Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Modern diversity dates back to early immigrants

Two small wooden homes lay beyond a gravel path. The sky is blue and the trees have very few leaves.
Screen capture
VPM News Focal Point
Descendants of early Mennonite immigrants speak about the impact on the Shenandoah Valley

It was religious persecution in Europe that brought Mennonites and Brethren, who held similar beliefs, to the United States in the 1700s. Descendants of the earliest immigrants share their families’ stories of hardship, hard work, peace and pacifism. The uncommon diversity in the area today may owe to the practices of kindness and welcome, as many new immigrants have sought refuge here. 


SAM FUNKHOUSER (EXEC. DIR., BRETHREN & MENNONITE HERITAGE CENTER): One of the things that doesn't happen today is we don't typically kill each other over our doctrinal beliefs. That was the norm in Europe at the time. Or being killed by the government, or having your properties confiscated, or being imprisoned, et cetera. So, Brethren of Mennonites, like other religious minorities in Europe, were persecuted, and that was really the reason they came to America. So, starting in the late 1600s, Mennonites started coming to America from Europe, almost exclusively settled initially in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania was the only colony that offered religious freedom. William Penn actually went to Europe and solicited for religious minorities to come to Pennsylvania during and after the Revolutionary War. People like Brethren Mennonites, who didn't want to fight in the revolution, were treated very harshly. They had their properties confiscated, they had their homes taken, they were imprisoned, and a few were even killed. And so that experience in Pennsylvania prompted some to move. Some went west and when they hit the mountains, went over the mountains into Ohio, and then some when they hit the mountains, came down the valley into Virginia.

LEO HEATWOLE (MENNONITE DESCENDANT & BMHC VOLUNTEER): Do you know where leather comes from?

SAM FUNKHOUSER: Leo Heatwole is a descendant of David Heatwole, who built our shoemaker shop, and he's one of our volunteers, helps with our field trips and does a presentation in the shoemaker shop on our field trip days.

LEO HEATWOLE: David Heatwole was my great, great, great, great, great-grandfather. I'm the eighth generation. His parents were immigrants from Germany who left to come to America for religious beliefs. He was born in America. David and Magdalene Heatwole had 11 children and he came down into the Shenandoah Valley and started looking for land. He found 85 acres, so he built the spring house from the limestone that he picked. He made a stone trough through it for water to run through. This was their type of refrigeration. Then he constructed the shoemaker shop, the same size as the reproduction here. When I stand in this shoemaker shop, even though it's been reconstructed, I'm standing over a spring house of the original stone that David Heatwole picked in the late 1700s. And it gives me a feeling of ancestry that I cannot really describe to you. I never met the man. He was much older than me, over 225 years. But I still have this special feeling of working, demonstrating to future generations.

RUTH JOST (MENNONITE DESCENDANT & BMHC VOLUNTEER): A war came and there were soldiers all over the valley here.

SAM FUNKHOUSER: Ruth Jost is a descendant of many of the Mennonite families here in the valley, and she does our storytelling station for field trips where she tells many of her family stories and particularly the stories of family members during the Civil War and how they lived out their faith during a trying time.

RUTH JOST: My ancestors came to Southeast Pennsylvania and that was an area where it was known that if you're trying to get north to get to freedom, if you could get as far as southeast corner of Pennsylvania, you could probably make it. And that was because that area had Amish Mennonites and it had Quakers and some other German descended groups who were there, who tended to be sympathetic. The point was, who was going to turn you in if they catch you there? And these groups would not. They didn't hold slaves. Mennonites and Brethren's believed that was wrong. And that's because- Mennonites and Brethren believed that Jesus taught us to do unto others as we would want them to do to us. We wouldn't want somebody to make us a slave. And they also believed that Jesus said, love even your enemies. That means don't kill them. Don't join an army and kill them.

SAM FUNKHOUSER: If you were a member of a Brethren Mennonite church, and you purchased enslaved persons, they would kick you out. If you wanted to join their church from another group and you were an enslaver, you owned enslaved persons, the people you'd enslaved had to be set free first. Not sold, set free.

LEO HEATWOLE: They brought a faith, religion, basic peace position to the valley that it has been known for many years.

RUTH JOST: The commitment to peace means a commitment to each other. It means peace within the faith community. It's something that is very much focused inward on the group, but it also relates to your relationship to other people. As I've grown up in this community, I see a lot of people who spend a lot of time and energy and resources in projects and organizations that can help other people. I think it's really important. I certainly remember as I was growing up here, Vietnamese refugees who came here, Eastern Mennonite University had, back in the '40s I think, had accepted African students, which was very novel for this area here. But the refugee communities who came here, the Laotians then and a number of other groups that continued to come, I think it was because of families who were here who were receptive and willing to pitch in and help. I think it comes out of a realization that if we're not going to take part in the military solutions, we need to be trying to extend what we see as Jesus' example of what he extended in healing and reaching out and in healing relationships between people.

SAM FUNKHOUSER: Brethren Mennonites, they tended to be agricultural or work in trades like the Shoemaker shop. They certainly had an economic impact on the Shenandoah Valley and how it developed. During the war, Brethren Mennonites didn't fight, though they tended to stay out of politics. I would say probably roughly 10% of the population here is Brethren Mennonite. You know, there's certainly one part of the cultural tapestry that makes up the Shenandoah Valley.


Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.
Related Articles
  1. Mass Migration: Why are people moving south?
  2. Commonwealth metro migration
  3. Chasing the American Dream on Richmond’s Southside
Related Stories