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Quilt show in France attracts thousands to learn about Amish, Mennonites


October 19, 2005
-by Bethany Keener


This quilt, contributed by the French Anabaptist and Mennonite Historical Association (AFHAM), symbolizes traditional Anabaptist theology and life practices. The Bible, with Christ at the center, is the foundation of Mennonite faith. The Christian community is composed of adult members baptized on their confession of faith. Since the beginning of the Anabaptist movement, non-resistance to violence constituted an important principle of their faith. Anabaptists around the world are persecuted for their faith. The map on the quilt shows important historical Mennonite and Amish towns in Europe, including Zürich, Berne, Montbéliard, Strasbourg and Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines.

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Sainte-marie-aux-mines, France — Ten years ago a patchwork quilt festival began in a small village in France’s Vosges Mountains. This year the exhibit, held Sept. 16-19, hosted upward of 18,000 visitors who flocked to Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines from all over Europe.

Though most come to see the handiwork of artists from around the world and not because they are interested in religious history, a stunning display of Amish and Mennonite quilts, furniture and clothes piqued the curiosity of these tourists. Many were intrigued enough to attend lectures about the religious beliefs of the makers of the pieces in the show.

“The split between those now called the Amish and Mennonites took place in 1693. A Swiss Anabaptist elder named Jacob Amman moved into [this town] in Alsace (Eastern France). In 1993 the French Mennonite Historical Society sponsored a colloquium in Sainte Marie to study the history of the split,” said Neal Blough. With his wife, Janie, Blough has spent the past 30 years working in Paris. Supported by Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network, the couple serves on the staff of the Paris Mennonite Center and as a resource to Mennonite congregations in France.

Through the colloquium, townspeople learned of their historical ties to Anabaptists and the quilt festival was begun to attract tourists. Today it is the largest exhibit of its kind in Europe, with displays from five continents and over 400 textile vendors. Having spread to three other towns in addition to Sainte-Marie, a total of 18 separate exhibits were shown. This year, in celebration of the event’s 10th anniversary, the French Anabaptist and Mennonite Historical Association was given a place of honor.

“The French Mennonites had a wonderful opportunity to explain who they are and what they believe,” Blough said. “They are doing a very creative job in responding to the opportunity that is being presented to them.”

The historical society sponsored a large book display and provided staff to answer visitors’ questions. Along with the Bienenberg Theological Seminary (Switzerland), the Paris Mennonite Center has helped produce a series of books on Anabaptist history and theology. These books, including Marie-Thérèse Bernard’s French translation of Donald B. Kraybill’s The Riddle of Amish Culture (2001), were on display over the four-day weekend.

Finished just in time for the event, the translation of Kraybill’s book was of special interest to visitors as the author was on hand to sign his volume. The 200 copies of the study of Amish social and cultural change in the 20th century that “explains how they have thrived by negotiating with modernity,” were all sold by the festival’s end.

“I was astonished at the size of the event that is now just 10 years old,” Kraybill said. A senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptists and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College, he spoke to crowded lecture halls on the topics, “Cultural clashes between the Amish and the state,” and “Are Amish women happy?”

“People were very attentive and asked questions for a while after [each] lecture,” he said. “There were numerous questions about the daily life and practice of the Amish of North America.”

Blough, who teaches at the theological seminary in Bienenberg, also contributed as a guest lecturer. He spoke to audiences about “how the Amish accept or reject technology in comparison with Jacques Ellul’s understanding of our modern technical society.”

He summarized the French Protestant sociologist and theologian’s critique “of Western society as being totally driven by … technology with no attempt to ask questions about why we keep on adopting every new technique that appears.” The Amish, by contrast, “adopt new technologies in a way that is subordinate to their own theological understanding of the church, the family and the individual.”

A period of discussion about Western society’s values that form decisions about use of technology followed Blough’s lecture. “For me it was a fascinating way to be able to speak publicly about faith in the context of contemporary society,” he said.

Other lecturers included French Mennonite historian of the Amish Robert Baecher and Jacques Légeret, Swiss journalist, quilt collector and author of books about the Amish.