Plain Dress on the Docket: Lillian Risser, the Pennsylvania Garb Law, & the Free Exercise of the Anabaptist Religion, 1908-1910

Plain Dress on the Docket: Lillian Risser, the Pennsylvania Garb Law, & the Free Exercise of the Anabaptist Religion, 1908-1910

On Thursday, January 25, join LancasterHistory as we kick off the 2024 season of the Regional History Colloquium and welcome speakers Dr. Steve Nolt and Dr. Jean-Paul Benowitz of Elizabethtown College who will discuss litigating religious liberty in Lancaster.

In 1895 Pennsylvania passed the so-called “Garb Law” which prohibited public school teachers from wearing religiously distinctive clothing. Although originally aimed at Catholic nuns in western Pennsylvania, the law was first enforced in Lancaster County against Plain-dressed Mennonite and Brethren school teachers. The 1908 prosecution of Mennonite Lillian Risser and the Mount Joy Township school board that hired her was the first case to test the law. In this talk, Dr. Steve Nolt and Dr. Jean-Paul Benowitz will unpack the issues involved in this case as it passed from the Lancaster County Courts to the state’s Superior and Supreme Courts. The Risser case remains an important episode in the ongoing debate over the boundaries of religious liberty in Pennsylvania, and all the more because the 1895 law remains on the books today.

Image on the left of a man with light skin. He wears glasses and a blue, button-up shirt. On the right, a man with light skin wears glasses, a suit jacket, and a blue and yellow stripped bowtie.
Presenters Dr. Steve Nolt (left) and Dr. Jean-Paul Benowitz (right)

Steven Nolt, Ph.D. is a professor of history at Elizabethtown College and a Senior Scholar at the College’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies. He is the author or coauthor of fifteen books on Mennonite, Amish, and Pennsylvania German history, including The Amish and Seeking Places of Peace, the latter being the North America volume in the Global Mennonite History Series. He also serves as series editor for Young Center Books in Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, published by The Johns Hopkins University Press, and as coeditor of the Journal of Plain Anabaptist Communities.

Jean-Paul Benowitz, Ph.D. is the Director of Public Heritage Studies and Prestigious Scholarships and Fellowships at Elizabethtown College. A historian, he teaches courses in the Honors Program about local and regional history with a focus on historic preservation. He has authored articles and books about Old Order Mennonites, regional history, the history of Elizabethtown, and the history of Elizabethtown College; as well as chapters in monographs about teaching and academic advising in honors education. Much of his scholarship and published works have dealt with twentieth-century American political history with a focus on the Historic Peace Churches.


This event is expected to take place in person at LancasterHistory on Thursday, January 25, 2024. Doors open and the reception begins at 5pm. The lecture will begin at 5:30pm. The lecture will also be streamed to Zoom at 5:30pm for those who wish to join us virtually.

This program is free and open to the public. In-person attendance requires advance registration in order to guarantee a seat. Due to capacity restrictions, tickets may not be available at the door. Virtual attendance requires advance registration in order to receive the Zoom link. Register online by clicking the appropriate link below or by calling (717) 392-4633. Registration will close online on Thursday, January 25 at 5:30pm. The online version of this program will also be recorded and uploaded to LancasterHistory’s YouTube channel after the event.

In-person registration is sold out and not accepting a waiting list. Please consider attending via Zoom. Thank you for your interest!


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In-Person Event Lecture Online/Virtual Event Reception

January 25, 2024 In Person at LancasterHistory & Online via Zoom 5pm Reception | 5:30pm Lecture FREE | Registration Required