A few weeks ago I visited a charming Amish and Mennonite “visitor’s center” in a nearby town. I noticed something I think Mormons can learn from.
Not long before the Mormons settled in Nauvoo, Illinois, another religious group fleeing persecution settled In Shipshewana, Indiana. The Amish also sought to restore true forms of Christian worship that had been lost in the centuries after Christ, rejecting infant baptism and insisting on religious freedom. They came to establish a community of true Christians on the American frontier, in several locations including Shipshewana.
Today, both Anabaptists (including Amish, Mennonites, and Hutterites) and Mormons are often misunderstood. We need to make a bit of an effort to help people see what we are really about, rather than judging us by superficial differences or misleading hearsay. We build “visitor centers,” dramatizing our story, and trying to convey what matters most to us. What do we say? We emphasize that Christ is the foundation of our faith. We tell about the convictions and sacrifices of our early leaders and those who followed them. This far our approach is much alike; it was actually kind of spooky to see how much like our story theirs is.
There was one stunning difference, though, between this Anabaptist museum and a Mormon visitor center. It showed in a number of places, but two examples stood out.
One room was a full-size mockup of a below-deck section of a 17th-century sailing ship, like the cramped spaces where many Anabaptists endured weeks of hardship, disease, and often death to escape persecution and find religious freedom in the New World. This was their handcart experience. A plaque explained:
When food runs low, a dead rat will bring a steep price . . . More than half the children will perish . . . Given such conditions, your decision to set sail for America is one of great foolishness, or of great faith.
Which phrase would you not see at a Mormon visitor center? I’ll give you one guess. The narrator doesn’t just ask the visitor to enter his world; he enters theirs, fully acknowledging what many visitors will be tempted to think: these people are nuts! Yet precisely this humility, for me, was one of the most persuasive things about the place.
Another plaque explained the settling of Shipshewana:
“Bands of Indians roamed the rolling hills and flatlands of this area . . . around 1800. The Indians were friendly . . . In 1838 the remaining Indians were driven from the area . . . It is a sad irony that the Amish found refuge from their persecution on land made available by the earlier persecution of another peaceful people, the Pottawattamie.”
Providence here is bitter-sweet. The rightness of the Amish project is mingled with a serious wrong, though the Amish came later and would rather have died than drive the Indians away themselves. Yet just that mingling makes it all the more believable. Isn’t that how life really works, the life we all live? Isn’t that much like the message of Adam and Eve? Isn’t the compassion shown in this telling of the story a testimony that its teller truly knows Christ?
The Book of Mormon teaches that God grants unto all some portion of his truth. It also teaches that it contains a fulness of saving truth, and we believe that the man who brought it forth in modern times was uniquely authorized to organize and lead the true Church of Jesus Christ. But as we go about spreading the word about it, I think we could do a better job acknowledging the valid perspectives of sincere outsiders, and the Spirit will be more with us if we do.