new Mennonite Life logo    September 2002     vol. 57 no. 3     Back to Table of Contents

A Story of Faith and the Flag:
A Study of Mennonite Fantasy Rhetoric

by Mark Unruh


The Sunday following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, I was sitting in one of the adult Sunday School classes of Zion Mennonite Church, Elbing, Kansas. Like most Americans, we were trying to process the event and come to grips with the emotions it evoked. During the course of the discussion, the question was asked, “Is it possible to be both a Mennonite and a patriot?” Most American Christians would consider such a question ridiculous. However, because Mennonites are a pacifist sect, it is a question that they must address any time the citizens of the United States are called on to rally to a patriotic military crusade.

In response to the question, one class member responded with an emphatic yes, and another offered as proof a story about a local Mennonite minister, who, during World War I, demonstrated his patriotism while still holding to his principles of non-violence. The story, which has several variations, is recorded by Gerlof D. Homan in American Mennonites and the Great War, 1914-1918.

Sometimes the pro-flag patriots were confounded. According to one tale that circulates in various versions (but which is no doubt in the main true), a mob near Whitewater, Kansas decided in April 1918 to go to the home of a local minister and force him to put up a flag. He did, then suggested they all sing “America.” Since his tormenters knew the words of only the first verse, soon he was the only person singing! (Homan, 1994, p. 71)

Some variations of the story have the minister singing a different patriotic song, even the Star-Spangled Banner. Some accounts add that the crowd’s amusement when the minister suggested that everyone sing a patriotic song turned to embarrassment when he finished singing a solo.

Aside from Homan, most Mennonite historians have ignored this particular episode from World War I. Certainly one reason it has been ignored in Mennonite histories is that it is difficult to verify the facts of the story, but it has also been ignored because it conflicts with the official story that Mennonites were a people of faith who silently endured persecution for their non-resistant beliefs. Mennonite historian James C. Juhnke observed

[an] area which deserves further attention in understanding Mennonite experiences in the context of American nationalism-militarism relates to the diversity of Mennonite responses to the changes brought by the war. The Mennonite experiences have contained much more variety than one would gather from reading Mennonite history books.

The agenda of Mennonite historians and leaders in the post-World War I period was to define the distinctiveness of the Mennonite peace tradition and to gird the brotherhood for the possibility of future war experiences. In this effort to focus a distinctive peace vision and program, Mennonites held up certain wartime positions or experiences as normative. (Juhnke, 1976, p. 176)

Since the flag story does not fit the official norm of silently suffering for the Anabaptist vision of non-resistance it has not been included in the Mennonite church’s “official” written histories. Instead, it remained a part of the laity’s oral tradition. (Listen to the recorded oral history version of this story available in this issue. -- Ed.)

In fact, it is because Mennonite historians have not fully addressed this flag story that makes it such fertile ground for the rhetorical critic. Historians are first interested in the question of whether the facts of the story happened: is it grounded in a historical reality? However, communication scholars are interested in a constructed reality called meaning. Thus, the specific “facts” of the story are less important than what the story means to those that tell and hear it. Communication scholars can use a story like the flag story to study how lay Mennonites construct their reality.

This study will use a “fantasy theme” analysis to answer two questions:

●How did Mennonites use a martyr fantasy theme to help sustain them when confronted with a dominant culture that did not understand or accept pacifism?

●How did/does the flag story serve as a mediating bridge between Anabaptist doctrine and American political values?

While this study looks at the Mennonite rhetorical experience, in a larger sense it is part of the scholarship of how religious sects sustain themselves when confronted with a dominant culture that is hostile to their beliefs. Hart (1997) notes that fantasy themes can be highly sustaining for groups facing external pressures and hostility.


The Mennonites are a Christian sect that has its origins in a 16th century movement called Anabaptism. While there is debate within Mennonite intellectual circles over defining Anabaptism, Calvin Redekop has extracted eight cohering elements from the works of leading Mennonite theologians and historians. According to Redekop, the following “theological, philosophical and sociological issues” are the most important concepts in defining Anabaptism.

1. A Holy Disciplined Church/Community which implies the submission of the individual goals and drives to the collective/social system.

2. Separation from the World and the State, implying the fundamental Christian dualism between the religious and the profane realms.

3. Voluntary Church Membership, implying the fundamental worth and autonomy of the individual.

4. Ultimate Obedience to God, Jesus and the Scriptures, which implies the locus of authority in the transcendent rather than in the human sphere, and reminds and warns us of the awesome horror of the arrogation of power by individuals and groups.

5. An Ethical Faith. This element guards against the subjectivity and spiritualization of religion.

6. Discipleship and the Simple Life focusing on the importance of doing (obedience) rather than simply being.

7. Mutual Love and Caring, implying the universal reality of the interdependence of all created and living things.

8. Love and Nonresistance, which implies the positive implementation of the negative rejection of human power and authority commanded in #4. (Redekop, 1993, p. 440)

For American Mennonites, wars and periods of national militarist fervor create an identity crisis. It is at these times that Anabaptist pacifism collides with American militarism, and Mennonites are torn between competing allegiances. Juhnke (1975, p. 154) writes, “The central problems of Mennonite political acculturation were all related in some way to an inescapable conflict between the ethic of modern nationalism and the ethic of traditional Mennonitism. As long as America, like all modern nations, rooted her existence in the ultimate appeal to popular military self-defense and as long as Mennonites refused military participation, a conflict between state and church were inevitable. Twentieth-century militant nationalism and Mennonitism were at odds.”

Mennonites, like most European immigrant groups, confronted an American culture that was incredibly seductive and welcoming. The genius of America was a system that invited the immigrant to join the party. While undoubtedly there was a degree of coerced assimilation, the truth is that most immigrants wanted to be American. Mennonites were no different. With the exception of small groups like the Amish and Hutterites, Mennonites embraced America, even while clinging to remnants of Mennonite culture, like the use of German in worship. Prior to World War I, Mennonites were “not greatly troubled by the problems of being Mennonite, German and American” as they had “an unquestioning confidence that it was possible and right to enjoy the fruits of American citizenship while preserving German-American culture and religious heritage” (Juhnke, 1975).

However, World War I shocked Mennonite confidence in the ability to remain loyal to their Anabaptist heritage and still be good Americans. Particularly since, during a war, loyalty in a nationalist democracy is measured by participation in the war effort. Huxman (1997, p. 308) writes, “Mennonites faced a formidable, if not impossible, task in trying to gain a favorable response from the public. Their identity was splintered. Events beyond their control had rekindled their out-group status. . . . They were faced with the challenge of explaining the Mennonite practice of nonconformity without appearing unpatriotic or morally superior.”

One problem facing American Mennonites was that acculturation had weakened the rhetoric that had sustained them through 400 years as outcasts in Europe: the rhetoric of martyrdom. In 1933 the German church historian Ethelbert Stauffer argued that the Anabaptists had developed a Theology of Martyrdom. Stauffer wrote that the theology of martyrdom is the “hidden sanctuary or crypt of Anabaptist Christianity.” He argued that martyrdom is the core of Anabaptist thought, its “theology of history” (Friedmann, 1973). One of the earliest expressions of the principle of martyrdom was a booklet called Of the Cross of Christ written by Menno Simons, an early Anabaptist leader, from whom Mennonites get their name. Menno taught that truth evokes hatred and persecution, and that these are evidence of walking in truth. He reassured Anabaptist followers that in their suffering they were in communion with Christ and should give thanks for being considered worthy to suffer death for His sake (Schowalter, 1973).

Huxman (1997) writes that one of the vital rhetorical tasks for Mennonite leaders was to “refurbish members’ faith commitment by generating an insular rhetoric to solidify the rank and file.” She argues that rhetoric within the Mennonite community during World War I employed a strategy of deviance. She notes that Mennonites emphasized the positive value of deviance to one another by playing the role of martyr. Huxman writes

The concept of martyrdom is highly emotive and powerful. Burke writes that of all the modes of sacrifice “none is more eloquent than martyrdom” (1969b, p. 266). A totally voluntary self-sacrifice enacted in a grave cause symbolizes the ultimate heroic act and the great worthiness of a cause. Because martyrdom is a defenseless way to suffer at the hands of some outside force, it is often a powerful way to suggest that one’s persecutors are cruel, unjust, and evil.” (Huxman, 1997, p. 312)

The martyr strategy used by Mennonite leaders to bolster their constituents’ ability to resist militarist pressure to participate in the war relied on a principal Mennonite fantasy theme. Martyr stories were used by Mennonites for 450 years to teach and affirm the church’s core values. The martyr fantasy theme can be traced to the publication of Thieleman van Braght’s Martyrs Mirror in 1685. The original Martyrs Mirror was a two-volume, 1290-page, folio-sized book that, in its second edition, was illustrated with 104 etchings by the Mennonite artist Jan Luyken. “For Mennonites in their 465 years of history, no book except the Bible has been more influential in perpetuating and nurturing their faith than the Martyrs Mirror” (Oyer 1990).

Among all the stories in the Martyrs Mirror, one has become the archetype martyr story, the story of Dirk Willems. Even today, Amish and Mennonites tell this story to their children (Oyer). The following is an abridged version of the story:

In the year 1569 a pious, faithful brother and follower of Jesus Christ, named Dirk Willems, was apprehended at Asperen, in Holland, and had to endure severe tyranny from the papists. But he had founded his faith not upon the drifting sand of human commandments, but upon the firm foundation stone, Christ Jesus. He, notwithstanding all evil winds of human doctrine, and heavy showers of tyrannical and severe persecution, remained immovable and steadfast unto the end. . . .

Concerning his apprehension, it is stated by trustworthy persons, that when he fled he was hotly pursued by a thief-catcher, and as there had been some frost, said Dirk Willems ran before over the ice, getting across with considerable peril. The thief-catcher following him broke through, when Dirk Willems, perceiving that the former was in danger of his life, quickly returned and aided him in getting out, and thus saved his life. The thief-catcher wanted to let him go, but the burgomaster very sternly called to him to consider his oath, and thus he was again seized by the thief catcher, and at said place, after severe imprisonment and great trials proceeding from the deceitful papists, put to death at the lingering fire by these bloodthirsty, ravening wolves, enduring it with great steadfastness, and confirming the genuine faith of the truth with his death and blood, as an instructive example to all pious Christians of this time, and to the everlasting disgrace of the tyrannous papists. (van Braght, 1972)

Stories like this served as the foundation of the Mennonite martyr myth, and Mennonite leaders used them to build the rhetoric that would sustain the church as it braced for the hostile onslaught of American patriotic militarism.

Hart noted that myth could be used to dramatize dialectical struggles between Good and Evil. He writes that “Such grappling heightens the importance of the issues at stake (‘the path of Light or the path of Darkness’) and clarify the alternatives (‘life in chains or a chance to breathe free.’) At times, the struggle is between the Haves and the Have Nots” (Hart 1997). So, it is understandable that myth is so powerful a rhetorical shield in the defense of oppressed groups.

An example of the power of myth for an oppressed group was the Ghost Dance Movement that for a time unified Native Americans in resistance to the destruction of their culture at the end the 19th century. Based on a vision of a Paiute prophet named Wovoka the movement unified Native Americans. It brought an end to intra- and intertribal fighting, produced a return to tribal values and ways of life, revitalized religious activity, and mandated adherence to the moral authority of the movement’s doctrine (Morris, 1990). That the myth proved to be a powerful rhetorical force in unifying Native Americans was evident, not only in its effect on Native Americans, but in that the United States government found it necessary to outlaw the Ghost Dance as part of a program of control. While the movement failed, it was not because the myth lacked power.

In another more recent example, Palestinians have also created myth to create unity and bolster themselves in the face of oppression. For Palestinians, the task was to create identity in a world that for the most part did not recognize them as nation or a state. While most Westerners viewed the Intifada as simply street violence spawned by the frustration and poverty of the Palestinians, for the Palestinians, it was a vehicle to rhetorically reaffirm the existence of the Palestinian State. In Palestinian stories of the Intifada, the “stone” became a construct that symbolized the transformative power of resistance (Hasian 1997). In their stories of stone-throwing, Palestinian youths are seen as martyrs. For the Palestinians these stories are “the substance of identity, the images that mobilize and transform the relationship of power.”

Fantasy themes are particularly powerful constructs for subgroups who feel threatened or oppressed by the dominant group or culture. Ernest Bormann in The Force of Fantasy states that fantasy is the creative or imaginative interpretation of events to fulfill a psychological or rhetorical need (1985). For subordinate groups the greatest need is to define themselves as an identifiable community or people. Bormann argues that fantasy themes make members of a group aware that they are personally different from others who do not share the symbolic tie of the fantasy. Moreover, it is not unusual for a movement to use a person associated with the founding of the group as a symbolic persona for the entire movement. In the case of Mennonites, the 16th century Anabaptist martyrs served this unifying function for the group.

The value and the power of a fantasy theme lies in its ability to serve as a mythic shorthand for a group. As Hart notes, fantasy themes are the everyday language of myth (Hart, p. 251). Their power lies in that they are persuasive without overt expression. They are in essence part of a group’s underlying rhetorical assumptions. However, fantasy themes are not static. Groups often create a new consciousness adapted to contemporary events by making modest changes to historical and contemporary fantasies (Bormann). Thus, it is possible to investigate social changes like acculturation by studying how a group’s fantasy themes change to meet the rhetorical requirements of the situation.


This study will examine the flag story in two steps. First, it will examine the flag story in the context of Mennonite martyr fantasy. In particular it will examine how Mennonites use a story like the flag story to sustain themselves when facing hostility from the dominant culture. Second, the study will examine how the flag story reflects an attempt to reconcile Mennonite and American culture.

To understand the flag story it must be examined within its historical context. In fact, separated from the historical context the story loses all meaning. Hart notes, “each persuasive message is produced in a unique rhetorical situation, thereby constituting a unique speech-act. The situation itself can make a statement apart from the statements contained in the words of the message” (Hart, p. 39). Thus, rhetorical criticism, with its insistence on analyzing the message within its context, seems particularly suited for the study of this story.

While there are a number of lenses that could be use to analyze the flag story, cultural criticism allows for the examination of the value assumptions that go into the rhetorical act (Hart, p. 234). At its heart the flag story reflects the tension between historic Mennonite values and American nationalist values. To fully appreciate this story it is necessary to put it into the context of Mennonite pacifism and World War I. The story simply loses meaning without an understanding that Mennonite refusals to serve in the U.S. military, buy war bonds, or fly the American flag had made their loyalty suspect during World War I. It was the context that created the conflict, and thus any lens must focus on the context.

The flag story has for the most part remained a myth of ordinary Mennonites, or the common folk. While the rhetoric of a minority religious group’s leadership is usually sophisticated and fully developed, the laity often depends on a mythic shorthand called “fantasy themes.” Fantasy themes are stories told by members of a group that dramatize their ideas or values. They allow a group to create a vision of the world independent of the dominant group. Thus, a fantasy theme can sustain an outcast group in a larger culture that is hostile to their values (Hart, 253). A fantasy theme analysis applied to the flag story can identify how ordinary Mennonites rhetorically defended themselves against charges that they were not patriotic.

Hart suggests two critical probes for fantasy theme analysis that can be used to analyze the flag story.

● Given the speaker’s story lines, what are the fundamental measures of right and wrong? Personal ethics? Some religious code? Social obligations and agreements? Political utility? Legal duty?

● Given the speaker’s story lines, how can success be measured? By assessing quantitative gain? By enhancing self-knowledge? By fulfilling group destiny? By being faithful to certain abstract principles? By defeating an enemy? (Hart, p. 254)

Hart justifies these questions for fantasy themes because they probe presumptions underlying a group’s rhetoric. They ask what lessons a group’s stories appear to teach about people in general, about the capacity of individuals, and about right and wrong.

The second part of the analysis will examine how some Mennonites use the flag story to bridge the gulf between Anabaptist values and American values. Bormann notes that a new consciousness can be created by adapting historical and contemporary fantasies. In the instance of the flag story, the martyr fantasy is transformed from a story of separation into a story of acculturation. To understand this function of the story it is helpful to compare the Anabaptist values identified by Redekop to the classic list of American values identified by Minnick. The following chart is a comparison of the two value systems.

Anabaptist v. American Values: a Comparison

Historic Anabaptist ValuesCompatible American ValuesConflicting American Values
Anabaptists value a holy disciplined church/community. Individual goals and drives should be subordinate to the collective/social system.   ● Americans measure success chiefly by economic means. Wealth is prized and everyone should aspire to get rich.
● Americans prize the individual about the state (collective).
Anabaptists believe in separation from the world and the state. Religion and politics should not be mixed. Ministers should stay out of politics. Americans admire “a regular guy” (one who does not try to stand off from his group because of intelligence, financial or other superiority).
Anabaptists believe in voluntary Church membership. One should belong to and support a church.  
● Anabaptists believe that their ultimate obedience is to God, Jesus, and the Scriptures. Authority is transcendent rather than in the human sphere.
● A doctrine of love and nonresistance implies a rejection of human power and authority.
  ● Americans prize loyalty to community, state, and nation, They think the American way of life is better than foreign ways.
● They think American democracy is the best of all possible government
Anabaptism is an ethical faith that rejects the subjectivity and spiritualization of religion. Americans think that people should be honest, sincere, kind, generous, friendly, and straightforward.  
Anabaptists believe in a disciplined and simple life focused on doing (obedience). Americans think good works are more important than one’s religious beliefs.  
Anabaptists practice mutual love and caring. They believe in the interdependence of all created and living things. Americans are charitable. The feel sympathy for the poor and unfortunate and are ready to offer material help.  

(Redekop, p. 440: Hart. p. 238)

While not all the above values will come into play in the flag story, it is important not to forget that values do not stand alone, but are part of a system. In effect, people and cultures have value contexts and that while some values may be in transition others may remain little affected. It should also be noted that saying that an Anabaptist value and an American value are compatible is not to say that they are equivalent. Instead, it is to say that a person can hold both values without creating an intellectual conflict. On the other hand, conflicting values are those which can not be held simultaneously without some intellectual dissonance. A fantasy that has developed out of the acculturation process should either magnify the compatibility of the two value systems, or downplay the conflicts between them, or both. By looking at how the flag story accomplishes these functions, it will be possible to analyze how well the story bridges Mennonite and American culture.


In Mennonite fantasy stories the fundamental measure of right and wrong is an allusion to the Bible. Anabaptist theology makes the Bible the authority for human behavior. As a result, Mennonites have historically had great a deal of scriptural literacy among both the clergy and the laity. In particular they had a high degree of competence at extrapolating a moral lesson from a parable or story. That is important because Mennonite martyr myths allude to Biblical teachings and make use of a scriptural tone. The Dirk Willems story is an example of how Mennonite martyr stories tie to the Bible.

In the Willems story he sacrifices himself by turning back to rescue his pursuer. While many people would feel this story is unfulfilling because it does not conform to the idea that a good deed should be reciprocated (i.e. Androcles and the lion), Mennonites understand the story as illustrating the Biblical injunction to “Love your enemy, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5: 43-45). For Mennonites the rhetorical meaning of the story is not dependent on the response of the thief-catcher. Instead, the meaning is derived from Willems’ faithfulness to Anabaptist values. This leads to the second probe: how is success measured in Mennonite martyr stories?

In the martyr stories success is measured by faithfulness to Mennonite beliefs. Thus the stories often have extensive details of the execution, because the greater the suffering, the greater the demonstration of faithfulness. The Willems story tells that a strong east wind drove the fire from the upper part of his body resulting in a lingering death. The Martyrs Mirror says that the official in charge of the execution was so filled with “sorrow and regret” at Willems’ suffering that he ordered Willems put to a quick death. The account goes on to say, “his [Willems’] life was consumed by the fire, and he passed through the conflict with great steadfastness, having commended his soul into the hands of God” (van Braght).

In addition to the martyrs bearing the suffering inflicted on them without recanting, another common element of these stories is that the observers of their suffering sense the faith of the martyrs, even if they don’t understand or accept it. Thus, the official overseeing Willems’ execution might be moved by his suffering but there is no indication that it altered his beliefs or affected his future behavior. Mennonites would have seen a Biblical parallel in the crucifixion of Jesus. The three Synoptic Gospels all report a similar story of suffering in which, on the death of Jesus, a Roman centurion acknowledges Jesus’ righteousness. But, like the Willems story, the audience is left to wonder whether this scene had any life changing consequences for the centurion.

Having used the critical probes to examine the Willems story, the next step is to apply them to the flag story. Here the question is how the fantasy theme was warped to a new rhetorical purpose: of justifying that Mennonites were patriotic despite their unwillingness to participate in the military or buy war bonds.

The value conflict inherent in the flag story is evident when examined using the first critical probe: Given the speaker’s story line, what are the fundamental measures of right and wrong? As already noted, the Anabaptist response would derive from a Biblical ethical standard, and for four centuries they had understood the Bible to teach a doctrine of nonresistance. Mennonites based their nonresistance on scriptural texts like “Do not resist one who is evil” (Matthew: 5:39) and “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew: 5:9). Menno Simons picked up a further Biblical allusion when he wrote, “The regenerate do not go to war, or engage in strife. They are the children of peace who have beaten their swords into plowshares and their spears in pruning hooks, and know of no war” (Crous, 1973, p. 898). However, while reference to these texts might make the argument for nonviolence, they clearly do not help to reassure Mennonites that they are good Americans.

Many Mennonites needed to feel that they could be part of American society, even while they rejected military participation. Thus, Mennonites adapted their martyr fantasy rhetoric to include American identity. The strategy was to base the appeal to rightness and wrongness on a standard of political unity, rather than Biblical authority. By accepting the display of the American flag and singing a patriotic song, the minister was identifying with patriotic values. The story reassures the Mennonites it is possible to bridge Anabaptist and American values.

This story reflects one of Bormann’s theories about fantasy themes: that the sacred flows into the secular. Clearly, the martyr stories originated as a form of religious instruction, but in this case the form has been co-opted for another purpose. As already noted, Mennonite fantasy themes allude to a Biblical reference. In the flag story the “pro-flag patriots” who were tormenting the minister were silenced, even embarrassed, when they could not sing more than one verse of the song. There is similarity to a Biblical story in the Gospel of John (8:1) about an adulteress. In the story Jesus is asked whether it was required that the woman caught in adultery be stoned. Rather than answer them directly Jesus said “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Soon all the woman’s accusers leave her alone with Jesus.

Some Mennonites turn to the flag story to answer a rhetorical question: can a person be both Mennonite and a patriot? However, the story never really answers the question. Like the story of the adulteress, the flag story sidesteps the question by implying that no one is in a position to judge another. In the same way that Mennonites rejected the authority of the state-church on matters of faith in the 16th century, the flag story is a rejection of the super-patriot’s authority to question Mennonite loyalty. Like the Willems story, where the meaning of the story is not dependent on the response of his tormentors, the rhetorical meaning of the flag story is not dependent on the response of the non-Mennonites who nailed the flag to the minister’s porch. Instead, the meaning is derived from the minister’s own action of singing all the verses to the song. The key to the story is not that the non-Mennonites know that the Mennonite belongs, but that the Mennonite knows he belongs. The story reflects a secularization of Mennonites: its force comes from the use of fantasy themes that evolved from the sacred, but which now justify the secular.

Another aspect of the secularization of the martyr myth is the change in how success is measured. In traditional martyr stories, success is measured by the faithfulness to Anabaptist doctrine. Willems became a model of Anabaptist martyrs, not only because of his self-sacrificing act of mercy, but also because he remained faithful despite an extremely agonizing death. The early martyrs confounded the state-church authorities by their dogged refusal to abandon Anabaptist doctrine. However, in the flag story success is achieved not by rejecting the persecutors’ values, but by a subtle claim that the Mennonite minister more fully cherished those values.

One of the most stinging charges levied against the Mennonites in World War I was that they were “slackers” (Juhnke 1989). Mennonites had historically prided themselves as a hardworking people who contributed their skills and productivity to the nations in which they lived. In Prussia, Russia, and elsewhere Mennonites had traded industry for tolerance. Mennonites believed that they were recruited to settle in South Central Kansas to make it as productive as they had made the steppes of the Ukraine. Important to the Mennonite productivity myth were stories like that of Bernhard Warkentin and the introduction of Turkey Red winter wheat to Kansas. Mennonites believed that their productive value more than compensated for those areas where their beliefs limited participation in American society. So, to be labeled a “slacker” went beyond an insult; to Mennonites it was a very real threat to their future in the United States. That Mennonites were self-conscious about being seen as slackers was evident in their dealings with the government. Mennonites hoped to gain respectability by proposing a series of alternative services they could help the government with during the war. By enumerating all the ways they contributed to the country, Mennonite leaders tried to show that they could be in the world, but not of it (Huxman, 1997).

While the Mennonite leadership might be making the case that Mennonites were in the world, but not of it, the flag story seems to go beyond church’s official rhetoric. In the flag story success is not achieved by merely gaining tolerance, success is achieved by gaining acceptance. In the flag story, the slacker charge is answered when only the Mennonite knows all the words to the patriotic song. The implication is that this is a more deeply rooted patriotism that does not depend on war fever to nourish it. Thus, the story builds on the Anabaptist value of steadfastness to one’s faith. However, now the faith is a faith in America. The Mennonite minister showed his loyalty to American values by remaining a true patriot even while he was tormented by the super-patriots.

Of course it is hard to believe that this story happened, at least in the dramatic sense that it is told by some Mennonites, which probably explains a limited treatment by historians. Nonetheless, it remains rhetorically meaningful because it speaks to the process of acculturation. In America, many Mennonites abandoned the theology of separation from the world and sought acceptance into American society. To accomplish this they had to create fantasies that bridged two value systems: Anabaptist and American. From the older sacred fantasy themes of the martyrs, Mennonites created secular fantasy themes like the flag story. The newer fantasy themes aided the process of acculturation by incorporating the new values in old forms. Because the forms were familiar, Mennonite could embrace American values without a sense that they were abandoning their Anabaptist heritage.

To be an effective tool for acculturation a fantasy must either accentuate the compatibility of the two value structures or minimize the conflict between them. Consider the values in the table “Anabaptist v. American Values: a Comparison.” In this scheme Anabaptist obedience to God, Jesus, and the scriptures, and the doctrine of love and nonviolence are in conflict with the fact that Americans prize loyalty to community, state, and nation. The story has to finesse that conflict to be an effective fantasy for acculturation. Fantasy themes are well suited for this type of rhetorical sleight of hand because they don’t make all the value assumptions explicit. Leaving gaps for the audience to fill in a fantasy theme provides the ambiguity necessary to bridge conflicting value systems.

In the story, the conflict between the Mennonite doctrine of non-violence and the demands of militaristic nationalism is reconciled by not finishing the story. The story ends when the pro-flag tormentors couldn’t sing all the words to the song. As a result the minister was never forced to buy or refuse to buy war bonds. Thus, he was never forced to decide which values, Anabaptist or American, had his allegiance. Thus, the story allows an affirmation by Mennonites that America is the best of all possible governments without participating in the war effort. The ambiguity of the outcome lets Mennonites imagine that Anabaptist and American values are compatible without addressing particularly thorny issues such as the draft and war taxes.

It is interesting that the protagonist of the story is a minister, that in the story it is a Mennonite minister that reconciles the two value systems. While the story ends without a choice to either buy or not buy war bonds, the fact that a minister would have made the choice lets Mennonites believe that it would have been a faithful choice. Though the story does not recommend a faithful course of action, it implies that one does exist. So, the story serves to satisfy the question: Is it possible to be both a Mennonite and a patriot?


This study merely scratches the surface of Mennonite fantasy theme study. The truth is that Mennonite culture is very diverse. In South Central Kansas alone there are over 70 different Mennonite congregations. So, while this story is meaningful to one group of Mennonites, it would be presumptuous to generalize to Mennonites as a whole.

Certainly, this criticism would benefit from a larger study of Mennonite fantasy themes. For example, Bormann’s work extensively detailed American fantasy themes over 242 pages. As Hart (1997) notes, fantasy analysis should calculate the breadth of an appeal. This study simply was too limited to discover what Hart called a theme’s “echo.” One place to look for these echoes is the public forums of Mennonite publications, local church histories, and family histories. If the martyr fantasy is being transformed into new American fantasies, it would be in these sources which are beyond the control of Mennonite officialdom.

So, what can be said about this study? Certainly it is a start: Mennonites have a rich tradition of storytelling and oral history. A fantasy theme analysis of that tradition can help to highlight what happens when a small religious sect encounters a dominant, and sometimes hostile, culture. Moreover, the value of fantasy theme study is that it allows a critic to study the rhetoric of common Mennonites. While the Mennonite leadership has set out to create an “official” Anabaptist vision, the laity have been creating their own vision, sometimes a quite different vision. A study of the rhetoric of ordinary Mennonites might help explain the gulf that sometimes exists between the leadership and ordinary Mennonites. While it might be too much to hope that such an understanding will lesson the contentiousness of church politics, it might explain why it exists.

Beyond Mennonite circles this study fits into a large body of literature which looks at the rhetoric of groups that are persecuted and groups that are in the process of acculturation. While each group has its own experiences, there are common obstacles that they face. How each group talks about those experiences can tell us a lot about them. A future study may ask how Mennonites adapted their fantasy themes differently than the Russian Orthodox, Jews, or any number of other religious minorities in America.

On another level, this study, while reflecting a different experience, might make us more sensitive to the position of Islamic people after the September 11 terrorist attack. Mennonites certainly should relate to what it is like to have their loyalty questioned because of a faith. Thus, maybe they can find the rhetoric to reach out to Muslims in such a time of isolation.


Bormann, E. G. (1985). The force of fantasy: Restoring the American dream. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press.

Crous, E. (1973). Nonresistance. The Mennonite Encyclopedia. Scottdale, Penn.: Mennonite Publishing House.

Friedmann R. (1973). Theology of martyrdom. The Mennonite Encyclopedia. Scottdale, Penn.: Mennonite Publishing House.

Hart, R. P. (1997). Modern rhetorical criticism. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Hasian, M, & Flores, L. (Winter, 1997). Children of the stones: The Intifada and the mythic creation of the Palestinian state. The Southern Communication Journal, 62, 89-106.

Homan, G. D. (1994). American Mennonites and the great war, 1914-1918. Scottdale, Penn.: Herald Press.

Huxman, S. S. (Summer, 1997). The tragi-comic rhetorical dance of marginalized groups: The case of Mennonites in the great war. The Southern Communication Journal, 62, 305-318.

Juhnke, J. C. (1976). Mennonites in militarist America: some consequences of World War I. Kingdom, cross, and community. Essays on Mennonite themes in honor of Guy F Hershberger. Ed. R. Burkholder & Calvin W. Redekop. Scottdale, Penn.: Herald Press.

Juhnke, J. C. (1997). A people of two kingdoms: The political acculturation of the Kansas Mennonites. Newton, Kansas: Faith and Life Press.

Morris, R. & Wander, P. (May 1990). Native American rhetoric: Dancing in the shadow of the ghost dance. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 76, 164-191.

Oyer, J. S. & Kreider, R. S. (1990). Mirror of the martyrs. Intercourse, Penn.: Good Books.

Redekop, C. (October 1993). The community of scholars and the essence of Anabaptism. The Mennonite Quarterly Review, 67, 429-450.

Schowalter, P. (1973). Martyrs. The Mennonite Encyclopedia. Scottdale, Penn.: Mennonite Publishing House.

Van Braght, T. (1972). The Martyrs mirror. Scottdale. Penn: Herald Press.