Tell Me Your Stories and I’ll Tell You Mine

This is a response to “Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege” by Ben Goossen.

Steve Ness

As librarian and archivist at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society (LMHS), a question that I hear quite often is, “Do the genealogical records in your library only include Mennonites?” My response is to encourage any researcher with an ancestral connection to southeastern Pennsylvania (and Lancaster County in particular) to spend some time digging into the many genealogical resources that we make available. While our focus is on the history of the Mennonites of this area, the genealogies and other resources in our collections contain many non-Mennonites as well. Any good genealogist will understand that they cannot claim that all of their ancestors were of a particular denomination any more than they can claim that they were all admirable.

Any good genealogist will understand that they cannot claim that all of their ancestors were of a particular denomination any more than they can claim that they were all admirable.

Ben Goossen, in his post, “Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege,” states that little has been written about how Mennonites have historically approached the field of genealogy. I agree that it is a subject that warrants proper investigation.1 Despite the dearth of research, however, Goossen makes the claim that, “Over the past century, white Mennonites have expressed uncommon interest in their ancestry.” I suspect that this cannot be substantiated and that Mennonite interest in genealogy is not significantly different than one would find among the rest of the population.

As is the case with many historical societies, the majority of visitors to the LMHS library arrive with the purpose of conducting genealogical research. A conservative estimate would be ninety percent. Of these, probably fewer than half consider themselves to be Mennonite. Some suspect or have been told that they have some Mennonite or Amish ancestry; some already know that they do, and some are surprised to learn of a Mennonite connection. This is due to historic migration patterns that have interwoven Mennonites into the fabric of broader Pennsylvania German culture in southeastern Pennsylvania. Many people across the United States—both Mennonite and non-Mennonite—have ancestral connections to this area which they value.

If Mennonite family and religious identity is so tightly bound, why aren’t more Mennonite individuals, congregations, and institutions expressing greater interest in their history?

Many LMHS members are not Mennonite and, despite the fact that the Historical Society serves as the official repository for Lancaster Mennonite Conference (LMC) and Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) records, LMC and ACC congregants represent a disappointingly-small percentage of LMHS membership overall. If Mennonite family and religious identity is so tightly bound, why aren’t more Mennonite individuals, congregations, and institutions expressing greater interest in their history? Even one of the examples Goossen provides of a “Mennonite genealogical publication”—Theodore W. Herr’s 1908 book on the descendants of Hans Herr—was neither written by a Mennonite nor printed by a Mennonite publisher.2

Genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States.  A 2008 poll cited by USA Today identifies only gardening as being more popular.3 The air time that major television networks have provided for shows focused on genealogy is additional evidence of its general appeal. The article’s author recognizes that genealogy has been used as a tool for exclusion but, unlike Goossen, emphasizes instead the value of genealogical research in helping us—all of us—understand better the stories of our past that help to shape us today.

Is there such a thing as “Mennonite Genealogy?” I am doubtful. Certainly there is privilege in the ability of white Mennonites to trace many of their ancestral lines back multiple generations with relative ease. I would argue that honest engagement with our past reveals a richer diversity in our stories than we might first imagine. Rather than seeing genealogy as a tool to build walls, we should embrace it as a technique to learn from and value the stories of everyone. Let’s sit down and listen to each other. You tell me your stories and I’ll tell you mine.


Steve Ness is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite College (B.S., History and Social Science) and Clarion University (M.S.L.S., Library and Information Science). His ancestry includes persons who were Amish, Church of the Brethren, Lutheran, Mennonite, United Brethren, and others.


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  1. Such research should include a more comprehensive examination of Christian Z. Mast, whose words in A Brief History of Bishop Jacob Mast… sound troubling to our twenty-first-century ears. Good historical research will look more carefully at the context in which Mast was writing, how the words quoted by Goossen fit with Mast’s other writings, and how representative Mast was of the larger Mennonite community at that time. Until such research is done I think it wise to temper condemnation. 
  2.  The book was republished twice by the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society—in 1980 and 1994. The third edition contained updates and corrections by Phillip E. Bedient, former emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College and member of the United Methodist Church. 
  3. Rodriguez, Gregory. “Roots of Genealogy Craze.” . Online at  http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2014/05/12/genealogy-americans-technology-roots-porn-websites-column/9019409/. 

2 thoughts on “Tell Me Your Stories and I’ll Tell You Mine

  1. Pingback: Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege | Anabaptist Historians

  2. Pingback: Who Calls Whom Racist, and What’s the Privilege With That? | Anabaptist Historians

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