Now You’re the Institution

Jason B. Kauffman

My reference to a Ben Folds song probably dates me, but lately I’ve been thinking about the relationship between archives, institutions, and power. According to historian Paul Toews (described by Felipe Hinojosa in a recent blog), as I write this blog I am sitting in one of the “archival centers of the Mennonite universe.” I recently began working as director of the Mennonite Church USA Archives in Goshen. As a senior at Goshen College (2005) I spent long hours in the archives researching for my history thesis project.

When I reported for my first day of work in July, the archives looked (and smelled) pretty much like I remembered them, complete with a stone bust of Sanford Calvin Yoder (President of Goshen College from 1923 to 1940) and a large plaque listing the names of “pioneer leaders” (all white men of European descent) in the (old) Mennonite Church. One of the men, Jacob Gottschalk (the first Mennonite bishop in Germantown, Pennsylvania), is a distant family relative. So, to quote Ben Folds again, “how’s it feel to be the man?”

I don’t have a simple answer to that question. As a historian, I resonate with Hinojosa’s call to “deterritorialize Mennonite studies” and to tell the stories of Mennonites whose lives unfolded on the periphery, far removed from “holy places” like Goshen, Newton, Lancaster, or Winnipeg. I spent the majority of graduate school resisting the centralizing forces in my discipline which told me that the only topics worthy of study were those with an established historiography, focused on places at the centers of political or economic power. Latin American history is very nation-centric and I found a niche in the study of frontiers and borderlands, a subfield which questions the centrality of the nation-state in the stories historians tell about the region and its people. In a similar way to the Mennonite community in south Texas that Hinojosa describes, I discovered that what it means to be Brazilian or Bolivian looks very different from the margins than it does at the center. Place matters.

However, institutions also matter. For historians, institutions matter because they are the entities most likely to preserve the documents that we rely upon to analyze and write about the past. While my research focused on one of the most sparsely populated regions in South America, I would not have been able to write my dissertation without going to institutional archives in Rio de Janeiro or La Paz. Indeed, the available sources often dictate the types of questions we can ask (and answer) about the past. Through my research, I was able to learn much about how representatives of the Bolivian state felt about migratory laborers and the many ways officials attempted to control the movement of goods and people across borders. I learned comparatively little about the complex motivations that guided individuals in their decisions to migrate in search of work, how they felt about these decisions, and how such decisions impacted their lives and families.

Such archival silences are, of course, also present at the MC USA Archives. For example, collections in the archives yield much information about how church leaders and academics felt about growing Mennonite involvement in business after World War II but much less about businesspeople themselves, those who built successful businesses while navigating the norms and expectations of the broader Mennonite community. Despite such limitations, many historians have made creative use of the MC USA Archives. For example, recent studies have mined collections for sources that document Mennonite involvement during the Civil Rights movement and the complicated dynamics of racial prejudice and discrimination that pervaded this involvement.1 And there are many more sources yet to be discovered. But this does not change the fact that the voices of institutional (white, male) leaders are overrepresented in the archives and those of ethnic minorities, women, LGBTQ people, and those otherwise removed from institutional centers are underrepresented. This reality is itself a reflection of the history of the Mennonite Church as an institution.

Through my job as the archivist, I am now a part of this institution. I am keenly aware of the power that institutions hold to shape the terms of historical memory and its production.2 Archives play a key role in this equation because the written word is one of the primary ways in which people and institutions preserve history for future generations.3 Archives are also powerful weapons that institutions have used in their efforts to minimize or, in some cases, completely erase elements of the past.4 History is replete with examples of the many ways that institutions have done damage to the broader communities that they represent.

At the same time, now that I’m on the “inside” my perspective is beginning to shift. From the outside, institutions often seem like faceless entities, engaged in a timeless quest to centralize authority and wield power to advance their own agendas. It is often easy to forget that the Mennonite Church is a complex institution made up of complex individuals, each with different backgrounds and changing (and, in many cases, different) beliefs, motivations, and goals. All share a deep commitment to the broader Mennonite community and many are actively working to promote peace and social justice; to combat racism, prejudice, and discrimination; and to redefine what it means to be Mennonite.

No institution is perfect and good intentions do not erase the inequalities and injustices that persist. It is difficult to predict what form the institutional Mennonite Church will take in the next decades or how it will evolve or adapt in response to our rapidly changing denominational landscape. In 2116, who will future generations of Mennonites look back and recognize as the “pioneer leaders” of the twenty-first century? I hope that the list will be much different than the one currently hanging in the archives, made up of many more people from the farthest reaches of the Mennonite universe.

To explore one of the ways that the MC USA Archives is working to document the diversity of Mennonites voices, check out this online archive of Mennonite websites, which preserves the websites of Mennonite news outlets, MC USA agencies and conferences, and Mennonite bloggers. Let me know of others that I should add to the list!


  1.  Many of these recent studies also make excellent use of oral histories, critical sources for documenting and understanding the lives and experiences of people underrepresented in the written historical record. 
  2.  See, for example, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995). 
  3.  Kathryn Burns, Into the Archive: Writing and Power in Colonial Peru (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010). 
  4. For a recent – and excellent – exploration of these dynamics at play, see Kirsten Weld, Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014). 

7 thoughts on “Now You’re the Institution

  1. Pingback: What do Public History’s methods have to offer Anabaptist History (and the Anabaptist Future)? | Anabaptist Historians

  2. Pingback: Digital History: The German Mennonite Sources Database | Anabaptist Historians

  3. Pingback: Archives Power? The Role of Record-Keepers in Historical Preservation and Research | Anabaptist Historians

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