A School By Any Other Name?

Names are funny things. Once they’re assigned to people, places, or things it can be hard to imagine anything else fitting. Though 100 years on it seems almost inconceivable for Eastern Mennonite University to be anything other than Eastern Mennonite, it took the founders a few tries to find a name that stuck. Many of the early suggestions were informed by the locations they would inhabit. Warwick Mennonite Institute, Warwick Mennonite Academy, and Alexandria Mennonite Institute clearly didn’t fit anymore once Harrisonburg became the settled upon location. But what about another suggestion: The Mennonite Student’s Safeguard and Industrial School? Certainly this conveyed in plain language the goals of the school, but it was a bit wordy and perhaps a bit too on the nose.  


In the end, they settled on Eastern Mennonite School. Not as conspicuous as The Mennonite Student’s Safeguard and Industrial School, but it was decidedly less of a mouthful and still contained a key indication of their core identity: Mennonite. In Eastern Mennonite University: A Century of Countercultural Education Don Kraybill writes that “The records do not say how the final name was determined” but that “even in the twenty-first century, Eastern Mennonite University remains the only Mennonite-related college or university of eight in the United States that carries the denominational name”1

It must be stated that having the word Mennonite in the name certainly doesn’t make EMU more Mennonite than other colleges. Some of the founders even made the case for leaving Mennonite out. Kraybill writes of a letter that chair of the local board C.H. Brunk wrote to the General Board stating “it is not customary to give a school a denominational name…some people are more or less prejudiced against denominational institutions . . . [the school] can be just as truly denominational without the name” A small group including Brunk agreed “unanimously” that it should be named simply “Eastern Institute and Bible School.”2

There are some even today who think that the inclusion of Mennonite in EMU’s name is off-putting to prospective students or has the potential to be polarizing. In recent times other Anabaptist groups have made or proposed changes to their names that remove words like Brethren and Mennonite in order to be more inclusive and broaden their appeal.3 And it’s possible that Goshen, Bluffton, Bethel, and Hesston don’t have to field pesky questions about the availability of electricity on their campuses.4 But some on campus argue that we should lean into, rather than downplay, the Mennonite characteristics. Kraybill touches on this argument, noting that:

In a campus forum, enrollment managers proposed striking Mennonite from the marketing materials and reducing “other odd things about EMU to make it look less ‘weird’ and easier to recruit local Virginia students and mainstream evangelical Christian ones.” History professor Mark Sawin argued the reverse: “If EMU stops being distinctively Mennonite, we have no reason to exist. There are plenty of better-funded, better-situated Christian colleges and liberal arts colleges. If we try to be like them—to be just another mainstream, vanilla, Christian liberal arts school, I think we would, and perhaps should, fail. We aren’t vanilla; we’re pistachio. Most people prefer vanilla and chocolate, it’s true, but those who prefer pistachio love it and will seek it out. To thrive we need to not lessen but increase our distinctiveness—we need to be more, not less, pistachio.” 5

So Eastern Mennonite University it is. We have spent the last 100 years committing to our pistachio-ness and will continue to do so.  Though some may see the label as a hindrance, it can also be seen as an opportunity to invite conversation and share the unique ideals of Anabaptism.  In this way EMU really is a Christian—and more specifically an Anabaptist Mennonite—University like no other.

For more information about the history of Eastern Mennonite University, check out Don Kraybill’s 100-year history: Eastern Mennonite University: a Century of Countercultural Education. Available from EMU, Amazon, and Penn State University Press.

  1. Donald Kraybill, Eastern Mennonite University: A Century of Countercultural Education (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2017), 54. 
  2. Kraybill, 54. 
  3. Rich Preheim, Still BIC but no longer Brethren,” Mennonite World Review, Oct. 30, 2017.; Rachel Stella, “Switch to ‘Rosedale Network’ narrowly fails,” Mennonite World Review, Aug. 14, 2017. 
  4. As a student tour guide I once was asked this very question. Other people I’ve spoken with have reported being asked where we keep our horses and buggies. 
  5. Kraybill, 294. 

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