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October 1974 · Vol. 3 No. 3 · pp. 249–52 

Trunks, Trails and Threshing Stones

Wesley J. Prieb

Trunks, trails, and threshing stones: these three images dominate my mind as I recall the experience of the Mennonite immigrants who came to the Prairie States in 1874. Trunks used by the immigrants have become collectors’ items. Retracing old trails leading to Mennonite settlements has led to valuable sources of information for the historian. The threshing stone tells its own story of Mennonite community life. Three themes emerge from these three images:

The Trunk—A People of Hope

The Trail—The Pilgrim Church

The Threshing Stone—A Caring Community


Uprooted and rooted again—this is the classic rhythm of the People of God. A dramatic scene in migration stories is the Mennonite family gathered around a trunk after the decision has been made “to go.” The sorting-out process has been completed. Then the family reads the promises of God, prays, places the family Bible in the trunk and then, having thus disengaged themselves from the homeland, they walk confidently into the unknown tomorrow.

People who pack trunks are people of hope. They are willing to risk everything on the basis of God’s promises. The promised land sustains and focuses life. There is no room for cynicism or despair among packers of trunks.

The Bible, which was usually placed near the top of the trunk, was the source of hope for the Mennonite immigrants, and the Lordship of Christ was their foundation: “I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For {250} other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 3:11-12).

Combined with this commitment to faith and to the Lordship of Christ was a commitment to productivity and work, symbolized by wheat that was packed in the trunk. Wheat seed, too, is a symbol of hope. There is the promise of new life and nourishment, a promise that required industry and hard work on the part of God’s children. “Give us this day our daily bread” is answered when God’s disciples are faithful stewards of the earth.


The second dramatic scene in migration stories is a Mennonite family on a wagon, moving through tall buffalo grass on the Kansas prairie, looking over the horizon of a strange country in search of the place for a new home. To move to a new country is painful, but it is liberating too. It takes amazing courage and trust in God to leave a homeland and to believe that God will provide a new home. The four wheels on the wagon suggest four Anabaptist values that require a high degree of mobility.

Obedience: “We ought to obey God rather than man,” says Peter in Acts 5:29. Living by this mandate may force the Christian disciple to move rather than to compromise. Submission to the Lordship of Christ requires freedom to disengage: “And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.” (Matt. 19:29) The invitation to be a cross-bearing Christian is often an invitation to get on the trail: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.”

Non-Conformity: The commitment to discipleship is a commitment to vigorous and redemptive non-conformity. “Be not conformed to this world,” says Paul to the Roman Christians, “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Non-conformity is a commitment to the narrow road, the counter-cultural road, and to a vigorous and redemptive life-style expressed through total discipleship. Even when persecuted, the disciple of Christ does not retaliate or curse his pain. He seeks to obey Christ’s law of love, “Bless them which persecute you, bless and curse not.” Wheat too seems to thrive on punishment—it survives extremes of heat, drought, floods, ice, snow. It is trampled by grazing stock. It endures the pain of the sickle, the threshing stone, the grinding stone, and the heat of the oven. The faithful follower of Christ also does not curse his pain, but gives himself through Christ as a blessing to the world.

Missionary: Disengagement from territorial claims, national priorities, and material affluence gives the pilgrim church freedom to be transcultural and missionary, freedom to witness to all people, freedom to be the church wherever God leads. The mandate “to go” requires easy mobility. Our forefathers caught the vision of the Great Commission in part because they were on the road so much.

Simple Life: The inventory on a wagon is limited to essentials. The pilgrim travels with little baggage. The rich life is the free and faithful life encumbered with unnecessary baggage. The pilgrim is concerned with {251} values, not with things.


In the third dramatic scene the Mennonite family is rooted again in a church-centered community. The people, young and old, male and female, are working together on the threshing floor, harvesting the precious wheat of a bountiful harvest. The wheat could not grow in a trunk or on the road. God’s people need a land to build and sustain a community where the Love of God can be translated into a life-style and into Christian relationships. Roots must go down again in order to sow and harvest, to build homes, churches, schools, and hospitals, and to provide the material basis for domestic life. The seven ridges on the threshing stone serve as a reminder of seven Christian values which are essential to the development of a caring community.

External Authority: Our forefathers understood the importance of building the community around the church, around the authority of God and His message as revealed in Scripture. Many communities disintegrate because there is no transcendent cause which commands the loyalties of all its members. Many of the communal experiments of the late sixties failed because there was no central authority to which all members could relate. Self-expression and individual goals are not a sound basis for the development of community.

Fellowship of Believers: Church as community is based on a covenant with God and a covenant with other believers. God reveals His will to the Body of Christ; He works through His people on a corporate basis—not only on an individual basis. Individualism offers no basis for community. In the true fellowship of believers there is the recognition of mutual support, interdependence, bearing one another’s burdens, worship and celebration. Church brotherhood involves a whole fabric of common concern and mutual responsibility under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Family Covenant: The smallest social unit of any community is the family. The strength and vitality of a nation, a society, a community, or a church depends heavily upon the glue which holds together a family unit. Our forefathers understood the unconditional love of God. They sought to translate this kind of prevailing love into the family and church covenant.

Disciplined Community: A community without standards and expectations cannot long survive. The yardstick of the teachings of Jesus provides a standard for the Christian community. Deviations from these standards cannot be ignored. Discipline need not mean legalism. The opposite of legalism is permissiveness, which also leads to the disintegration of community. The Anabaptist method of discipline was a caring and loving confrontation. They cared so much for each other that they became accountable to each other, thus trying to help each other achieve their Lord’s high standard.

Forgiving Community: All of us fail in our attempts to achieve the high standards God expects His children to follow. Discipline and confrontation need to be balanced by mercy and forgiveness. Agents of righteousness must also be agents of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the glue {252} that helps hold a community together. Matthew chapter 18 gives the formula for the forgiving community: “Seventy times seven.”

Working Community: It is a thrill and great therapy for a community—old and young, male and female—to work together. In our leisure-oriented and automated society work has lost its dignity. At the same time, hedonistic pursuits have left the masses in our culture empty and without real joy. Work is “happiness,” especially when we can work with our brothers and sisters. Motivated by human consideration, we thought we were doing our children and senior citizens a favor by removing them from the work world. Today we realize we have dehumanized both groups in doing so. Our forefathers knew that work is not only a right but an obligation for all children of God who have the capacity to be productive.

Sharing Community: Our forefathers have taught us well that the true community not only provides mutual aid for its own members, but it shares its resources with the outside world. The shortest road to disintegration is self-centeredness and self-serving. To be the light of the world and the salt of the earth, the Christian community sends out agents of compassion and reconciliation to relate to the oppressed people of the world.


Trunks, trails, and threshing stones: They have helped me discover my past and face the future. May we become a People of Hope, a Pilgrim Church, and a Caring Community. May it be said of us:

Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Professor Prieb is Dean of Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas.

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