Odd as it may seem, I was in my 40s and already a pastor when I met my maternal grandmother, Magdalene (Moyer) Derstine. She died in 1916, when my mother was ten. My mom treasured every scrap of memory about her mother, once showing me with great ceremony a poem of Maggie’s, tattered and yellowed, clipped out of an old Gospel Herald magazine.
During my childhood the few snippets of oral tradition that circulated about Maggie intrigued me greatly. “She taught Sunday school to adults!” my Aunt Anna proclaimed. “And when the [male] chorister at Rockhill couldn’t get the pitch, he looked at Maggie for help.”
In 1993 I finally met young Maggie and her female friends. A cousin revealed that he had a cache of Maggie-related letters from the year 1900. My archivist husband transcribed the faded ink and unfamiliar script from those mildewed sheets – and presented 128 pages of text to me for Christmas.
The letters revealed a hidden part of my own history. Through Maggie and her friends, I uncovered a missing piece of myself. I understood better how I came to be the person I am. Perhaps most importantly, I glimpsed a group of ministering sisters who gave my own vocation a tradition….
I realized with a start that 22-year-old Maggie had travelled across the state of Pennsylvania by train to attend Bible conferences. She was immersed in the developing Mennonite Sunday school movement. She sang in a quartet, presented essays on theological topics, and visited “the girls” at a recently-established mission in Philadelphia.
References in letters suggest that she herself considered working at the mission. They hint that had money been available, she would have liked to attend the Elkhart Institute [precursor to Goshen College] along with her girlfriend Hettie Kulp. As new things were being born, Maggie was there in the midst of them – eager, energized, full of dreams, ministering in ways new for Mennonite women.
What stunned me most was Maggie’s essay “The Sister’s Work,” published in the church paper Herald of Truth in 1900. She notes that in studying the Scriptures, “we find there is other work which the sisters may do” besides “looking after the needs of the family.” Her argument parallels that used by Holiness groups in her era to sanction female pastors. She quotes the prophet Joel on God’s Spirit being poured out on all flesh, so that “your sons and daughters shall prophesy” (Joel 2:28). Prophesying, claims Maggie, “is speaking to edification, exhortation and comfort” (I. Cor. 14:3).
In the rest of the essay Maggie exhorts women to use their talents, whatever they may be, citing the example of Dorcas, who sewed garments for the poor, and Mary Magdalene, who was a missionary to the disciples on Easter morning. These examples are carefully chosen, for at this time young women were leaving their sheltered Mennonite communities to head to India, and sewing circles were forming in congregations to support the new mission work.
Maggie concludes her article with these words: “As the Lord leads, let us follow. Let us be earnest in His work, so that He can say of us, ‘She hath done what she could.’”
…Six months after this heady essay on “The Sister’s Work” was published, Maggie stopped travelling around to Bible conferences and city missions. Several letters show the agony of her decision making, the sorting out of her call. In October 1900 she returned home from an extended trip west at the behest of her mother, who said her help was needed in the butchering business.
In the throes of that decision, Maggie sought counsel from Irvin A. Derstine, with whom she exchanged six increasingly tender letters between August 30 and October 17. After she’d been gone a little more than a month, Irvin wrote:
“You ask the question what you should do about staying out there. I think you ask the wrong party if you ask me. I might still be too selfish to answer it…But the best is to find out God’s will and then obey.”
Maggie came home. Within four months she married my grandfather Irvin, who operated a gristmill on his family farm too far away for Maggie to assist with her family’s butchering!
As a married farm woman, Maggie taught Sunday school when she could, gave the pitch when the chorister couldn’t get it, and published that one poem, Keep Ever Close to Jesus. She birthed three children who lived and two who died; the last baby took her also at the age of 39. I’m her only granddaughter to survive infancy….
So what do I make of her life? How do I receive her? How do I put together her young adult eagerness, her excitement about new ways of ministering, and her settled life as a farm woman?
I like to imagine Maggie as an underground stream nourishing my own call. Surely her life – both before and after her marriage – contributed to the high value placed on church vocation amongst my Derstine kin. Three of Maggie’s grandchildren and two of her great grandchildren became pastors.
At the same time I receive Maggie as a metaphor – a metaphor of what happened to a whole generation of energetic Mennonite women who came of age around the year 1900. They cared deeply about the church. They had a lot to offer. But something happened – and it wasn’t only that they married and settled into farm life.
Many of the dreams of that generation of women were stillborn. For by the mid- 1920s the religious climate had changed. Fundamentalism overtook the Holiness movement as a major theological influence, with much debate about appropriate roles for women. Following two decades of institution-building, centralization under male leadership became the order of the day. Men even took over the Sewing Circle organization!
Given all this, I came to see my vocational call as continuing the trajectory of my grandmother and others of her era, as I ministered in ways and with a freedom which they couldn’t. Yet discovering Maggie so early in my own ministry also fed into my sense of fragility about the ongoing place of women in church leadership. I wondered if the tide would turn and we would be a one-generation aberration. I’m cheered that a second generation of female pastors is serving with distinction. And now a third generation is emerging….
(Adapted from my 2013 memoir, Flowing with the River: Soundings from my Life and Ministry, now out of print).
Questions for Reflection:
- What surprising new things have you learned as an adult about your grandparents? How have you reacted?
- Is there someone in your family of origin whose life and commitments help you understand yourself better?
Next week: My favorite season