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Simple Lessons from a Mennonite Upbringing

Simple Lessons from Mennonite Upbringing | Shirley Hershey Showalter

You can take a Mennonite girl out of the country, but you can’t take the Mennonite out of the girl.

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Here’s what I looked like at the time

When it comes to simple living, we Americans get lots of things wrong.

  • We waste.
  • We over indulge in food and substances.
  • We are distracted by our electronic devices.
  • We use entertainment as a means of escape and titillation.
  • We clutter up our lives with stuff. It spills out of our closets and lurks in our basements and attics like ghosts.

One of the reasons Amish and Mennonite farming communities attract tourists is that people yearn for a different, more simple life.

This tourism began in Lancaster County when I was a child growing up on a dairy farm with my young Mennonite parents whose ancestors had farmed the land for nine generations. Restaurants and businesses, like buggy rides and quilt shops, began the trend.

And here are some things I learned at my mother’s knee and in her kitchen:

  • Use up leftovers and make something else out of them. This applies to food, packaging, clothing, furniture, and gardens.
  • Eat hearty, work hard-y. 🙂
  • Avoid the distractions and titillation of mass culture. No TV. No movies. No prom.
  • House clean Spring and Fall. Hit every nook and cranny. Give away what is no longer useful.
  • Make roll-ups out of leftover dough.
  • Make braided rugs out of rags.
  • Make quilts and comforters out of old clothing.
  • Patch, mend, and darn.
  • Don’t throw away the scraps.
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Today, I look like this!

I’m an author, former professor and college president, and former foundation executive, wife, mother, and grandmother.

I’m also a Mennonite.

And sometimes I laugh at myself. Because those old lessons in frugality just don’t disappear. Many contemporary Mennonites have this book on their shelves. It’s full of tips, but also explains the theological reasons we can live more by using less.

Here’s one tip that I’ll pass along because you may do it too – or you may find it preposterous that anyone does this.

What do you do with little pieces of soap too small to produce lather? Throw them away? Never! If you stick them together, they will eventually graft and you will always have a small bar to attach to a larger one:

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What can you offer as a tip for how to reduce, re-use, and recycle?

I’ve written past blog posts on this topic if you want some other contemporary Mennonite ideas. And if you have comments below, I’ll be happy to respond. I love making new friends and sharing my heritage.

What little ways have you found to simplify life? What items on the list of complexities in modern life would you most like to change?

More About Shirley: 

Shirley Hershey Showalter is the author of Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets the Glittering World. Spirituality & Practice named this a “Best Spiritual Book of 2013.”  The first person in her family to go to college, she eventually became the first woman president of Goshen College in Indiana. After six years as an executive at the Fetzer Institute, Kalamazoo, Michigan, she became a full-time writer living in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  She has two adult children and two grandchildren.

Find her at her website: www.shirleyshowalter.com, follow her on Twitter (@Shirleyhs), or become a fan on Facebook.

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Shirley Showalter (9 Posts)

Shirley Hershey Showalter grew up in a Mennonite farm family and went on to become the president of Goshen College and a foundation executive at The Fetzer Institute. She is now a writer, speaker, blogger, and consultant living in Harrisonburg, VA. She recently released her memoir, "Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World."


  1. Thanks, Tricia, for the opportunity to share some of the practices from my Mennonite childhood. It’s a pleasure to remember these things. I discovered from Facebook comments on this post that there is a great nonprofit organization called the Global Soap project. I helped prepare used soap to go abroad as a volunteer a long time ago: http://www.globalsoap.org/get-involved/volunteer/. Have you ever heard of it? Recycling soap from hotels!

    • Thanks for the tips on the book. I a month also a soap saver. My family grew up poor and we reused as much as possible and I am working on getting back to that. No longer have cable But still use the Internet to watch a little tv and a movie every now and then. Use the Internet to research, but every year I make an effort to get a little more back from the modern world. We can and dehydrate food now as well as make an effort to reuse scraps in many ways. I am happier now than I have ever been.

  2. I already know about that soap trick, but thank you for sharing at with us. It’s all very interesting, and inspiring, if not a bit daunting (how do I braid fabric into a rug? me?). I’m off to check out that “Living More With Less” book you linked to. Thanks again.

    • A fellow soap saver! Nice to meet you, Julie! As for braiding fabric into rugs, that would make a great new blog topic, wouldn’t it? I have to admit, I only watched this process. My great-grandmother never went to a nursing home. She spent time with each of her children instead. When she lived with my grandparents, I watched her make this rugs, some of them large and some of them small. There was something wonderful about that process. Not only was she recycling physical goods, transforming them into useful and beautiful new objects, but she was also recycling her life into the few useful things she could do in her eighties. I’m excited to think about this. Thanks so much for the comment. I never saw Great-grandma Snyder’s life in quite this light before.

  3. I just have to say I so enjoyed reading this post. I was a Weight Watcher Leader. We had a Mennonite in one of my classes. She became such a friend to all in our classes. They started s class in her town, Arthur, IL. so she thought best to go there. She preferred our class and came back. Eventually she was killed in a single car wreck coming to her meeting. Her daughters came the next week to tell me. I loved them so much. The next week they came to bring me a card and a picture. They said their Dad was taking it hard because he had bought her the car because of his love for her. They said they were helping him deal with it kowing their Mom was happy and that she dearly loved me and her group. The depth of their love still touches me today. God is good.

    • Oh nana8, that story touches me deeply. It must have been hard for everyone to suffer the loss of a mother, wife, and friend so loving. One thing is sure. Love never ends. “Whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” I know you have felt this truth not only from this Mennonite friend, but through your own journey of faith.

      • Amen! you know. It was hard to write. She touched so many lives. Even though she dressed different we accepted her and she us. God got an angel that I think of often. I am now disabled and do not get to see her girls as I did, but know that she instilled in them a little bit Mennonite and some freedom. I so enjoy the articles and read all books on the Amish and Mennonites. When our Pastor died we had an Amish family come for his visitation. Sister Bell, his wife, meets about every 3 months with a group of the ladies to go over natural healings. God loves us all.

  4. I have attached small pieces of soap to the new bar for years — don’t know where I’d gotten the idea originally, but I did have to ‘train’ hubby to do it. 🙂
    Would love to know how to do the rag rugs — tho to be honest, I’d probably never actually do it.

  5. Donna, anything you can ‘train’ hubby to do deserves applause. After 45 years of marriage, however, it’s sometimes hard to tell who has trained whom. 🙂

    I’m like you with the braided rugs. Not likely to do it myself, but eager to see what I can learn — about the past by talking with my aunts and uncle — and about the present by seeing if I can visit some of the Old Order Mennonites who still practice the skill. I think it could make good stories even if it didn’t result in any new rugs. 🙂

  6. Hi Shirley. I wanted to add here that my mom knit (crocheted?) a tiny draw string bag into which I toss all my tiny pieces of soap. When I have enough, I’ve got not only a free bag of soap, I’ve got a kind of loofah to boot. Hmmm. I see a blog post forming here. With a picture. Thanks.

  7. Janet, what a great idea! I hope you do your own blog post. I want to see that picture. I’ve been learning all kinds of soap tricks from making it by hand to squeezing it into a mold, and now your (your mom’s) great idea of a soap loofah. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Mom used to save soap pieces and put them in an old sock that she hung from the faucet in the bathtub. My sister and I used it when we bathed. I saw a similar idea posted somewhere about hanging the sock for. The outdoor tap to use when finished gardening. Seems like a great idea!

  9. What you learn when you do a blog post on soap! Who would have thought? Thanks, Linda. This sounds like a great way to clean up after a good day of gardening. Do you have a garden in your new place? Thanks for finding me here. I am enjoying making new friends who, like me, are not quite Amish.

  10. was “no prom.” a typo?

  11. In my grade 7 art class, I learned how to attach clay pieces together, and somehow thought to apply the same concept to soap. It works great. You get both the old and new soap wet (a little squishy is even better), make crisscross marks on both pieces with your nail, or if you want to be fancy, a knife or something similar. Then, squish them together. You don’t have to wait for “eventually.” They bond together pretty well instantly.

    I’m not Amish, or Mennonite, or anything close to it, but my father did grow up during a war on a remote island. He learned to be pretty thrifty and resourceful, living like that, and passed on the philosophy to me. Simplicity is good.

  12. I made a little bag from some netting to hang in the shower for my pieces of soap. So handy and like another person said loofah like. I cut lotion bottles to about 1 inch high when I can’t pump any more and then I scrape out the rest of the bottle with a small silicone spatula! Why waste the bottom of the bottle?
    Spatulas are great for getting out the last of: mayo, peanut butter etc.
    I use cereal boxes cut up for patterns for crafting. Or for grandkids to cut up. Or brown paper from packages that come– flatten them out by ironing and use them for crafts, patterns or repacking things.

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  1. […] was intrigued enough by this idea that I accepted the offer to write a monthly column there. I did a guest post on frugality and my first column on rugs. Every month, on the 21st, I will contribute new posts on the themes of […]

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