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Spring 2017 · Vol. 46 No. 1 · pp. 81–99 

Old Order Christianity in the Central Valley: Old German Baptist Brethren, Holdeman Mennonites, and Spiritual Jumper Molokans

Rod Janzen

California is not a place one expects to find Plain Christians. It is true that many old order religious societies have withstood the assimilationist pressures of North America (for example, the Hutterites, who have increased in size from 425 members in 1880, to 51,000 today). 1 The Old Order Amish have grown at a similarly accelerated rate and today number over 300,000 people. 2

The future of Holdeman Mennonites, Old German Baptists—and even Molokans—looks as bright, if not brighter, than most mainline Christian denominations.

But these communities are not located in California. Although the Old Order Amish started a small community near Salinas in 1913, it did not survive. 3 The largest Amish communities are found in the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and Indiana, while Hutterite colonies are located in the northern plains states of the United States and the {82} prairie provinces of Canada. 4 Ten thousand fundamentalist/polygamous Latter-day Saints have established communities in Utah, Arizona, and Alberta, but few live in California. 5

Historically California has been a land known for social and political experimentation, a place that defines progressive thinking and the creative remaking of human existence. As such, California has attracted thousands of people interested in alternative religions, health cures, and communal utopias. 6 Often forgotten, however, is the fact that California is also the home of three large old order religious groups: the Holdeman Mennonites, the Old German Baptist Brethren, and the Spiritual Jumper Molokans.

This article explores how these three groups have been successful in establishing stable traditional communities in California’s Central Valley, meeting accepted criteria for what defines “old order Christianity,” while retaining historic beliefs and practices. 7 Also reviewed are the major problems that confront them, as well as comments about the future of each group.


California’s Central Valley is a semi-arid region that receives from ten to fifteen inches of rainfall annually. Soil conditions are excellent, however, and historically there has been plentiful water for irrigation purposes from the Sierra Nevada mountains to the east. The Central Valley has historically consisted of farming communities populated by Dust Bowl migrants as well as immigrants from Mexico, Russia, China, the Portuguese Azores, Armenia, Korea, and Japan. In recent decades, the valley has become even more culturally diverse, with growing Latin American, Hmong, and Punjabi populations. The valley is also the destination of internal migrations from southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area (due to lower housing costs), a phenomenon that has changed the valley’s population base and social climate. It is here that the Holdeman Mennonites, Old German Baptist Brethren, and Spiritual Jumper Molokans have made their homes.

These three groups are relatively unknown. The only book-length academic work on the Holdeman Mennonites is Clarence Hiebert’s The Holdeman People (1969). 8 The Old German Baptist Brethren (OGBB) have never received a book-length treatment by a non-member, although they were one of four groups studied in the 2001 book, On the Backroads to Heaven, by Donald Kraybill and Carl Bowman. 9 The one academic analysis of the Molokans was published in 1932: Pauline Young’s Pilgrims of Russian-Town. 10 With the exception of that dated work, none of these books pays much attention to settlements in California. {83}


Although there is diversity even within individual plain Christian groups, “old order” societies generally are traditional branches of otherwise modernizing religious groups. 11 They are communities that have, over time, held the line against social change. The term “old order” references a conservative rendition of a particular religious expression or community, implying that more progressive “new order” factions of these groups also exist.

Generally accepted characteristics include the following: 12

1. Holism. Members of old order groups do not recognize distinctions between religious and secular realms of existence. Every act has ethical implications and is therefore religious in nature. It follows that even business decisions have religious dimensions.

2. Separation from the world. Old order groups view activities outside the church as “things of the world,” including politics, education, and personal relationships with “outsiders” (non-members). There is little focus on evangelism. Instead attention is given to the church community as an imperfect form of the Kingdom of God on earth. The preservation of correct belief and practice is essential, as is serving as a model for non-members. Traditional cultures are “self-energizing” and are “less responsive to the environment than is normally the case with social movements.” 13 They are fully developed and all-encompassing countercultures. 14

3. Ethno-religious identity. Most old order groups are endogamous and have thus developed genetic as well as cultural uniqueness.

4. Church discipline. All members of an old order community feel responsibility not only for their own spiritual state but for the beliefs and practices of other members. In addition to the harsh mechanisms of shunning and excommunication, the most common way to ensure adherence to church rules is through talk or gossip. 15

5. Communal ethics. In old order groups, the community is considered more important than the individual. Goals are determined based on what is good for the entire membership rather than individuals or families. “The community, not the individual, is the chief agent of ethical discernment; communal wisdom supersedes individual experience and personal opinion.” 16

6. Respect for the past. Old order groups have great reverence for what has happened in the past, to traditions handed down, and to the accumulated wisdom of ancestors. Change is viewed with suspicion.

7. Suffering. Old order Christians believe that adherence to Christian principles will lead to harassment and persecution from nonmembers. {84}

8. Work ethic. Industry and busyness is characteristic of old order Christians and is closely tied to a refusal to separate secular and spiritual realms of existence. As Kraybill and Bowman note, “work is more satisfying than consumption.” 17

9. Controlled use of technology and media. Old order groups use technology and media selectively, not allowing it to significantly affect their lives. Most old order groups agree that just because something is faster or newer does not mean it is necessarily good.

10. Plain dress. Dressing plain is how nonconformity is shown publicly. It is an observable statement and a distinguishing mark. As old order Christian Stephen Scott put it, “a true follower of Jesus will be recognized by appearance, not only conduct.” 18

11. Education. Old order Christians place little value on higher education. Historically they have not encouraged members to go to school any longer than the state requires.

12. Pacifism. Most old order Christian groups are pacifist. They believe that Jesus’ life and teachings demand a life of peaceful nonresistance.

13. Management of change. In all old order groups, change is carefully managed to ensure that members are not overly influenced by economic, ideological, and political trends.


The Church of God in Christ, Mennonite—more commonly known as Holdeman Mennonite—was founded in 1850 as a division within the Swiss Mennonite Church in Ohio. It was founded by John Holdeman, who was upset that the congregation he attended did not recognize his spiritual gifts through the casting of lots process, even though Holdeman said that God had called him directly to ministry. Holdeman came to this belief through a striking vision where he saw “triangular pieces of glass . . . changed into ice.” As Holdeman put it, one piece “melted in my hands,” indicating that people would be converted through his ministry. 19

Holdeman believed that Mennonites had strayed from the path set forth by sixteenth-century Anabaptists. He emphasized holy living, plainer dress, a personal and emotional relationship with God, and a greater commitment to church discipline. 20 From its beginning, the Holdeman Church has also taken the position that it is the one true Church of God, representing a remnant community that has existed continuously since the time of Jesus.

Holdeman Mennonites are primarily of Low German ethnic background. Although founder John Holdeman was Swiss, he was most {85} successful in gaining adherents among Mennonite immigrants from Russia who had settled in Kansas during the 1870s and 80s.

Holdeman Mennonite beliefs are set forth in detail in the book, Bible Doctrine and Practices. 21 Holdeman Mennonites believe strongly in holy living, separation from non-church members, and the peace position. 22 During World War I, John Holdeman even insisted that members not make donations to the Red Cross.

The Holdeman Church enforces church discipline in a particularly rigorous manner. Thus, significant numbers of church members experience excommunication at some point in their lives (although most eventually return to the fold). 23 Twice a year, before taking communion, members confess their sins to a minister or deacon.

Holdeman Mennonites represent a mix of old order simplicity and physical expressiveness in worship. Sermons are delivered extemporaneously and with strong emotion. Members of the group enthusiastically sing evangelical gospel hymns as women and men sit on opposite sides of the church. 24

Holdeman dress is plain and distinctive. Men wear carefully trimmed beards, while women cover their heads and wear dresses or skirts. Until the early 2000s, Holdeman Mennonites proscribed the use of computers and cell phones. Although they continue to oppose the possession of photographs (considering them to be idolatrous) they now allow the use of computers (and even internet access) for business purposes or due to government regulations. Holdeman Mennonites dismantle cameras on smartphones and filter internet use when possible.

Holdeman Mennonites began settling in the Livingston/Winton area (about seventy miles north of Fresno) during the second decade of the twentieth century. Initially most members farmed, but by the early twenty-first century only a few dozen families continue to do so. Most Holdeman Mennonites now hold blue collar jobs in the building trades. Some men work in local factories and many Holdeman women have become nurses.

Recreation for Holdeman Mennonites consists especially of travel to the homes of friends and relatives in various parts of the United States and Canada. The church is adamantly opposed to professional or amateur sports as well as most recreational activities, and young people are not allowed to date without the presence of adult chaperones (usually parents).

In 2016, there are about 1,200 persons associated with three Holdeman congregations in the Central Valley. Beginning in the mid-1970s these churches established K-12 schools, under the supervision of usually noncredentialed Holdeman teachers. All Holdeman children are {86} expected to attend these schools instead of the local public schools. Nationally the group has about 20,000 members in thirty-three states and provinces. 25


The Old German Baptist Brethren (OGBB) was formed as a separate denomination in 1881, the result of a division within the German Baptist Brethren, which at the time split into three factions. The OGBB were the most conservative of the three. Another of the subgroups—the Church of the Brethren—continues as the most progressive and largest branch of the German Baptist Brethren assembly.

The German Baptist Brethren, first established in Schwarzenau, Germany, in 1708, have roots in Radical Pietism, a movement within the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church in Germany in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In addition to the importance of a personal relationship with God, Radical Pietists emphasized the importance of works accompanying faith, and adhered to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount teachings, including pacifism. In this regard, Baptist Brethren theologians were influenced by both Anabaptist theology and Radical Pietists, and thus were sometimes referred to as “Anabaptist Pietists.” 26

Members of the OGBB continue to believe that traditional beliefs and practices should be retained to combat the forces of American assimilation, modern technology, and Protestant ecumenism. Until 2009, the OGBB generally opposed higher education, organized evangelism (though they have always welcomed visitors and converts), a professional salaried ministry, life insurance, and political activity. 27 A strong emphasis on church discipline helps members retain a solid sense of community and Christian unity, although Old German Baptists have never been as rigid in this regard as Holdeman Mennonites.

In 2009, the OGBB divided into two groups, with the more progressive group taking the name, “Old German Baptist Brethren: New Conference.” The schism was the result of disagreements on the authority of the OGBB Annual Meeting, specifically, a requirement that all member congregations discontinue their use of the internet, which was increasingly being used for business and educational purposes. 28 There were also differences of opinion on dress and some lifestyle issues. The New Conference is open, for example, to higher education.

Those who formed the New Conference felt that they were being “dis-fellowshipped” for not adhering to a decision-making structure that had historically operated with less rigidity, especially regarding congregational autonomy. 29 As with divisions among the Hutterian Brethren, the Old German Baptist split has not had an impact on basic {87} ecclesiastical and theological positions. 30 But the New Conference has taken positions that are leading toward a less separate existence. For example, the New Conference has established a website and has introduced biweekly Bible studies.

Both Old German Baptist Brethren groups use a consensus decision-making process with significant congregational autonomy. Positions on beliefs and practices are discussed and evaluated at national Annual Meetings. Old German Baptists emphasize straightforward honesty, a gentle and humble spirit, and love for all human beings. The annual Love Feast is a full meal that incorporates the Lord’s Supper, and stresses the importance of being at peace with God and members of the church. 31

Today there are about 6,100 members of the Old German Baptist Brethren in the United States with a total population of about 21,000. 32 About 2,200 reside in the Central Valley, primarily north of Modesto (halfway between Sacramento and Fresno), where members began to purchase land in the 1920s. Originally, most Old German Baptists were farmers, planting fruit and nut trees as well as vineyards. Most members today have blue collar occupations and an increasing number of New Conference members hold positions in business. In the Central Valley, about 90 percent of the OGBB population has joined the New Conference. There are no traditionalists in attendance at the New Conference school near Modesto, which has an enrollment of about one hundred students. 33

Old German Baptists are recognized by distinctive “plain” dress that includes head coverings and long dresses for women; and black, tan, or denim pants for men. Like the Old Order Amish, ministers and some older men do not cut their beards, and often wear a mix of browns and grays. Men also don broad brimmed hats and so are easily recognizable. In the OGBB view, this marks them as followers of Jesus and encourages holy living.

Old German Baptist teachings are characteristically Anabaptist, as reflected in sermons, hymns, and confessional statements. During worship services the ordained ministers sit at a table at the front of the church and wait until the Holy Spirit moves one of them to speak, something called “passing the liberty.” Old German Baptist services are about two hours in length and consist of Bible readings, hymn singing at a very slow tempo, and two long sermons. Like most old order groups, musical instruments are not used but songs are sung with heartfelt emotion.

Like the Holdeman Mennonites, the Old German Baptist Brethren have established a private K–12 school (near Modesto). Unlike the Holdeman Mennonites, Old German Baptists do not require that their children attend it, but about half of them do. {88}


Whereas Holdeman Mennonites and Old German Baptists are influenced by sixteenth-century Anabaptism and are primarily German or Dutch ethnically, the Molokans emerged as part of the Spiritual Christian movement in Russia in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. 34 This Protestant-influenced movement also spawned the Doukhobors, the Khlysty, and various Sabbatarian groups.

The name “Molokan,” first employed by opponents in 1765, is a Russian term meaning “milk-drinkers,” and references the Molokan refusal to adhere to Orthodox fast day stipulations. Heavily persecuted—and often operating illegally in Russia—the Molokans nonetheless grew to be the largest of the Protestant-influenced sectarian groups within Russia. By the late nineteenth century there were over one million adherents, and most Molokans had been exiled to what are now the nations of Georgia and Azerbaijan. Others resettled in what are now Armenia and Iran.

Molokans believe in the importance of returning the church to the way it was portrayed in the Book of Acts, with significant antagonism to ritual and hierarchical organization. Like Holdeman Mennonites, many Molokans believe that only they represent the true form of the Christian faith. 35 Molokans reject Orthodox Church formalism, icons, priestly roles, and the just war doctrine. They have, however, retained a variety of Orthodox-like teachings and practices, including a belief in guardian angels, prayers for the dead, the use of the Apocrypha, the saying of ritualistic blessings, and even standing for at least half of the church service. 36

In 1853, one group of Molokans in Armenia adopted a more charismatic form of worship that included “jumping” in the Spirit. They also adopted Old Testament dietary laws. This group was led by Maxim Rudometkin, and they were eventually called “Spiritual Jumpers.” It is primarily members of the Spiritual Jumper group that immigrated to California between 1905 and 1911, leaving Eastern Europe due to a prophecy given by a twelve-year-old boy named Efim Klubnikin. Laws requiring military service during the Russo-Japanese War and the 1905 Revolution made it increasingly difficult for Christian pacifists in the Russian Empire to maintain distinctive beliefs.

Molokan Christians, like Holdeman Mennonites and Old German Baptists, have a distinctive dress code, consisting of traditional Russian peasant garb. Women don full white skirts, long-sleeved blouses, and lacy shawls, while men wear long Russian peasant shirts. Today, however, most Spiritual Jumpers wear plain dress only at church and church-related services. {89}

Except for Molokan ministers and some male traditionalists, who wear long, uncut beards, most members are not easily identifiable during the week. Yet Molokans are the most separatist of the three groups studied. Molokans do not practice evangelism of any kind. They do not allow non-Molokans to join or even to attend worship services. 37 Molokan services are conducted in the Old Slavonic language, and members are expected to spend free time in church-related functions or in social group activities with other Molokans (even, for example, when attending a local football game). Kerman farmer Charlie Weis notes that while growing up he had many Molokan friends during the school day but personal contacts ended as soon as the bell rang in mid-afternoon. 38 Molokans interviewed confirm this phenomenon.

The music sung at Molokan services reflects a Russian peasant folk song background, and expresses great emotion, often in a minor key. 39 Molokans rely on the leading of prophets and prophetesses in each congregation. The fact that some women are recognized to have this spiritual gift differs from most old order groups. 40

Another important Molokan religious practice is the phenomenon of spiritual jumping (akin to some Pentecostal Spirit-filled expressions). During the more informal second half of the Sunday service, individuals touched by the Holy Spirit jump up and down in a ritualized manner. Also significant is the formal exchange of the salutation or holy kiss, which expresses unity with other church members. This salutation is also observed by Old German Baptists, and, to a lesser extent, Holdeman Mennonites, but it is not done as part of a church service in those groups, nor is it done across gender lines.

The first Molokans arrived in the Central Valley in 1915. They settled in the Kerman area, twenty miles west of Fresno, and most of them were initially farmers. Molokans, like the other two groups, were historically skeptical of higher education and most members continue to hold blue collar jobs. In 2016, there are about five hundred Molokans in the Kerman/Madera area, where they have established four separate churches. The total American Molokan population is about five thousand, with most members residing in California, Arizona, and Oregon. There is also one small Steadfast (non-Spiritual Jumper) Molokan group in San Francisco. 41

Spiritual Jumper Molokans are the only one of the three groups studied here that has had a stagnant, even declining, membership over the past fifty years. They have had greater difficulty retaining young people, who are increasingly attracted to evangelical Protestant congregations. Unlike the other two groups, Molokans have not taken positions {90} against the ownership of televisions, radios, or computers, but have simply advocated restraint in the way they are used.


Holdeman Mennonites and Old German Baptists have Western European ethnic and cultural backgrounds as well as a common Anabaptist theological heritage. Molokans are ethnically Russian and are rooted in indigenous Protestant movements within the Russian Orthodox Church. There is no religious communion between any of the three old order groups, and all are essentially endogamous. Within each group one thus encounters a strong sense of community, much like a large extended family.

Holdeman Mennonites, Old German Baptists, and Molokans all preach separation from the outside world in terms of personal and (where possible) business relationships. Apart from religious services, Molokans do not dress plain but they are encouraged not to form close friendships with non-Molokans. All three groups have established private schools to help maintain specific beliefs and practices and to protect young people from secular or other denominational influences.

In some ways, Spiritual Jumper Molokans are the most assimilated of the three groups. Members participate more fully, for example, in public institutions, athletic, and cultural events. The Molokan K-6 school in Kerman attracts only a small percentage (perhaps one-fourth) of the group’s children.

In other ways, however, Molokans are the most separatist of the groups studied, because of their opposition to evangelism and cautionary relationships with non-Molokans. Although they were once Russia’s most successful Protestant missionaries, prophetic visions in the twentieth century caused the Molokans to turn inward. Molokan ministers also remember the lack of success experienced in the 1940s and 1950s when some Molokan churches in the Los Angeles area opened their doors to the public. 42 Today non-Molokans are not invited to church services, nor are members allowed to marry someone not Molokan.

Of the three groups, Holdeman Mennonites are the most active evangelistically, although in recent years they have only experienced much success in Africa and South America, as part of “missionary colonization” efforts. 43 In the Central Valley, Holdeman “revival” services are held primarily for internal purposes, to “revive” the spirituality of members.

Although Old German Baptist Brethren welcome visitors and new members, they do not expect many outsiders to change their lifestyles and join the group. Regarding the Great Commission of Jesus, an OGBB {91} 1980 doctrinal statement indicates that the Commission was given specifically to Jesus’s disciples and that the goal was achieved by the 60s of the first Christian century. 44

All old order groups emphasize the nonexistence of boundaries between spiritual and secular realms of existence. Church discipline helps ensure unity. All acts—on Sunday morning or during the week—have theological implications, and each member is responsible for the spiritual condition of other members. The strictest stance in this regard is taken by the Holdeman Mennonites, who do not tolerate rules infractions—even by young people before they join the church. This is not the case with Old German Baptists and Molokans, who allow some youthful indiscretion before membership vows are taken. The behavior of members is also not monitored as closely.

Holdeman Mennonites and Old German Baptist Brethren control the use of technology and media, while the Molokans do not, relying on individual choice. All three adhere to what Holdeman minister John Jantz calls “modesty and simplicity.” 45

All three groups conduct church services with a certain measure of liturgical rigidity and prescribed worship structure. Yet within this structure there is an openness to forms of expression (sometimes controlled, sometimes not) that are not found in traditional mainstream Protestantism.

In the Molokan service, for example, extemporaneous prophetic statements and jumping are expected yet unplanned. At one service, 50 percent of those in attendance might be affected; in others, one or two people. 46 The same is true for the spontaneity of Old German Baptist and Holdeman Mennonite preaching. In all three cases, it is assumed that God speaks through individuals; in the words that are spoken and movements that are made.

Membership in all three groups is a highly individual matter but it varies greatly. The Old German Baptists and Molokans accept most young attenders who want to join (if they promise to adhere to church teachings and practices), while the Holdeman Mennonites require prospective members to undergo a detailed interrogation into their spiritual state. Holdeman Mennonites require a definitive salvation “experience” that is publicly expressed.

In all three groups, becoming a Christian is a communal process with significant obligations. All stress the importance of holy living, good works, humility, and adherence to a literal interpretation of the Old and New Testaments, including the peace position. All hold an Anabaptist or Anabaptist-like view of the Bible, with the New Testament given precedence over the Old as a kind of progressive revelation. Exegesis is {92} Christocentric, with the teachings of Jesus considered the primary way that God’s will is elucidated. Extemporaneous preaching in Holdeman and OGBB churches—prophetic comments in Molokan services—allow the Holy Spirit to provide up-to-date interpretations.

Holdeman Mennonites and Spiritual Jumper Molokans also accept the importance of certain nonbiblical texts. Holdeman Mennonites recognize the inspiration of John Holdeman, who published dozens of books and treatises. Almost every Holdeman home has a copy of at least a few of these works. Spiritual Jumpers not only recognize the power of inspired prophecies but view the works of Maxim Rudometkin in Spirit and Life and The Book of the Sun, almost as important as the Bible. 47 The writings of Efim Klubnikin (the Boy Prophet) are also considered significant. 48 These publications are found on a front table alongside a Russian Bible in almost every Spiritual Jumper home. Old German Baptists, conversely, do not revere any nonbiblical writings.

Unique to Spiritual Jumper Molokans is a rejection of all sacraments, including baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Molokans also retain transformed renditions of Orthodox Church practices and Old Testament dietary laws (no shellfish or pork and kosher methods of meat preparation). This makes it difficult for Molokans to eat in restaurants in the Central Valley, where there are only small Jewish and Muslim populations. Molokans also observe many Old Testament holy days, though they have reinterpreted and Christianized them.

All the groups discourage the use of tobacco and alcohol but it is more tolerated in the Old German Baptist Brethren and Molokan groups than in the Holdeman community. End times speculation is central to both Holdeman and Molokan belief, but not to Old German Baptists. The former groups believe that Christ’s return is imminent. Molokan Maxim Rudometkin suggested that Jesus would return to earth somewhere in the Tigris and Euphrates valley. Old German Baptists spend little time speculating about the future.


An analysis of how Holdeman Mennonites, Old German Baptists, and Molokans fit the thirteen traditional “old order” categories outlined at the beginning of this article follows.

1. Holism. All three groups demonstrate a holistic attitude to life on earth, in which the supernatural and natural realms are intertwined. The way one does one’s job affects one’s spiritual state. Faith traditions impact professional lives outside the worship service context. {93}

2. Separation from the world. Each group believes in certain levels of separation from the world. They recognize that they are different and expect to remain so. To maintain this position, each group has developed distinctive church services and established private schools. The Molokans have also established the United Molokan Christian Association, an organization that brings people of all ages together for social activities.

3. Ethno-religious identity. Separation is maintained by ethno-religious uniqueness in each group. This is most apparent in the Molokan group, where marriage with outsiders is not allowed. In none of the groups was a genetic religious identity the original intent, but as they developed unique theological and ecclesial traditions, all became less evangelistic and more isolated. New members came primarily from within and almost no one married outside the group. Boundary maintenance structures developed, as dress, diet, cultural practices, and religious viewpoints melted into one. Inbreeding cements personal and social identity. It establishes an extended family atmosphere where it is hard not to make at least a secondary personal connection with almost anyone you meet. 49

4. Church discipline. In each group separation is maintained through church discipline. It is employed most rigorously by the Holdeman group and least in the Molokan community. It has been enforced less in the OGBB New Conference group since 2009.

5. Communal ethics. In each group, individual decision-making is trumped by the will of the group. In the Holdeman Church, decisions are made the most hierarchically via associations of ministers. Members often thus respond to theological questions with the statement, “I don’t really know enough about that to give you an answer.” 50 The Old German Baptists and Spiritual Jumper Molokans make decisions by consensus and allow more congregational autonomy.

6. Respect for the past. All three groups revere the past, tradition, and the wisdom of older members. This helps preserve a communal ethic and guards against significant innovation.

7. Suffering. Two of the groups reference a history of religious, economic, political, and social persecution: the Molokans in Russia; the Old German Baptists in Germany. The Holdeman Mennonite experience is different since they emerged within the more tolerant North American environment. Throughout their history, however, all three have been ridiculed for positions on dress, education, photographs, and separatism.

8. Work ethic. A strong work ethic is evident in all three groups. This has ensured adequate financial success for most members, who often equate economic instability with spiritual problems. This does not mean, {94} however, that any of them glorifies ostentatious materialism. Holdeman Mennonites work hardest against the accumulation of wealth by not allowing members to invest in the stock market or take interest on loans (and until recently even on bank accounts). Old German Baptists and Spiritual Jumper Molokans are not as strict, but both emphasize simple living and humility.

In the Central Valley all three groups originally chose farming as a primary occupation. Being self-employed, one could decide not to work on Sunday and religious holidays, and college degrees were not necessary. As agriculture has become globalized, most members of all three groups moved into blue-collar positions that allowed as much independence as possible, such as landscaping, food preparation, and building trades. Members of each group take service industry or factory positions only when necessary.

9. Controlled use of technology and media. All groups control the use of technology and media. The Holdeman Mennonites are the most exacting, proscribing most internet use and not allowing members to possess photographs. The Molokans are the most liberal, giving great discretion to individual members.

10. Plain dress. All groups have distinctive dress requirements. This supports a singular identity and presents a public witness. While Holdeman Mennonites and Old German Baptists dress plain every day of the week, Molokans do so only on Sunday. The latter is a compromise that has developed over time and to some extent shows the power of secular social influences, although Molokan ministers continue to stand out due to their long uncut beards.

11. Education. All three groups are skeptical of higher education. They believe that it has an adverse effect on Christian belief and practice. Growing numbers of each group, however, hold college degrees.

12. Pacifism. All three groups oppose military service. 51 They are conscientious objectors to the use of violence to resolve conflicts.

13. Management of change. Structural components in each group provide opportunity for change to occur, which they call the “leading of the Spirit.” It is exemplified in extemporaneous preaching (in all three groups), Spirit-filled consensus decision-making (among the OGBB and Molokans) and inspired statements from prophets or prophetesses (in the Spiritual Jumper group).

In general, Holdeman Mennonites, Old German Baptist Brethren, and Spiritual Jumper Molokans meet the definition of old order Christianity. They do so in strikingly similar ways considering different historical roots, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, theology, and religious practices. {95}


The Holdeman Mennonites continue to grow by having large families and keeping most younger people in the church. The requirement that their children attend church schools (since the 1980s) has been very effective in nurturing potential members. The group is threatened, however, by population trends in the Central Valley, as well as the increasing attraction of jobs that require academic credentials, such as nursing. Some members are uncomfortable with the rigid disciplinary system.

The Old German Baptists confront similar issues. Like the Holdeman Mennonites, they continue to increase in size through large families and solid retention rates. Their generally more tolerant spirit has not led to substantially higher rates of assimilation. The impact of liberalizing trends among New Conference Old German Baptists since 2009 has yet to be determined.

In contrast, the Spiritual Jumper Molokans, who have combined a tolerant spirit with an extremely isolationist position regarding membership, are having difficulty even holding membership figures steady. More Molokans are assimilating and joining mainstream Evangelical Protestant churches.

There are several ways to look at the Molokan future. Prophetic traditions create the possibility of significant change in completely new directions, perhaps opening the church to nonethnic Molokans. But the position held by the Molokan majority at present is to close ranks, encourage children to attend Molokan private schools, and continue to use Russian in church services.

Three old order societies continue to hold the line on modernity in California’s Central Valley. Regional social and economic developments threaten to bring change to members of all three groups. But the future of Holdeman Mennonites, Old German Baptists—and even Molokans—looks as bright, if not brighter, than most mainline Christian denominations. Archaic traditions continue to sustain them in unusual and unexpected ways.


  1. Rod Janzen and Max Stanton, The Hutterites in North America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 235. In 2010, Stanton and I used the 49,000 figure. Conversations in 2016 with leaders in all four Hutterite groups place present numbers at 51,000.
  2. Donald B. Kraybill, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, and Steven M. Nolt, The Amish (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 155.
  3. David Luthy, The Amish in America: Settlements That Failed, 1840–1960 {96} (Aylmer, ON: Pathway Publishers, 1986), 41–45.
  4. In addition to Janzen and Stanton, important works on the Hutterites include Yossi Katz and John Lehr, Inside the Ark: The Hutterites in Canada (Regina, SK: University of Regina Press, 2012) [reviewed in the Fall 2013 issue of Direction, pp. 268–270.—Ed.]; Astrid von Schlachta, Die Hutterer zwischen Tirol und Nord Amerika: Eine Reise durch die Jahrhunderte (Innsbruck: Universitatsverlag Wagner, 2006); Werner Packull, Hutterite Beginnings (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995); and John A. Hostetler, Hutterite Society (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974).
  5. Margaret Bradley, “Building Community: The Fundamentalist Mormon Concept of Space,” Communal Societies 21 (2001): 1–20.
  6. Laura Vance, Women in New Religions (New York: New York University Press, 2015); Dereck Daschke and W. Michael Ashcraft, eds., New Religious Movements (New York: New York University Press, 2005); Timothy Miller, America’s Alternative Religions (Albany, NY: The State University of New York Press, 1995); Robert V. Hine, California’s Utopian Colonies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).
  7. In addition to the three groups discussed in this article, there are also Conservative Mennonite, Apostolic, Old Brethren, and Dunkard religious communities in California.
  8. Clarence Hiebert, The Holdeman People: The Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, 1859–1969 (Pasadena, CA: The William Carey Library, 1973).
  9. Donald Kraybill and Carl Bowman, On the Backroad to Heaven (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).
  10. Pauline Young, The Pilgrims of Russian-Town (New York: Russell and Russell, 1932). The most popular Molokan-authored historical account is John Berokoff, Molokans in America (Los Angeles: self-published, 1969).
  11. Steven M. Nolt and Thomas J. Meyers, Plain Diversity: Amish Cultures and Identities (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).
  12. Calvin Redekop and John Hostetler, “The Plain People: An Interpretation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 51 (1977): 266–77; Stephen Scott, Why Do They Dress That Way? (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1997); Kraybill and Bowman, On the Backroad to Heaven. Plain/old order designations are also discussed in Kraybill, Johnson-Weiner and Nolt, The Amish; Nolt and Myers, Plain Diversity; Cory Anderson and Joseph F. Donnermeyer, “Who Are the Plain Anabaptists,” The Journal of Amish and Plain Anabaptist Studies (Spring 2013): 1–25; and Royden Loewen, Horse-And-Buggy Genius (Winnipeg, MB: University of Manitoba Press, 2016).
  13. Redekop and Hostetler, “Plain People,” 268.
  14. Ibid., 266.
  15. Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin), 72–76.
  16. Kraybill and Bowman, Backroad, 15.
  17. Ibid., 19.
  18. Scott, Why Do They Dress That Way, 6.
  19. John Holdeman, A History of the Church of God (Newton, KS: Herald {97} Publishing, 1938).
  20. Hiebert, The Holdeman People, 159.
  21. Gladwin Koehn and Ben Giesbrecht, eds., Bible Doctrine and Practice (Moundridge, KS: Gospel Publishers, 1998). See also Abe J. Unruh, The Helpless Poles (Grabill, IN: Courier Printing, 1973). Interviews were conducted with Sid Koehn (December 2004), the Rev. John Jantz (March 2005), Leonard Jantz (March 2005), Ronald Jantz (March 2006) and Robert Koehn (July 2008). See also Brethren Heritage School, Out of the Ordinary, annual yearbooks (Modesto, CA: Brethren Heritage School, 2011–2015).
  22. Thomas Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 39.
  23. Hiebert, in The Holdeman People (p. 392), indicated that 1 in 5 members are excommunicated. Holdeman ministers interviewed in 2014 and 2015 suggest that the contemporary figure is not nearly as high.
  24. The Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, ed., The Christian Hymnal (Moundridge, KS: Gospel Publishers, 1959). The author and research assistants (Cynthia Duck and Suzanne Kobzeff) attended Holdeman Mennonite as well as Old German Baptist Brethren church services. The author attended a Spiritual Jumper Molokan church service in October 2014 and a Molokan Sunday School Class in July 2007. The author has also visited schools associated with each of the groups studied.
  25. Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, ed., This is My Heritage (Moundridge, KS: Gospel Publishers, 1995), 121. More recent San Joaquin Valley Holdeman statistics were provided by Greg Dyck (October 2014).
  26. Donald Durnbaugh, interviewed by the author, February 2004.
  27. Donald Durnbaugh, Fruit of the Vine (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1995), 297–301. Durnbaugh’s book is the most detailed historical account of the Church of the Brethren and its theological and ecclesial antecedents. Another important work is Carl Bowman, Brethren Society (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995). See also John M. Kimmel, Chronicles of the Brethren (Berne, IN: 1972) and Donald Durnbaugh, Meet the Brethren (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1984).
  28. Gerald Mast, “The Old German Baptist Brethren Church Division of 2009: The Debate Over the Internet and the Authority of the Annual Meeting,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 88 (2014): 45–64. The “test of membership” reference is on p. 56. The “New Conference” perspective is presented in Mark Grover, “2009 OGBB Church Division,” self-published, 2009.
  29. Grover, “2009 OGBB Church Division”; Mast, “The Old German Baptist Brethren Church Division,” 50–51.
  30. Mast, “The Old German Baptist Brethren Church Division,” 58. Janzen and Stanton, The Hutterites in North America.
  31. Fred W. Benedict, A Brief Account of the Origin and a Description of the Brethren Love Feast (Pendleton, IN: Old Brotherhood Publishers, n.d.), 5. Benjamin Franklin spoke highly of the Brethren in his Autobiography (Russel Nye, ed., Boston, 1958).
  32. Mast, “The Old German Baptist Brethren Church Division,” 45. See also {98} Grover, “2009 Old German Baptist Brethren Church Division”; Hans Fisher, Levi Bowman et al., eds., Devotional Treatise: Old German Baptist Brethren (Covington, OH: The Vindicator, 1980). OGBB New Conference elder Mark Grover was interviewed by the author in October 2014. Old German Baptist Brethren educators interviewed include OGBB school principals, James Shuman and Betsy Johns, and social science teacher, Lloyd Wagner (also an ordained minister in the Old Brethren religious group). See also James Shuman, ed., Old German Baptist Brethren New Conference Brotherhood Directory (Modesto, CA: 2012).
  33. Mark Grover, conversation with author, October 2014, and James Shuman, conversation with author, October 2014. See also Michael Hari, Brethren Thinking (Clarence, IL: Bruederbote Press, 2013); A History of Modesto District Old German Baptist Brethren Church, 1937–2012 (no publisher, no date); Charles D. Thompson, Jr., The Old German Baptist Brethren and Minutes of the Annual Meeting of the Church of the Brethren (Elgin, IL: Brethren Publishing House, 1990–1999).
  34. Sergei Zhuk, Russia’s Lost Reformation: Peasants, Millennialism and Radical Sects in Southern Russia and Ukraine, 1830–1917 (Princeton: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2004). See also Susan Hardwick, Russian Refuge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Julie Rak, Negotiating Memory: Doukhobor Archeological Discourse (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2004); and Willard B. Moore, “Communal Experiments as Results of Sectarian Identity Crises,” International Review of Modern Sociology 6 (1976): 85–102. For recent Molokan Church developments in Russia, see Ethel Dunn, “Spiritual and Economic Renewal among Molokans and Doukhobors,” Canadian Ethnic Studies 27 (August 1995): 64–184.
  35. Bill and Marilyn Babishoff, interview with Rod Janzen, October 2014. Other Molokan members interviewed include Suzanne Kobzeff (on numerous occasions), Morris Pivovareff (July and October 2014), David Botieff (October 2014), Michael Pardenov, (January 2014), Jim Shubin (2009), David Bogdanov (November 2006), John Kochergen (December 2006), Miles Shubin (October 2007), Jim Samarin (October 2007) and John Bibioff (February 2005). Also interviewed was Orthodox priest, Rev. George Gligich (February 2013).
  36. Bill Babishoff, ed., Russian Molokan Procedures for Church and Home (Hacienda Heights, CA: United Molokan Christian Association, 1993). Other important Molokan works include Bill Babishoff, ed., Prayer Book of the Spiritual Christian Molokans (Hacienda Heights, CA: UMCA, 1996); Bill Babishoff, Molokan Heritage and History (self-published, 1998); Bill Babishoff, ed., Philip Shubin Memoirs, 1923 (La Habra Heights, CA: UMCA, 1998), and Peter Matchnoff, William Nazaroff, and Bill Babishoff, eds., Sermons of the Beliefs and Doctrines of the Christian Russian Molokan Faith (Hacienda Heights, CA: UMCA, 1994).
  37. As noted, in October 2014 the author attended a Sunday School session (at the United Molokan Christian Association in Hacienda Heights) and a church service. Suzanne Kobzeff, who provided research assistance and {99} many important insights, is a member of the Molokan Church. Suzanne, Bill Babishoff, and Jim Samarin provided access to important published and unpublished Molokan documents and publications.
  38. Charles Weis, interviewed by the author, April 2006.
  39. United Molokan Christian Association, ed., Translations and Phonetics of Christian Molokan Hymns and Prayers (Hacienda Heights, CA: United Molokan Christian Association, 1993), hymn number 6.
  40. Stephen Stein, The Shaker Experience in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994); Eldress Frances Carr, interviewed by the author, Sabbathday Lake, Maine, March 2004.
  41. Katrina Hazen, interviewed by the author in November 2014, is an active member of the San Francisco Steadfast congregation.
  42. John Kochergen, interviewed by the author, December 2006; John Bibioff, interviewed by author, February 2007.
  43. This is My Heritage, 120.
  44. Fisher, Bowman et al., Devotional Treatise, 57.
  45. John Jantz, interviewed by author, March 2005.
  46. Attendance at Molokan Church Service, October 2014; Peter Shubin, interviewed by the author, October 2007.
  47. John Volkov, ed., Spirit and Life and Book of the Sun (Hacienda Heights, CA: Daniel H. Shubin, 1983).
  48. E. G. Klubnikin, “Articles of E. G. Klubnikin,” in John Volkov, ed., Spirit and Life, 635–706.
  49. For recent Molokan developments in Russia see Svetlana Inikova, “The Dukhobor and Molokan Ethno-Denominational Groups,” Russian Studies in History 46 (Winter 2007–2008): 78–96.
  50. Suzanne Kobzeff and Cynthia Palomino Duck, interview with Holdeman church members after attending Sunday morning services in March 2005. Cynthia Duck worked as a research assistant on early parts of this project.
  51. On Molokan pacifism, see J. Eugene Clay, “The Woman Clothed in the Sun: Pacifism and Apocalyptic Discourse among Russian Spiritual Christian Molokan-Jumpers,” Church History 80 (March 2011): 109–38.
Rod Janzen is Distinguished Scholar and Professor of History at Fresno Pacific University, where he has taught since 1989. He has an EdD in Social Sciences from the University of Southern California. A prolific scholar, his most recent books are The Hutterites in North America (2010), Paul Tschetter: Hutterite Immigrant Leader, Pioneer, and Pastor (2009), and The Rise and Fall of Synanon: A California Utopia (2001).

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