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MENNONITES

MENNONITES. Mennonites, practitioners of an Anabaptist religion, were first known to have arrived in Texas in 1896 when families came to Fairchilds in Fort Bend County. Their stay was brief, however, as the community was devastated first by a malaria epidemic and then by the Galveston hurricane of 1900. The few remaining families relocated to nearby Richmond by the early 1900s. Another group of Mennonites founded a church in 1905 at Tuleta, northwest of Corpus Christi. The congregation grew to more than 100 members before a drought in 1917 caused many to leave. In 1907 families settled in Hale County in the Texas Panhandle at the behest of Mennonite minister Peter B. Snyder, who had arrived and purchased land in the area the previous year. The community of Snyder was named for the minister, and the settlers constructed a schoolhouse where the Mennonite Church of Snyder met. The population had grown to about fifty in 1909. Years of drought, beginning around 1917, and dust storms eventually forced the families out of the region, and many moved out of state to the Midwest. About 1911 some 160 colonists from Ohio settled in South Texas in the town of Palm in Dimmit County, but the colony ended within a few years because of poor crop sales.

In 1914 two groups of Mennonites agreed to purchase land from the Littlefield Land Company, spurring hopes that the South Plains might become a major center of Mennonite settlement. By 1916 more than 160 Mennonites had moved to Lamb County and begun farming. Most of them came from Kansas, but some migrated from as far away as California and Manitoba. Severe drought in 1916 and 1917 caused most of the colonists to abandon the area, and the colony failed.

In 1927 and 1928 Mennonite churches were established southwest of Corpus Christi at Premont and Falfurrias. Mennonite congregations exist in the Panhandle, including the towns of Perryton and Waka. A Mennonite church was organized near Texline in Dallam County in 1930. It lost most of its forty members during the drought of the 1930s and suffered decline until the mid-1970s, when the community rebounded and by the early 2000s had increased to more than 160 members. From the 1980s to the 2000s, seven Mennonite missions were built near the Texas-Mexico border between Laredo and Brownsville. That same border area is also home to six Mennonite communities. The missions direct their activities primarily toward the Mexican-American population.

More recent Mennonite colonization in Texas began in 1977, when two groups of Mennonites purchased land in Gaines and Andrews counties near Seminole: Old Colony Mennonites and a less conservative group affiliated with the General Conference Mennonite Church. Both were descended from Old Colony Mennonites who had settled in Mexico in the 1920s. The Old Colony Mennonites believe in total separation from the outside world, use a Low German dialect, dress distinctively, and keep separate schools. Most of the colonists in Gaines and Andrews counties came from Mennonite communities in Chihuahua, Mexico, but some were from Canada.

The Mennonites picked this region of Texas for colonization because large blocks of land were available, population was not concentrated, and private schools were not heavily regulated, among other reasons. The Old Colony group purchased a block of 6,420 acres, and the General Conference group acquired 1,172 acres. Early in 1977 the first colonists arrived believing that, having purchased land in the United States, they would be allowed to enter the country as legal immigrants, but they were not. In July of that year forty-three of the Mennonite families were ordered by the immigration and naturalization service to leave the United States. Additionally, some 250 families that were to have emigrated stayed in Mexico, and without their assistance the Old Colony group was not able to meet its mortgage payments. The plight of the Mennonites received widespread publicity, and in October 1980 members of the Texas congressional delegation succeeded, through a private bill, in legalizing the status of more than 600 colonists. But it was too late to save the land of the Old Colony group, which had been sold at auction in April 1979. The General Conference group retained its land.

Despite their problems, the colonists persisted. In July 1984 an estimated 2,000 Mennonites lived in Gaines and Andrews counties, and about ten more families were scattered over a large area south of Stanton. Approximately ten families had moved to Lubbock, and an indeterminate but small number lived scattered in surrounding counties. Most of the Mennonite colonists made their living by farming or as skilled or semiskilled laborers. In 1982 there were four Mennonite churches and three schools in Seminole. Two of the schools were conducted in German, and the third was taught primarily in English with supplementary instruction in German. All of the schools were primary; secondary students attended public school or Mennonite boarding schools. In 1993 Mennonites from Mexico and Canada continued to immigrate to West Texas increasing the Mennonite population to 3,000. Those who came after the 1980 dispensation still faced immigration difficulties.

By 1980 seven families of the Beachy Amish Mennonites came to Lott in Falls County. This relatively new group had emerged as the result of a split led by Bishop Moses M. Beachy from the Pennsylvania Old Amish in the late 1920s. Near the town of Lott, the families established Faith Mennonite Fellowship, and by 2005 the area had approximately thirty-five families who had come mostly from Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Iowa. In the mid-1990s a few families left Lott to begin a new Mennonite community in Grandview south of Fort Worth. Members of the Grandview Mennonites began yet another new community in Osceola, fifteen miles to the southwest, in 2004. Five families left Lott in 1997 to establish Grace Mennonite Fellowship in Bastrop.

By the early 2000s Texas had some fifty or more Mennonite congregations across the state, with the largest populations located in the Panhandle and High Plains and along the Gulf Coast. Texas Mennonites consisted of more than 4,000 baptized members and many more non-baptized children and youth.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Laura L. Camden and Susan Gaetz Duarte, Mennonites in Texas: The Quiet in the Land (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2006). Cornelius J. Dyck, ed., An Introduction to Mennonite History (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald, 1981). Gary S. Elbow and Simone Gordon, "Mennonite Colonization Efforts at Seminole, Texas, 1977–1979," West Texas Historical Association Year Book 57 (1981). David B. Gracy II, "Mennonites at Littlefield," Mennonite Quarterly Review 42 (July 1968). "Texas," Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4 (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Mennonite Publishing House, 1959).

Gary S. Elbow, rev. by Laurie E. Jasinski

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Gary S. Elbow, rev. by Laurie E. Jasinski, "MENNONITES," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/inm01), accessed October 21, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on April 3, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.