Power, History, and the Future Church Summit

Shortly after we married, my wife turned to me and asked, “Why are all the influential men in the Mennonite church historians?”

Strictly speaking, this is not a true statement, with Orie O. Miller and George Brunk1 being examples of North American Mennonite leaders who did not work historically. But, working from my context with Mennonites in the United States, there is a strong line of Mennonite leaders using history as a tool towards power, specifically the power that comes with shaping the story of Mennonites.2  The story has played a role in the way Mennonites understand their identity, and  has contributed to power dynamics in Mennonite historiography that must be reckoned with. (For a parallel in how institutions have shaped history, see posts by Jason Kauffman and Simone Horst.)

The following is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but merely a demonstration of how intimately enmeshed history is with influencing Mennonite identity and faith, a project many of these embraced as “creating a useable past.”

  • The immigrant Bishop Heinrich Funk (d. 1760) worked alongside Dielman Kolb and others to have the Ephrata Martyrs’ Mirror translated and printed as a way to remember the mythic origin of Anabaptism in the face of the Seven Years’ War.3

  • His grandson, John F. Funk (1835-1930), worked to create a unified Mennonite community, as best exemplified by Herald of Truth.  His publishing house worked to create a usable past for this newly “unified” community, reprinting texts such as The Martyrs’ Mirror  and the 1632 Dortrecht Confession of Faith.4

  • C. Henry Smith (1875-1948) wrote “Christian Peace: Four Hundred Years of Mennonite Peace Principles and Practice” as a brief overview of how Anabaptists have practiced nonresistance, written for workers in CO camps. The pamphlet ends with a doctrinal and ecclesiological discussion on the future of the peace testimony. Threats include “the subtle influence creeping into the church from certain short cut Bible schools which are committed to an unwholesome overemphasis on a militant millenarianism . . .”5

  • Harold S. Bender (1897-1962) perhaps most clearly illustrates this trend with the Anabaptist vision he and his students promoted. Because of some doctrinal disagreements, his position at Goshen was in history rather than Bible or theology, the fields of his formal training. Fred Kniss notes in Disquiet in the Land that this meant “he was thus able to avoid most of the divisive disputes over doctrine. By concentrating on Anabaptist-Mennonite history, he was able to concentrate on questions that drew communalism back into the center of Mennonite discussion.”6

  • John Howard Yoder (1927-1997), while a theologian, rooted his work in a historical methodology. The Politics of Jesus works towards systematic ethics and theology with biblical and historical scholarship. In his “Anabaptist Vision with Mennonite Reality,” John D. Roth notes that one of the innate tensions in Politics is a confusing use of history, where Anabaptism is claimed as a hermeneutic but used as a historical possibility.7

  • Moving towards the contemporary era, John D. Roth continues the tradition of historians playing leading roles in the Mennonite church with the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and its initiative, the Bearing Witness Stories Project, both of which work to create a useable past from the experience of Anabaptists around the globe.8

  • Ervin R. Stutzman, current executive director of Mennonite Church USA, also has historical inclinations. He has published a series of historical fiction novels, including the Return to Northkill series, looking at the encounters between the Hochstetler family and Native Americans, as well as From Nonresistance to Justice: The Transformation of Mennonite Church Peace Rhetoric 1908-2008, which is a rhetorical and historical look at how Mennonites articulate what they believe about peace.

All these have given valuable contributions to the Mennonite understanding of who they are, as well as helped conversations with how the faith community has related and interacted with broader culture. But it is important to recognize the power, albeit soft power, therein. One demonstration of this is, as Felipe Hinojosa notes, how “historian after historian has ignored the calls by Black and Brown Mennonites—and marginal white Mennonites— that offer us alternative visions of the future church.

The power of history as a tool for understanding and controlling identity came to the forefront during Mennonite Church USA’s Future Church Summit (FCS), part of MC USA’s biennial convention. The FCS was billed as an opportunity for the denomination to imagine what it means to “follow Jesus as Anabaptists in the 21st century.” After building community with the table groups on the first day, the process turned to the question, “How our past has shaped us and what this may mean for us going forward?”9 To provide context, there was a plenary presentation that featured John D. Roth, Erica Littlewolf (Northern Cheyenne), Jason B. Kauffman, Bishop Leslie Francisco III, and Regina Shands Stoltzfus presenting a timeline of Mennonite history, graphically presented as a tangled vine growing from sixteenth century roots and stretching into the future.

An effort was made to be as broad and inclusive as possible in the process. There was diversity represented among the presenters, with representation from African Americans and Native Americans, and participants were reassured that they would have the opportunity, indeed, were encouraged, to come up afterwards and expand the timeline. Some interesting dynamics were explored, especially as Erica Littlewolf teased out how Mennonite narratives of coming into the land and finding freedom and prosperity directly contradicted her people’s experience of suffering.

There were problems in the presentation’s content, however, with significant gaps in the material presented. There was no mention of the rich Hispanic Mennonite tradition (though this was partly because a representative could not make it at the last moment), no past for the LGBTQ Mennonites (perhaps not surprising given the politics of MC USA), and no mention of the old General Conference Mennonites (an omission, I am told, that left some people so angry they could barely speak). The history as it was told did not contain all people present.

However, the content gaps were not the most striking disconnect in the presentation. Most striking was that the lack of recognition of the power dynamics inherent in history, especially in the Mennonite church context, since church history has been equated with stories of belonging that are told in our faith tradition. The opening remark, “We all know that is history is an argument” was an example of this. It may be a true statement in the academy, but it is at odds with how history has been embodied publicly in Mennonite congregations and schools.10

History in the Mennonite church has been a tool of authority, giving an absolute view of what happened in the past. History has been a firm foundation for the purpose of maintaining Mennonite identity, not a malleable past that can be argued. There was a fundamental disconnect between the useable past given to summit participants and the history many attendees had been primed to receive by experience in church and school. This is in part why the reaction to the historical gaps was so strong: people were looking for a useable past that told them who they were, but instead were told that they needed to find history for themselves.11

As historians choosing to practice history within the church, we need to be aware of the weight of interpreting the past. The place to start is to give careful attention to the contours of power surrounding Mennonite historiography, an investigation that deserves further attention. It is from this place that we can work with individuals, congregations and broader church institutions to create history that is in the service of living traditions.12

 

 


  1.  I have not made an extensive study of George Brunk and his thought, but am basing this claim on a conversation with Javan Lapp, who has studied revivalism among Old Order and conservative Mennonites. 
  2.  There is also an interesting phenomena where non-historians writers have felt they need to translate their work into history in order to speak into the Church, but that is outside the scope of this post. 
  3.  Zijpp, Nanne van der, Harold S. Bender and Richard D. Thiessen, “Martyrs’ Mirror.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, November 2014 (accessed July 19, 2017). 
  4.  Ted Maust, “”Union with such as we might perhaps otherwise never know”: John F. Funk and the Herald of Truth, 1854-1864,” Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage 38 no. 2 (April 2015): 40-54. 
  5.  C. Henry Smith, “Christian Peace: Four Hundred Years of Mennonite Peace Principles and Practice” (Peace Committee of the General Conference of the Mennonite Church in North America, 1938), 31. 
  6.  Fred Kniss, Disquiet in the Land: Cultural Conflict in American Mennonite Communities (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 65; James C. Juhnke Vision, Doctrine, War: Mennonite Identity and Organization in America, 1890-1930 Mennonite Experience in America Vol. 3 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1985), 277-282. 
  7.  John D. Roth, “Living Between the Times: ‘The Anabaptist Vision and Mennonite Reality’ Revisited” in Refocusing a Vision, ed. John D. Roth (Goshen, Ind.: Mennonite Historical Society, 1995); John Howard Yoder, “Anabaptist Vision and Mennonite Reality,” in A. J. Klassen, ed., Consultation on Anabaptist-Mennonite Theology (Fresno, Cal.: Council of Mennonite Seminaries, 1970). 
  8. Goshen College, “Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism” goshen.edu, https://www.goshen.edu/isga/ (Accessed July 19,2017). 
  9.  Mennonite Church USA, “Future Church Summit,” http://convention.mennoniteusa.org/future-church-summit/ (accessed July 19, 2017). I attended as the delegate for Pilgrims Mennonite Church, Akron, Pennsylvania. Most of the material going forward is based on my personal notes. 
  10.  In his ethnographic study of Mennonite schools in Lancaster, Pa., Ken Sensenig notes, “Heritage [that is, history] awareness plays a significant role in Greenfield’s attempts to maintain its peace position. Remembering and interpreting the people and concepts which gave birth to the Anabaptist/Mennonites during the sixteenth century Reformation is one important method of teaching peace at this school. [. . .] More formal heritage training takes place in the classroom, with both schools devoting courses exclusively to the study of Mennonite and general church history. The commitment to peace and justice is an important focus of these studies. Kenneth L. Sensenig, “An Ethnographic Approach to the Study of Sociopolitical Views in Two Mennonite High Schools.” (Dissertation, Temple University, Philadelphia, 1991), 91-92. 
  11. This is not a bad way to do history in the church, but it is not how many are accustomed to it to being done. 
  12.  I borrow this phrase from William H. Katerberg, “Is there Such a Thing as ‘Christian’ History?” Fides et Historia 34:1 (winter/Spring 2002): 57-66. 

4 thoughts on “Power, History, and the Future Church Summit

  1. Joel, as a person not present in the room when this timeline was presented, I felt at a loss when someone approached me the next day and apologized for the absence of the Hispanic Mennonite history. I spoke to several of the Hispanic leaders over the next few days and discovered that they were not even aware that a timeline existed. Thus, when it was presented, and their history absent, they had no clue as to what was going on. They said they had seen the timeline in the exhibit hall, but did not know necessarily know what it was there for. For that matter, i saw it, too. One leader said he had been asked to go up to the front and give some kind of quick oral history of the Spanish Mennonite church, but decided he would not go up and rescue this situation since he felt it was not his place nor did he have the right information to give in front of so many people and misrepresent IMH or its history. I felt I had to push and kept asking these leader to write their own history, instead of waiting for someone else to write it for them. How do they write their own history and not wait for someone to come in and interview them and write their history from their own perspective?
    They questioned why IMH leadership had not been told that the person that was to represent them was not going to be present. If they had known, they could have been prepared. Keeping in mind, these leaders are pastors, delegates, leaders, and not historians. Throughout the summit, I heard a Hispanic leader say, “We are not invisible.” This led me to my own statement: “We’ve been working for over 50 years as Hispanic Mennonites. We’ve been working in our own contexts at our relationship with Jesus, our communities, and helping our neighbors.” We are not invisible, the work of the Lord is not invisible, the hand to reach a soul, feed the hungry, clothe the poor has always been visible. It may be that others don’t know because their history is one rich in oral tradition versus the written tradition. It might be that Hispanics are defining who they are as Anabaptists on a daily basis and what it means to follow Jesus in their own contexts. A timeline places a dot on a date and time that can be measured by a historian. I shared in a panel discussion with Anita Hooley Yoder that I, myself, was not aware of the significance and importance of the work my parents and other Spanish pastors were doing in South Texas as Spanish Mennonites when I was growing up. I was living it. It is now, later in life, that I look back and reflect on the value of what it all meant and why I stay in the Mennonite church to this day. I don’t stay because of tradition. I don’t stay because I don’t have other choices. I stay because this is my story! I choose to walk in love with Jesus, my community, and my neighbors. We, as Hispanics,must make it a priority to continue to make our stories visible by telling stories from the inside out. Then, the timeline will accurately show the work of all of God’s people working side by side and will represent all of our stories.

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    • Sister Perez, it is very true that the absence of the hispanic Mennonite story made the presentation a very incomplete Mennonite history. And it is sad to have that blank space, because there were so many in the room who could have provided some helpful insights (not the least being Rolando Santiago, my director at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society). There is much to be learned from the study and embrace of hispanic Mennonites, where I personally have encountered a serious desire to live faithfully and share that faith, as well as a spirit of mutual aid and compassion.

      And it is quite true that the sacred task of remembering peoplehood and history takes time and preparation, so I can understand why some IMH leadership would feel they were not well enough prepared to do so publicly.

      You might take heart that up here in Lancaster, the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society is making some efforts to help that story be told. We have held field trips to key sties in Lancaster County (such as Rawlinsville Mennonite Church and New Holland Mennonite Church), we have organized public meetings on the CIMH, I have written (along with Ramonita Rivera Santiago and Joanne Hess Siegrist) and history of the early hispanic-Mennonite encounters in Lancaster County, and organized a museum mini-exhibit on Latintinx in central Pennsylvania. I wish I could do more, but I lack the Spanish language skills to proceed along that line of research at this point in time.

      If you are willing, you could write a guest post reflecting on your parents work, and the other good work of the church planters, and send it to me to post as a guest post here. I am more then eager to help you share your story. Contact me at jnofziger@lmhs.org

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  2. Another point to be made is that, unfortunately, the 7 ‘influential’ leaders named are all men. Elaine Sommers Rich and Katie Funk Wiebe, for example, both wrote historically and were powerfully influential in pushing the Mennonite church and its historians to include women in narratives of the past. That we continue to overlook such historians suggests what little progress has been made in new understandings of history, leadership, and influence.
    Marlene Epp, Waterloo, Ontario

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    • Marlene, it is true that there are Mennonite historians who are women: the two you’ve mentioned, Mary Sprunger, Nancy Heisey, Beth Graybill, Carolyn C. Wenger, Lois Ann Mast, Holly Scott, Joanne Hess Siegrist, H. Romaine Stauffer, Stephanie Krehbiel, Mary Emma Showalter, and yourself, and more. They are certainly contemporary (or near contemporary) noteworthy historical scholars.

      However, as I read the work of these historians, many of them are not doing the dance where they appear to work historically while actually working theologically in the manner that H. S. Bender most clearly demonstrated. Doris Janzen Longacre performs a similar tango in “More With Less” where she purports to give recipes, but actually delivers a hefty dose of practical theology. What I am keenly interested here is an apparent trend of combining history and theology in ways that allow for strong ecclesiastical arguments (e.g. “we wear plain dress because that is the way we have always done things,” although that is clearly not historically accurate).

      Nancy Heisey and Rita Halteman Finger blend theology and history to some degree, but then again their field is patristics. Stephanie Krehbiel also works historically and theologically, but much of her activist work does not rely on historical justification (though it does grapple with the past, but uses it as counter example rather then useable).

      It would be interesting to know if Mennonite women and Mennonite men use, or interact with, history differently but I do not have sufficient data to even begin answering that question.

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