#89 – The New Year 1900 (and 2019)

Maggie Moyer

“Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.”

Thus began a letter received by Maggie Moyer  from her girlfriend Sue Denlinger, written on January 2, 1900.  Maggie and Sue and other young adults corresponded with each other between attending Bible conferences together or working short stints at city missions.

Maggie Moyer eventually married Irvin Derstine and became my maternal grandmother. Since she died young, I never met her in person.  So I was thrilled when in the 1990’s a cousin made available a stash of letters between Maggie and her young adult friends.  They told me much about Maggie and about the church era in which she lived.

Here’s the whole quote from Maggie’s friend Sue in 1900:

Hitherto hath the Lord helped us, and during the year in which we have just started may we realize more and more that He is All, and in All.

There is something sad isn’t there about the dying year?   How many things have happened to each one of us since the first of January 1899.  What joys have been ours and again there were times when we cried out ‘Oh dear Lord, help us in this trial, or I will have to fall.’

And now we are in the last year of the century. Who knows what will be our portion in this year?  None but God.

I deeply connect with what Sue Denlinger wrote in a spirituality typical of 1900.

It’s certainly fascinating to see the particulars of the disasters people wrote about then, and to compare them to our own time.  For instance, in the letter Maggie read about two Lancaster, Pennsylvania people killed by trains, and another person who died months after being bitten by a cat.

Now, 119 years later, we’re concerned about climate change, and about people being killed in school or synagogue shootings. We assume we’ve greatly improved rail safety in the intervening years, until a tragedy like Lac-Mégantic in Québec comes along.  In Canada people rarely die from being bitten by a cat. Cancer, heart disease, and other degenerative diseases are the health scourges of the western world today.

Yet this letter to my grandmother still speaks to me as the calendar turns over 119 years later: For “who knows what our portion will be in 2019? None but God.”

As I move further into the unknowns of cancer decline in the year ahead, at least two things in particular nourish my soul:

  1. I’m still bathed in the music from four acoustically wonderful venues during Advent: The Messiah at Centre in the Square, Menno Singers at St. Matthews Lutheran Church, Advent Jazz in the Conrad Grebel chapel, and the Christmas Eve lessons and carols service at Rockway Mennonite. When I told an old friend that I stopped singing a few times on Christmas Eve so I could just absorb the music, she indicated that she had too!

I enter the new year both consoled and energized by having heard and sung the music of God with us once again.

  1. In our Christmas letter to folks geographically far away, Sam and I named a stance which nourishes my spirit as we move forward:

“We want to graciously receive each day we are given, and be open to whatever it brings.  I hope to keep blogging as long as I’m able, while enjoying Sam, family, and friends from near and far.  The rest, as always, is in God’s merciful hands.”

Graciously-ReceivingHere is a mandala I colored last week, which I called “Graciously Receiving the Day.”  Gazing at it, my spirit finds nourishment and rest. Unfortunately, the restful colours haven’t reproduced as well as I’d like.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What does the turn to 2019 mean for you?
  2. How do you relate to this question and response:

“Who knows what our portion will be in 2019?  None but God.”

Whatever your situation, may you graciously receive each day.

And may your spirit be nourished in 2019 in ways expected and in ways astonishing….

Next week: TBA

#57 – Before E-mail and Blogs

Vacation Bible School at Centereach, Long Island, New York

My cousin Helen lived in such an exotic place. Or at least I thought so as a child.   For one thing, we had to go through New York City to get there, craning our necks as we passed the Empire State Building. Also, Helen and her sisters ate pizza and lived only half an hour from Long Island’s beaches.

Each week my mother and I eagerly anticipated a letter from Aunt Mildred in Centereach, Long Island, New York. Through those letters, I gleaned not only tidbits about my cousins’ lives, but also  an uncensored view of what church planting was really like in the 1950’s, far from the sheltered assumptions at the center of the Franconia Mennonite Conference in southeastern Pennsylvania. I do wish my Mom had kept those letters chronicling Curt and Mildred Godshall’s joys and struggles.

We cherished other letters from afar also. Occasionally one arrived from Cuba, where my much older cousin Betty King and her husband Aaron ministered as a revolution unfolded around them.

We also heard from England, where Mom’s cousin Miriam Leatherman and her husband Quintus were hosts at the London Mennonite Centre. (We never told them that the fruit cake they sent each Christmas always arrived in little pieces.)

Later, in my 40’s and my 60’s, I relished hearing about family members from before the time I was born, reading letters which someone had saved.

Irvin Derstine with grandchildren; Sue held by brother Jim, back right

When I was 43, I learned to know my maternal grandparents, Magdelena (Maggie) Moyer and Irvin Derstine, through increasingly serious “pre-courting” letters they wrote to each other in the year 1900.  Prior to reading those letters, I remembered my grandfather Irvin only as an old man sitting in a chair with one leg amputated.

Since Maggie died when my mother was 10 years old, my discovery of  her via young adult letters was an enormous gift. I glimpsed her traveling to Sunday school conferences in western Pennsylvania, and visiting girlfriends all over the place.  I found in my grandmother a soul mate who helped “explain” some of my own impulse toward church leadership. (See #24 – Maggie Uncovered for more on Maggie.)

Lester-to-MarthaThe few “courting letters” from my Dad to my Mom in 1922-1924 are a hoot!  He wrote mostly about his adventures walking home to Souderton late at night from dates at her farm near Sellersville. Or about escapades with his Chevrolet sedan in a snowstorm…what it was like to be “the first machine to go through” on a snow-covered country road where they had to make their own tracks. I recognized in his writing a jaunty voice I heard him use years later when he was trying to impress people!

Roy Clemmer

My Mom’s weekly letters to my older cousin Roy in Civilian Public Service camps in 1943 gave me a glimpse of our household, of the family feed mill, and of  life in Souderton during World War II.

I learned that my then 16-year-old brother Jim had a paper route and sang in a chorus. I wasn’t surprised to read that after my Dad worked at the mill “until late” one January night, he tried unsuccessfully to fix the furnace when he arrived home. I was reminded of my Mom’s fondness for homemade ice cream.  I found out that she frequently fed and lodged CO’s who came to help out at the feed mill in addition to their work at Norristown State Hospital.

I cherish the memories created by reading these letters and by finding old greeting cards. They give me the “feel” of my family before I was part of it and when I was a child. They nourish my soul. I’m grateful to my Mom and other family members for saving them.



I wonder…in the age of instant communication via social media and smart phones, how will future generations learn such things about us?  How will they get glimpses of our traits and our everyday lives? How will they know what was important to us?

Questions for Reflection: How – if at all – have old family letters or diaries nourished your soul? What have you gleaned from them that’s important for you now?

How will future generations know what has been important to you?

Next Week: The Joy of Anticipation


#24 – Maggie Uncovered

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.”

Magdalene-DerstineIn 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.

Elkhart Institute

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.

The beginning of Maggie’s article on April 1, 1900

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.

Irvin-DerstineIn 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!

Ever-Close-to-JesusAs 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:

  1. What surprising new things have you learned as an adult about your grandparents? How have you reacted?
  2. Is there someone in your family of origin whose life and commitments help you understand yourself better?

Next week: My favorite season