturing southward from Pennsylvania in search of places to settle in Virginia and North Carolina. On this journey, by way of the Carolina Road, they were among the first Europeans to pass through the southern Blue Ridge Mountains to present-day Franklin...


    • 1 The Ancient Order
      (pp. 3-17)

      The first German Baptists were eight exiles who gathered clandestinely three centuries ago in Alexander Mack’s millhouse to read the Bible and pray. It was 1708 and Germany was then but a hodgepodge of provinces, all of them war-torn and struggling to redefine and rebuild themselves, and vying for tribute and allegiance, following the Thirty Years’ War.¹ Hundreds of thousands of people had died on the Continent from seemingly endless war and persecution or from the famine and disease that followed. Worse, most of the fighting had been couched in religious dogma, often Catholicism battling against various forms of Protestantism.²...

    • 2 The Carolina Road
      (pp. 18-37)

      Along much of the great trading route through Virginia, the Brethren and other Germans were either the first European pioneers or closely followed the Scotch Irish settlers.¹ Yet, the German Brethren and others among them were far from the stereotypical rugged individualists or explorers seeking land for profit or power. Rather, they were a community of believers and farmers looking for a place to settle. Many had already farmed in Pennsylvania and had saved their own seeds and raised livestock on farms in Pennsylvania. Most were also skilled in a craft, from log-building construction tofrakturillustration of texts.² The...


    • [PART II Introduction]
      (pp. 39-42)

      For decades the Old German Baptist Brethren of the Pigg River District of Franklin County had charge of a small congregation in Clemmons, North Carolina. By 1994, the last remaining North Carolina district—called Fraternity—retained only two families: a couple in their late fifties along with their son, his wife, and their young children. Every other member had either died out or moved away.

      The Fraternity meetinghouse, once located in the open countryside in a separate enclave of Brethren, was built by those who had traveled the Carolina Road to the vicinity of what is now Winston-Salem some two...

    • 3 Raising Citizens
      (pp. 43-71)

      Farming not merely for the sake of producing food but as a way to build a life for a family and a community is a theme Old German Baptist Brethren return to again and again. They speak of religious beliefs and lifestyle intertwined, of clothing, cars, and business ethics all as part of living by example. They cultivate values, not just corn. They build community, not just barns. And, more important than cattle, they raise children to be citizens of the godly kingdom that is not of this world. In this chapter, four people, three of them German Baptist ministers...

    • 4 Community-Based Agriculture
      (pp. 72-100)

      Family farming is not enough. To survive as a farmer on a small scale, one needs not only family members, but also neighbors. Neighbors help with work, creative financing of farmland purchases, and collective purchasing power. They swap labor and equipment, help one another with repairs, tend to one another’s farms when someone has to be away, respond to emergencies, and encourage one another with camaraderie and moral support. Though on some level farmers are competitors, they also rely on one another for their survival. In this chapter, four farmers tell their stories. We learn from each not only as...

    • 5 Adversity and Perseverance
      (pp. 101-142)

      Though Franklin County is still rural and has more farms than any county in the southern Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains, agriculture there is in jeopardy, and so are its farmers. The pressure mounts from a variety of sources both local and national, even international, including the low prices farmers receive for their milk and other products, the rising costs of farming—which includes land costs influenced by the lake and other development—the extra psychological strain on people in debt, a proposed Interstate, and a general lack of understanding and support for farmers from nonfarming neighbors, both those who have...

    • 6 Membership
      (pp. 143-173)

      “We’re Franklin County people,” said Elsie Turner. “I’ve spent all my life right here, and I’m ninety-three years old.” She was a second grade schoolteacher for forty-five years and taught my mother, among thousands of other children raised in the county. Along with teaching, she continued to live and help out on the family dairy farm alongside her brother and his family. All around her home the community is changing and she knows it.

      I heard about her breadth of knowledge when I stopped at Boone’s Country Store, owned by a German Baptist family. Emily Boone was working the counter...

    • 7 Hope
      (pp. 174-196)

      From the fallow ground of farming’s decline emerge a few sprigs of hope for community-based agriculture. Though farms have gone out of business, new German Baptist farm families now grow pick-your-own-strawberries, sell their own produce at the Rocky Mount Farmers Market, and plant orchards in hopes of direct sales to consumers. Though farm futures seem bleak, an exciting small-scale creamery has opened, bottling and selling its own milk in grocery stores all over Franklin County and beyond. Where farm financing seemed too risky, a German Baptist man nearing retirement has taken in a young non-German Baptist family as an equal...

  9. Epilogue: They Go Quietly
    (pp. 197-204)

    From the time of their arrival in Franklin County in the mid-1700s to today, the German Baptist Brethren have tried to remain a quiet people who avoid self-aggrandizement, never speak out on political issues or engage in lawsuits, always keep to themselves, and accept ridicule and even persecution without protest. While avoiding the world, the Brethren have become most noticed by their work, not what they say. This makes their words about their faith and farming both rare and significant. The Brethren narrative, grouped together in this book with historical research and interviews with their neighbors, provides a glimpse into...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 205-212)
  11. Index
    (pp. 213-220)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 221-224)