“The People of God around the World”: Melvin Gingerich’s Archival World Tour

Jason B. Kauffman

On January 13, 1969, Melvin and Verna Mae (Roth) Gingerich embarked on a tour of Mennonite church communities around the world. During a period of 4.5 months the couple traveled more than 54,000 miles (“by air, train, taxi, jeep, and touring cars”) over a distance spanning five continents and twenty four different countries or territories.1 In all, their itinerary included 47 flights on 25 different airlines. The tour was commissioned by the inter-Mennonite Council of Mission Board Secretaries (COMBS) with financial support from the Historical Committee of the (old) Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).2

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Melvin and Verna Gingerich contemplate the itinerary for the 1969 archival world tour

By 1969, Gingerich had directed the archives of the (old) Mennonite Church for 22 years.3 He was also heavily involved in the Mennonite publishing world. Aside from his work as managing editor for the Mennonite Historical Bulletin and the Mennonite Quarterly Review, he was an editor and frequent contributor to several other publications including Mennonite Life, Mennonite Weekly Review, and the Gospel Herald. From 1955-1958, he represented the Peace Section of the Mennonite Central Committee in Japan. Gingerich’s active involvement with Mennonite institutions, his familiarity with trends in Mennonite writing and scholarship, and his experiences abroad shaped his worldview and over time he developed a keen interest in the global Mennonite Church.

Gingerich’s stated objectives for the archival world tour were to “determine the amount and nature of archival materials relating to American Mennonite missions located outside of the U.S. and Canada,” to consult with missionaries and church workers about record management practices, and to identify potential authors for the Mennonite Encyclopedia and other publications. But, for Gingerich, the trip was much more than a simple fact-finding mission. During his time abroad, Gingerich also planned to offer lectures on the important role of history in shaping the vision and identity of the global Mennonite community. He hoped that his meetings with mission workers, church leaders, and school groups would create a space for them to “examine together the Christian approach to history and to consider how historical interest could be aroused where it did not exist.”4

Such concerns became a recurring theme in his reports. After his visit with mission workers and church leaders in Argentina, Gingerich wrote:

It seems to me that perhaps my major contribution has been in making them aware of the fact that they have an obligation to witness to the rest of the church what God has been doing among them. The Bible is largely the account of God’s mighty works among His children. Much of the Old Testament was designed to review their history. The great sermons in the New Testament do the same thing. We have an obligation in our day to record and witness to this continuing history.5

Later in the trip, during a conversation with Dr. Saphir Athyal of the Union Biblical Seminary in Yavatmal, India, Gingerich discussed “the problem of how to get [seminary] students to feel that contemporary church history is a part of the ongoing stream of church history, directly related to past centuries of the story of God’s people.”

While educating the “younger churches” about Mennonite history was clearly part of his agenda, Gingerich was also sensitive to the local realities and traditions of the communities that hosted him.5 According to Gingerich, “the purpose of this visit to the fields was not a paternalistic one,” but rather “to encourage our brethren to share their story with the entire Christian brotherhood. We are brethren who can all share with each other and learn from each other.” As such, he felt that local Mennonite conferences should take the lead to develop “their own historians or historical committees and [to] cultivate the consciousness of their unique role in history.”

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Melvin and Verna Gingerich in Japan, Christmas 1956

Gingerich also had the intercultural awareness to recognize that not all members of the global Mennonite community transmitted and preserved history primarily through the written record. In several locations, Gingerich met with local church leaders to discuss plans for commemorating the upcoming anniversaries of their churches. In Ethiopia, he encouraged leaders from the Meserete Kristos Church to produce an account of their own history in order to tell “their own story from the Ethiopian perspective.” On other legs of the trip he also discussed the importance of recorded oral histories as a tool for preserving the life stories of early church members and leaders.

When Gingerich undertook his archival world tour, the global Mennonite population stood between 400,000 and 600,000 people. Roughly one third of these people lived in places outside of North America or Europe. Since then, the global Mennonite population has grown rapidly so that, today, Mennonites in Latin America, Asia, and Africa outnumber Mennonites in North America and Europe by a ratio of 2 to 1.6 The demographic shift that has occurred in the global Mennonite community in the last several decades raises important questions about the stories we tell about our shared history. Specifically, what should global Mennonite history look like and who should set the terms for those discussions?

Gingerich envisioned global Mennonite history as an unbroken narrative thread connecting the past to the present through the lives of “the people of God around the world.” His efforts to involve local believers in the telling of their own stories were ahead of their time. However, in his vision Mennonites from North America and Europe remained firmly at the center of this story as keepers of the collective memory of an Anabaptist tradition rooted in sixteenth century Europe.

Today, organizations such as the Mennonite World Conference and the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism are modifying this vision through initiatives such as Renewal 2027, a 10-year series of events during which Mennonites will meet annually in locations across the globe to commemorate and reflect upon the five hundredth anniversary of the beginnings of the Anabaptist movement. Organizers are planning the events with a broad, ecumenical vision which recognizes shared heritage and convictions but also the unique and varied ways followers have lived out the Anabaptist-Mennonite faith in diverse cultural contexts around the world.7 According to John D. Roth, the commemorations present an opportunity to “engage in fresh thinking” about the “global nature of the Anabaptist-Mennonite church today” and how this global nature “challenges or expands definitions of the word ‘Anabaptist.’”8 Such efforts are important steps toward decentering North America and Europe in the stories we tell about “the people of God around the world.”

Footnotes:


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Letter from Melvin Gingerich to Verna Gingerich, December 24, 1968


  1. Melvin and Verna visited Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Colombia, Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Ghana, Nigeria, Congo, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, India, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, the Fiji Islands, and Hawaii. 
  2. Gingerich was careful to specify that the couple paid for Verna’s travel expenses from their own funds (see photo). 
  3. Gingerich was born and raised in Kalona, Iowa. After graduating from Goshen College – where he met his wife, Verna – in 1926 he later earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Iowa in 1938. After some short teaching stints at Washington Junior College (Iowa) and Bethel College (Kansas), he moved with his family to Goshen (Indiana) where he served as archivist of the (Old) Mennonite Church Archives for the rest of his career (1947-1970). For part of this time he also directed the Mennonite Research Foundation and edited the Mennonite Encyclopedia
  4. Quotations come from reports contained in the Melvin Gingerich Papers, HM1-129, Archival World Trip – 1969, Box 78, Mennonite Church USA Archives, Goshen, Indiana. 
  5. Ibid. 
  6. Throughout his reports, Gingerich drew a distinction between the “younger churches” and the “older churches” in the global Mennonite community. 
  7. These are rough estimates based upon statistics from 1958 and 1978 published on the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online at http://gameo.org/index.php?title=World_Mennonite_Membership_Distribution 
  8. John Roth uses the concept of “right remembering” to examine the relationship between commemorations, historical memory, and collective identity formation in the global Anabaptist-Mennonite community. See John D. Roth, “How to Commemorate a Division? Reflections on the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation and its Relevance for the Global Anabaptist-Mennonite Church Today,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 91:1 (January 2017), 24-35. 

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