A window into the life of some Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonites

John Ruth Memoirfrom Mennonite Heritage Center

“A first-born and only son, I opened my eyes in a sprawling 122-year-old farmhouse along a pleasant creek in southeastern Pennsylvania,” writes Mennonite historian, John Landis Ruth, in his forthcoming book, Branch: A Memoir with Pictures. As eighty-three year old Ruth tells his story through photos and essays, readers get a rich glimpse of his life but also the Mennonite family and community in which he was raised.

The narrative begins at his birthplace, the 1809 Lower Salford Township farm along the East Branch of the Perkiomen Creek to which, at age 57, he returned with wife Roma and two sons’ families. The early tone is set by the 1940’s photography of his father Henry L. Ruth, a Bucks County-born farmer.  “Those are the scripture verses that little John L Ruth learned by memory when he was a little boy of 4 years old,” writes John’s maternal grandmother in a diary entry included in one of the book’s intimate and evocative photos.

After attending school in Lower Salford and Lancaster County, Pa., and Virginia, in 1950 at the age of 20 the future historian was chosen to be a Mennonite minister by the casting of lots.  Subsequent studies took him to Harvard where he earned a Ph.D. and became a Professor of English at what is now Eastern University, St. Davids, Pa., with a sabbatical as Guest Professor of American Literature at the University of Hamburg, Germany.

Back in Pennsylvania, Ruth accepted a call in his mid-forties to work on themes of Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage in a popular rather than academic mode.  His first book, commissioned by Conrad Grebel College, appeared in 1974.  Photographs from the following decades of cross-country teaching, film-making, writing, speaking at historical observances and tour-leading are interspersed in the memoir with scenes from family, church, and the author’s changing southeastern Pennsylvania community.  “In the end this is a love story—love of family, love of community and church—all anchored in an enduring, classic Mennonite faith,”  observes Dick Benner, editor of The Canadian Mennonite.

In small coffee-table-style, each of the 210 two-page spreads opens to a mini-essay paired with a full-page picture.  Ruth chose this format “to explore synergy between a lifetime’s collection of pictures and the words they may call forth.”

The 432-page, hard-bound memoir, priced at $25, is scheduled to be released at book-signings at the Mennonite Heritage Center, Harleysville on November 21 at 7:30 p.m; on November 22 in Lancaster County at Landis Homes at 10:00 a.m., Garden Spot Village at  2:00 p.m., and at a pictorial presentation on “Travel in the Anabaptist Historical Landscape” at the Martindale Reception Center at 7:30 p.m.; on November 23 at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society at 10:00 a.m.  The release in Canada is scheduled for Tourmagination’s 45th Anniversary Celebration at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo on November 28.

Copies will be available for purchase from TourMagination, www.tourmagination.com and the Mennonite Heritage Center (215 256 3020), 565 Yoder Road, Harleysville, PA 19438, www.mhep.org.