The reason my family today is American and not Swiss is due to religious persecution.

How to explain this?

My religious ancestors left behind few words for future posterity. Felix Manz and Conrad Grebel, the earliest Anabaptists, were well-educated, ardent seekers during the early Reformation, who disputed with the leader of the Reformed movement, Ulrich Zwingli, in the city hall (Rathaus) of Zürich in 1525. The issues were infant baptism, required tithes owed to the state, and military service — all of which the younger men rejected and their mentor defended.

Zwingli was declared the winner of the debate, and his ideas were published. The two radicals were told to be silent, and their request to publish their own position papers was denied. Anyone who refused to baptize an infant was expelled. Felix Manz, who was rebaptized in his mother’s house, was drowned in the Limmat River in 1527. Many others suffered the same fate until finally, in 1614, the last Anabaptist martyr in Zürich, Hans Landis, was beheaded.

The iconic statue of Zwingli, with one hand holding the Bible and the other the sword, stands in front of the Rathaus, Zürich. From Wikipedia. “Reformation in Zürich”

Sixteenth-century Europe had no wall between church and state. “Heresy in the early sixteenth century was a capital crime.  The sixteenth-century perspective was that a nation could not remain united without a common religion.  This is because religion was not considered to be a mere private or subjective opinion.  Rather, religion was understood to constitute a way of life and a key basis for the political order.  For this reason, the Roman Catholic Church at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) insisted that secular rulers must enforce Christian orthodoxy through coercive measures.  To assist in this, the Inquisition was also established later in that same century.” (from Reformation Martyrs)

The Anabaptists argued that government officials should not have the authority to determine a citizen’s church affiliation or a church’s theology, and they therefore called for the separation of the church and the state. They were two centuries ahead of their time.

“The authorities all over Europe recognized the threat the Anabaptist (meaning “rebaptizers”) movement posed to the state and to whatever official form of religion sustained the state. And so, those authorities—kings, princes, and even reformers like Zwingli, John Calvin, and Martin Luther—called for their extermination or expulsion. When the bloodbath finally ended, thousands upon thousands had been martyred. Their crime was their allegiance to the radical Jesus and the kingdom of God that Jesus preached. Those who escaped eventually followed the lead of a Dutch [former Catholic priest] named Menno Simons and eventually took the name, Mennonite.” (Richard Hughes, The Promise and Peril of Christian Higher Education, forthcoming)

Fraktur print I read every day. Painted by Roma Ruth in 1996.

Fraktur print by Roma Ruth. I see these words on my wall every day.

Hundreds of them accepted William Penn’s invitation to Pennsylvania, where they became farmers free to worship in their own peculiar ways and free to petition the government for exemption to military service. The Mennonite minister who wrote the petition (excerpt below) was my immigrant ancestor, Benjamin Hershey.

Fraktur by Roma Ruth. I see these words every day also.

Quaker William Penn recruited persecuted Anabaptists to his huge Pennsylvania land grant, thus offering both religious freedom and the opportunity to own and farm one’s own land (which we now know to be problematic because it displaced native peoples). Penn believed in freedom of religion. In this way, he differed from Puritans in New England and Anglicans in Virginia, who established state churches in their colonies in America. Penn invited not just Quakers, and not just fellow pacifist Mennonites. He invited all religions to come live in a place without an established church — and to tolerate the existence of  Lutherans, Reformed, Catholics, and Jews, groups who had fought and/or experienced persecution in Europe.

In 1644 in America, another believer in adult baptism, Roger Williams called for separation of church and state, and eventually the founding fathers established the first amendment prohibiting the establishment of religion. Thomas Jefferson spelled out the meaning of this amendment in 1802 in his letter to the Danbury Baptists saying the Constitution had built “a wall of separation between church and state.” On his gravestone he chose being the author of the statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom (disestablishing the Episcopal Church) as one of the three accomplishments that defined his life.

Today, however, William Penn’s legacy of religious liberty is being seriously distorted by believers in Christian Nationalism who live in my home state of Pennsylvania. When they tour the capitol in Harrisburg, they point to this Penn quotation: “There may be room there for such a Holy Experiment. And my God will make it the seed of a nation.” To them, Penn’s vision is one of triumph and dominion, a warrior vision that gives historical grounding for their own warrior faith today — a desire to reunite church and state in a Christian nation by whatever means necessary. I cannot help but think that William Penn would turn in his grave. He would especially recoil at the idea of a holy war being conducted from his dream.

To the Quakers who continued the “Holy Experiment” into the 19th century in American, William Penn’s vision looked like this:

The Peaceable Kingdom, Edward Hicks, 1826, The National Gallery of Art, wikipedia. William Penn’s treaty with the Indians and the vision in Isaiah of the lion lying down with the lamb, were strong themes in much of his art.

Today we know that Penn, and especially his sons and the land agents who succeeded him, were far from perfect exemplars of Christian faith when it came to their relationship to Leni Lenape people. (See This Very Ground, This Crooked Affair by John L. Ruth.) But Christian Nationalism would not call that failure a tragedy. For the most extreme believers in this ideology, whiteness is intricately tied to faith and tied to nation. American history is not about the original people who lived here and certainly not about genocide. It is about white Christians who founded a Christian nation.

Here is an excellent webinar that summarizes much of the literature on the subject. One of the simplest definitions I have read of Christian nationalism comes from the evangelical Christian magazine Christianity Today: “the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way.”  A visual representation of these beliefs was evident by the banners carried by the rioters into the capitol on January 6, 2021, included many Christian signs and symbols next to nooses or flag poles used as spears.

From “The Woman Who Bought a Mountain for God, The Atlantic, June 20, 2023. By Stephanie McCrummen. Photos by Olivia Crumm. When I saw this image, I thought of the statue of Zwingli, with his Bible and sword, in Zurich.

History shows us that when a religion and a state are entwined and protected by the sword, other citizens, even other Christians, are in danger of being burned at the stake, or drowned, or beheaded, if not literally, at least through modern means of cancellation on social media, intensive surveillance, and loss of privacy and freedom of speech and assembly.

As voices of Christian nationalism grow louder in America, I find myself turning back to the place of origins for my faith — Zurich. This fall Stuart and I made a sojourn with other family members to our places of origin, trying as we went to reconstruct as many stories of courage and sacrifice as possible.

If you want to travel with us, here is a short slide show depicting modern places with deep histories.

I also hope you will understand my most recent calling to be a Grandma for Love even better. We are not all religious in our group, but we are all ardent defenders of the founders’ wisdom in separating church and state.

In 2025, Anabaptist groups from around the world will be invited to gather in Zurich, to celebrate 500 years of our tenuous existence. Stuart and I hope to be among them, carrying our small flames for our faith, hoping the freedom to do so in America will live on long after we are gone.

What small flames are you trying to preserve for posterity? They don’t have to be religious or political! Maybe you want future generations to remember a particular place, a story, foods, or something else . . .

Shirley Showalter


  1. Merril D Smith on November 27, 2023 at 5:48 pm

    The Christian nationalists are terrifying to me, as are all those who are attempting to impose an authoritarian regime here. The separation of church and state is part of our Constitution, as you noted, and our country is made up of people of many different faiths, as well as those who have no faith or interest in religion.

    I hope you and Stuart will be able to visit Zurich in 2025.

    • Shirley Showalter on November 27, 2023 at 8:09 pm


      I hope you will be able to access the link to The Atlantic article above. It is the most deeply researched article I have found in the popular press, and it focuses on our state of Pennsylvania. The article will not allay your fears, but it gives insight into the ideas behind this movement. May we keep searching for ways to uphold the precious principle of separation of church and state. Maybe you will be inspired to write a poem?

      Thanks for the good wishes. I send you the same.

  2. Elfrieda eufeld Schroeder on November 27, 2023 at 7:00 pm

    It will be wonderful for you and Stuart to take that trip to Zurich and get in touch with your roots. Hardy and I took a trip to Poland and Ukraine, our birth places, and that is a wonderful memory for me.
    Are you familiar with Marlene Epp’s book “Eating Like a Mennonite”? She takes a look at ancestral history through the lens of food. Quite intriguing!

    • Shirley Showalter on November 27, 2023 at 8:13 pm


      Yes, I am familiar with Marlene’s book. It is sitting on my To Be Read pile. I read Dora Dueck’s lovely personal review, and now I want to plunge into this book ASAP.

      I am glad that you and Hardy had a chance to visit the places of your family origins also. It would be interesting to hear your perspective on the separation of church and state. You have an established church in Canada. But you also seem to have complete freedom of religion. Do you have a Christian nationalist movement there?

      • Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on November 27, 2023 at 10:22 pm

        We have several political parties in Canada: Liberal, Progressive Conservative, New Democratic and Green. The PC party most closely resembles that of the Christian Nationalists in their stance on many issues.

        • Shirley Showalter on November 27, 2023 at 10:40 pm

          Thanks, Elfrieda. Progressive conservatives sounds so mild. Hope they are.

  3. Linda Gartz on November 27, 2023 at 10:25 pm

    Keeping these Christian nationalists, who want to impose their idea of religion on ua all, as they’ve done with the Dobb’s decision, is appalling and disheartening. There is a religious belief intertwined with Dobbs, and I don’t believe the same thing these evangelical Christians believe, and neither do Jewish people. It’s one example, and if those reading this like the Dobb’s decision, well, it’s g0es against our constitution: separation of church and state.

    More directly to your post, the history you write about is fascinating – and the story of one set of beliefs trying to control ALL sets of beliefs. Period. Burn the heretics at the stake! So important to separate religious beliefs from government controlling all people.
    I also never had heard of the origin of Mennonite. Fascinating. I hope you and Stuart have a wonderful visit there to celebrate your ancestors belief in separation of church and state and coming to America to find their freedom of thought and religion respected, not controlled.

    • Shirley Showalter on November 27, 2023 at 10:52 pm

      Thanks for wading through this condensed history from a dissident perspective, Linda. I love how curious you are about other people.

      As for Dobbs, I disagree with the way the court itself was “packed.” And I disagree with the decision, even though not all Anabaptists do. As you can imagine, pacifists have to examine their hearts and minds carefully on the question of abortion. My friend Carolyn Yoder wrote beautifully about this dilemma and why she cannot support “pro life” candidates.

  4. Maren Tirabassi on November 28, 2023 at 7:06 am

    Thank you for this article. I am stunned by your description of those connections in Pennsylvania (also a place of refuge for my only long-time American ancestor who was a shanghaied Hessian soldier abandoned by the British who found a safe place in far western PA. (no one would marry his daughters but I am grateful there were children anyway) The Christian Nationalist identification doesn’t line up so much in New Hampshire and Maine because New England culture is not faith-based at all. White Nationalist culture is certainly present.

    • Shirley Showalter on November 28, 2023 at 9:04 am

      Wow, that ancestor has quite a story. Maybe you can work it into your next mystery novel. Especially the part about the children. 🙂

      Yes, there are quite significant regional differences. Have you ever heard of the book American Nations by Colin Woodward? His thesis is that the various regions of America owe their foundational cultures to the original settlers. You live in Yankeedom, first Puritan, now secular. I live in what he calls the Midlands, also secular in cities but very religious in rural areas and small towns.

      I think Woodard doesn’t quite capture the combination of English Quaker (and Mennonite and Moravian German speaking Swiss and Czech) pacifism and the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians in the Midlands. They had very different visions and values.

      Here’s a place where you can download the whole book.

  5. Marian Beaman on November 28, 2023 at 8:54 am

    I identify most with the slogan in your post: Give peace a chance.
    Opposing viewpoints in American culture are a good thing. Strident voices who fail to listen to one another are not. Name-calling and hateful language gets us nowhere. I hear you trying to bridge the gap in this fine personal essay.

    Thank you too for picturing the lovely Swiss landmarks, especially photos of the Emmental region, where our Langeneggar (Longenecker} ancestors owned a dairy farm. I treasure a ceramic toothpick holder inscribed with the city name “Langnau,” a keepsake from our trip years ago–all a glimpse into our shared history.

    • Shirley Showalter on November 28, 2023 at 9:32 am

      Stuart chuckled that you noticed the slogan, “Give peace a chance,” recognizing the connection between the war protest of the 1960s connected to this story from 1529 when the soldiers had a picnic instead of a battle. Sadly, Zwingli lost his own life in battle when fighting resumed.

      Yes, I do have a calling to bridge gaps. Thanks for recognizing it. I think it is another version of your own.

      And we do indeed share a landscape, a history, and probably DNA!

  6. J E Sargent on November 29, 2023 at 12:08 pm

    Love this, Shirley and want to share it with my husband who prefers not to read on a screen. However, when I tried to print, it was oddly formatted and just about unreadable. Any suggestions?

    • Shirley Showalter on November 29, 2023 at 12:41 pm

      Thank you, JE (is it Judy?). Probably the best way to print is to copy the entire blog into a Word or Notes other writing software. Then you can print easily.

      You may lose the links, which are much more profound than I could be in 1000 words.

      Maybe someone more savvy than I in technology could propose another solution, but I know this one works.

  7. Ruthie Showalter on December 1, 2023 at 4:53 am

    Hi, Shirley!
    I learned about your post from Linden and the next day heard an interview with Atlantic writer Tim Alberta with Terry Gross on NPR Fresh Air. Some interesting connections…
    I love how you bring it all together in this essay!
    I hope to see you in Zurich!
    May “Grandma’s for Love” flourish and prosper!

  8. Tina Barbour on December 2, 2023 at 10:39 pm

    I enjoyed this history, Shirley, and believe wholeheartedly in separation of church and state. I am appalled and depressed about the push for Christian Nationalism. I live in an area of Virginia (near Lynchburg) where a great many people would be fine with a “Christian nation” and would gladly foist their beliefs on everyone. They seem to put such emphasis on what they “believe,” not seeing personal beliefs as personal guidance for themselves but as a fact and a truth for everyone. I saw this even when I was in high school, when my parents sent me to a Christian evangelical school.

    I don’t know how to respond to this in my community. Speak out about what I am against? Focus on what I am for? Where are my words or actions needed to perhaps literally save democracy? Still finding my way.

    • Shirley Showalter on December 3, 2023 at 8:04 pm


      Thanks for this response. I feel your deep foreboding, and I share it. I hope you have some people around you that support you and understand you. I can’t remember if you are still a librarian, but I do know that librarians and teachers are under far too much pressure to enforce the world view of “parents’ rights” advocates. You CAN make a difference by speaking out for the rights of all to be respected, whether in letters to the editor, or op-eds, or just by talking to your friends to see what they are thinking and feeling. We have a number of groups in our community that formed in order to provide a safe space for marginalized people and to celebrate diversity and religious freedom. The Grandmas for Love website, embedded above, might be a model for you. Don’t worry about the grandma name. Make up your own. Here is a Facebook group you might want to join. Blessings and peace to you.

      • Tina Barbour on December 4, 2023 at 4:01 pm

        Thank you, Shirley! Yes, I’m still at the public library, and a book challenge has just been resolved, not in the library’s favor, unfortunately. Thank you for the suggestions.

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