Exploring Brethren and Mennonite Heritage in the Shenandoah Valley

Three structures are visible in a non-snowy winter landscape: a small log structure that is a spring house, a larger two-story log structure that is a house, with three windows and a door, and a small white shed in the background.

Step into the Brethren Mennonite Heritage Center and explore the Anabaptist heritage of the Shenandoah Valley it preserves. In Harrisonburg, VA, this museum tells the stories of the Brethren and Mennonite faith communities in the Shenandoah Valley. The museum houses an extensive collection of historical artifacts, documents and resources. A highlight of the tour are the house museums, reflecting different historical periods. There are also a variety of other historical buildings, and there are plans to add more in the future!

I’ve never met a house museum that I didn’t want to tour, and the Brethren Heritage Center has three. I was in heaven. Although I was initially leery that as someone who isn’t of the Church of the Brethren, Mennonite or Amish faiths, I would either be proselytized or would find it boring. Neither occurred. I found the tour of the houses and the history of the three communities in the Shenandoah Valley fascinating.

Looking for other fun things to see and do in Harrisonburg? Check out The Virginia Quilt Museum and The Aristocat Cafe!

A Little History of Two Faiths

The Church of the Brethren in America traces its roots back to the 18th century. In Germany in the early 1700s, German immigrants who were influenced by Pietism and Anabaptist beliefs began forming congregations in Pennsylvania. In 1708, the first Brethren congregation was established in Germantown, near Philadelphia. These early Brethren emphasized principles such as adult baptism, nonviolence, and simplicity.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Brethren communities spread across Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and other parts of the United States. They faced challenges such as persecution for their pacifist beliefs during times of war, including the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Despite these difficulties, the Brethren continued to grow and establish new congregations.

In the 20th century, the Church of the Brethren experienced further expansion and development. Importantly, it became involved in social justice issues such as civil rights and peace activism. Today, the Church of the Brethren continues its commitment to community, service, and spiritual renewal.

How the Amish, Mennonite and Brethren Communities Are Alike, and Different

The Brethren, Mennonites and Amish are all part of the Anabaptist tradition, originating from the Radical Reformation in 16th-century Europe. While they share common roots, each group has distinct beliefs and practices.

The Church of the Brethren emerged in the early 18th century in Germany, influenced by Pietism and Anabaptist principles. They emphasize adult baptism, pacifism, and community service. The Brethren typically embrace modern technology and engage in missions and social activism.

Mennonites originated with the teachings of Menno Simons in the Netherlands during the 16th century. They prioritize nonviolence, simplicity, and community, often emphasizing agricultural lifestyles. Mennonites may vary in their acceptance of modern technology and engagement with wider society, with some being more progressive than others.

The Amish emphasize separation from the wider world, often living in rural, agrarian communities. They prioritize traditional practices, plain dress, and limited use of technology. Amish communities maintain strict discipline and often avoid formal education beyond the eighth grade.

While all three groups share core Anabaptist values of peace, community, and discipleship, their interpretations of these values lead to distinct lifestyles.

About the Heritage Center

As you explore the Heritage Center, you’ll encounter a variety of items that offer glimpses into the past. From ancient manuscripts to captivating photographs, each piece tells a unique story of the Brethren’s journey through time. Delve into the history and beliefs of the Brethren as you explore exhibits detailing life on the frontier, the community’s pacifism during the Civil War, and its stance on Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement.

The center’s attractions extend beyond its walls, with meticulously preserved buildings that serve as windows into the past. Step inside a log house dating back to 1819. Marvel at the craftsmanship of a shoemaker shop from the late 1700s. Admire the elegance of a brick house built in 1854, offering insight into the lives of the more affluent members of the community.

One intriguing aspect of the center’s exhibits is the exploration of the poultry farming industry in the region. Learn about the development of fair contracts between feed companies and farmers during the Great Depression, and discover how innovations like Wampler’s egg incubator revolutionized poultry farming in the Shenandoah Valley.

But the Brethren Mennonite Heritage Center is more than just a museum; it’s a hub of activity and education. Regular events, lectures, and workshops are hosted to deepen understanding and appreciation of the Brethren heritage. Whether attending a conference or exploring a temporary exhibition, visitors are invited to engage with the vibrant culture and history of the Brethren movement.

In preserving and promoting the legacy of the Brethren, the Heritage Center serves as an important link to the past in the Shenandoah Valley. With its wealth of resources and commitment to education, it continues to inspire and enlighten visitors, ensuring that the stories of the Brethren and Mennonites endure for generations to come.

Know Before You Go

Plan on spending about 3 hours exploring the various historic houses and buildings in the center, as well as going through the museum. There are bathrooms in the visitor center/museum. Wear comfortable shoes, because you’ll be walking up the side of a mountain to get to all the buildings. Trust me, it’s worth it!

Getting there: 1921 Heritage Center Way, Harrisonburg, VA
Hours: Closed major religious holidays and Sundays; Mondays and Tuesdays by appointment; Wednesdays – Saturdays 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Website: Mennonite & Brethren Heritage Center