An Accusation, an Apology, and a Dismissal: Mennonite Patriarchal Authority in the Archives

Jason B. Kauffman

Nelson and Christmas Carol Kauffman

Nelson E. and Christmas Carol Kauffman (Mennonite Church USA Archives)

In March 1960, Nelson Kauffman (1904-1981) received a letter from a young woman he met twelve years earlier during a revival meeting in Harrisonburg, Virginia. A well-known figure in the old Mennonite Church, at the time of their meeting Kauffman was a missionary pastor and bishop in Hannibal, Missouri. By 1960, he had relocated to Elkhart, Indiana, where he served as the Mennonite Board of Missions Secretary for Home Missions (1955-1970) and President of the Mennonite Board of Education (1950-1970). Kauffman thus occupied a position of considerable power and authority within the institutional Mennonite Church.

The woman who wrote the letter (unnamed to protect her privacy) did not occupy a position of power or authority in the Mennonite Church, a disparity of which she was acutely aware. The subject of the letter was a private meeting she attended with her mother, Kauffman, and a group of local Mennonite ministers. At the meeting, Kauffman took the young girl to task for writing false letters, “pretending they were from a minister that was interested in [her].” Rather than attempt to summarize this detailed letter, I include the full text below.1 Its contents and Kauffman’s response provide a window into the dynamics of patriarchal authority in the Mennonite Church at mid-twentieth century and parallels the many ways in which patriarchy continues to impact the Mennonite church today.

March 18, 1960

Dear Sir:

I am writing a L.O.N.G overdue letter to you, Mr. Kauffman.

You may or may not remember the “Revival?” Meeting [sic] you held at Weaver [sic] Mennonite Church near Harrisonburg, Va., some years ago. I think perhaps it may have been around 1948-1949 in Nov [sic]. If you have forgotten it I have far from forgotten. I am the “little girl” that caused so much trouble. The one that wrote those letters to Mrs. [redacted] pretending they were from a minister that was interested in me.

The purpose of this letter is not to justify my act of deceit. I feel that my side of the case was not heard at that meeting in that living room at my mother’s home that cold, winter day. You may never have experienced the feeling I did that day so many years ago – but it is an awful one. I had the feeling that I was the dirtiest thing walking or crawling. I was alone – not one person in that room was really interested in me! They were more interested in the “crime” I had committed. No one concerned themselves with why I did such a thing. I was a teenager at the time. I was so confused. There was no love in my home, and oh how I craved love. Is it a sin to desire your mother to kiss you or put her arm around you? To talk things over with you?

I don’t know when it was that this whole affair started. I think, perhaps, it was when I went along with my parents to visit the [redacted] one Sunday. I saw how she treated her daughters and I wanted it to be that way in our home. I did all sorts of things for attention at home. I got “attention” alright, but not the kind I had hoped for. I ran away from home several times. I wanted mom to miss me and to be glad when I was found – but it didn’t seem to work out like I had hoped it would. After all efforts at home failed I started looking elsewhere. I don’t really know when or how I figured up such a fantastic scheme as the letters but the answers to them certainly did thrill me.

It helped more than anyone that has not experienced love of any sort for so many years can ever know, what it means to suddenly see in black and white that someone is worried about you. It seemed that I had at last become someone! I was important to someone! That, in a very small part, is what I feel brought the letters about.

Now we come to the second act. The place where you appear on the “stage.” You sat there in my mother’s living room and told me how awful I was. You said: “You imagined that men wanted to put their arms around you. You dreamed of having affairs with older men.” You made me feel pretty dirty. Let me repeat again: What I did as far as the letters and the lies are concerned was very, very wrong. I’ll not waste ink and paper in defending a sin, but Mr. Kauffman, my feelings as far as wanting to be loved by men or women, especially men at the age of sixteen is the most natural feeling or desire on the top-side of God’s green earth! (If Mennonites are humans they feel the same way!)

Those words of yours that day burned their way so deeply into my very being that I can still hear them tonight. When I went out on dates after you spoke those words, it seemed I was cheap and dirty. I won’t begin to tell you the misery it has caused me. I stepped on this natural desire ever since that day you called it sin until it began to affect my very womanly nature. My desire turned from men to desire women in the way I should desire men.

I kept fighting it. I kept telling myself it was not wrong to desire the attention of a man. For the past few years I’ve lived in a hell of some sort as far as my emotions are concerned. Thanks to the help of a real friend, I’m on my way back to the natural ways, however I think it’s only fair that I should have my say. Yes, I’ll freely admit I sinned in lying, etc. But your wife also lied in those books she wrote that raised such a stir in Mennonite circles a few years ago. I suppose that was quite alright, seeing that she is your wife.2

I’ve suffered much at the hands of Mennonites. I have long since severed any connections with them. They have caused much damage to my emotional life as a well-known doctor here in [redacted] can testify. In fact your wife could have quite a lot of material for one of her famous books from the experiences in my life brought about as a direct result of yours and other Mennonite ministers’ blunders. If my name was Heatwole or Shenk or Showalter or some other Mennonite name I would have been treated differently but I was only a nobody by the name of [redacted].

It is pointless for me to continue this letter as you have stopped reading it long ago. I’ve never met a Mennonite yet that could take a fact and look it in the eye as far as they were concerned.

Of all those ministers in the room that day that had set themselves up to be judge and jury over the natural desires of a 16 year old girl, Reverend [redacted] is the only one that had enough of the grace of God in his heart to step out and shake the hand of a “fallen woman” like myself. I’ll always remember him for that. I’ll bet it took a lot of GUTS.
Yours truly,

[Redacted]

P.S. I have long ago forgiven my mother for her failures as I am sure she did not mean it or realize what was happening to me. I love her.

Kauffman sent a response to the letter on April 1, 1960. In it he asked for the young woman’s forgiveness and apologized for his “failures at that time.” He thanked the woman for explaining her home situation further and acknowledged that his response in the moment was inappropriate:

I am sure that if I was to counsel someone like that again I would do differently than I did at that time. I feel that persons with problems like you had need professional help and often we ministers endeavor to help persons as best we can without professional knowledge of the kind that is available today through doctors, and so we often do less than the best.

I want to confess that often we Mennonite ministers are not as aware of the problems people face as we should be, because cases such as yours do not come to us frequently enough, and so we do not learn fast enough from experience. . . .

. . . I hope you will believe me when I say that I am very sorry for my failures to be understanding at that time, and to be of help to you. I hope you will believe me when I say I sincerely wanted to help, but can see now that undoubtedly I was not using the best method in trying to help you see your own problem.

He went on to address the woman’s accusation of Mennonite superiority and ended by expressing his hope that the young woman could find a “Christian fellowship” to provide support in her ongoing faith journey.3

Several weeks later, Kauffman received a short letter from a Virginia Mennonite minister whom he had copied on his correspondence with the young woman. In contrast to Kauffman’s admission of his mistake and his request for forgiveness, the minister dismissed the young woman’s letter as irrational and questioned her mental state, writing “I am sorry for the attitude she takes but one must just overlook that because she is mentally sick.” He ended the letter by again downplaying the seriousness of the young woman’s accusations:

Don’t take her charges too seriously. I felt at the time that you did a good job in dealing with her the way you did. It may be there would have been a better way, but we all did the best we knew. Let us continue to pray for [redacted] that she may come to herself and come to a real knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.4

Clearly, there is much going on in this brief exchange of correspondence between a young Mennonite woman and two male Mennonite leaders. The young woman’s letter names the power that Mennonite ministers held to shape personal understandings of right and wrong, sin, and sexuality. Rather than offer care and concern for the young woman as a person, Kauffman used the tool of guilt to shame her for her alleged sins. The letter also draws attention to the insider-outsider dynamics that privileged members with “Mennonite names” over others.

To his credit, Kauffman offers what appears to be a sincere apology for his role in the meeting, but his letter does not provide a satisfying rationale for the practice of male Mennonite ministers acting as “judge and jury over the natural desires of a 16 year old girl.” The Virginia Mennonite minister’s dismissal of the young woman’s accusation likely mirrored those of many of his male contemporaries across the church (“…we all did the best we knew”). Institutionalized patriarchy was so normalized in their minds that neither questioned the established pattern of male leaders admonishing sinful congregants in their homes.

The letters also highlight how leaders commonly dealt with issues when they arose in the life of the church. Much of the discussions and decision-making happened between male leaders behind closed doors. In such matters there was little transparency between ministers and their congregations or the broader community. A report this week from a Pennsylvania grand jury detailing decades of systematic abuse and cover up in the Catholic Church highlights the very real dangers of not having systems in place within church institutions to hold leaders accountable for their actions. While it may not rise to the same systematic level as it has in the Catholic Church, the Mennonite community continues to grapple with its own histories of sexual abuse and cover up.

While these three letters do not deal with accusations of sexual abuse, they do offer a fascinating window into the dynamics (and material for a gendered analysis) of patriarchal authority in the Mennonite Church. At the same time, however, they do not provide a complete picture of historical events as they occurred and as those involved perceived them. A more complete picture – extending beyond this specific event – would require sustained research in archival and published sources produced by Mennonite men and women as they created and acted within Mennonite institutional structures over time.

It is obvious that patriarchal authority existed and continues to exist in the North American Mennonite community. The task of the historian is to historicize patriarchy, piecing together the specific ways in which it manifested in the life of the church and how and why it changed over time. Otherwise we risk reifying patriarchy as an ahistorical power structure that has operated in the same ways across time and space. Such historical work could complement the work that individuals, congregations, and organizations are already doing to raise awareness about the sobering toll that patriarchal authority, intersectional oppression, spiritual abuse, and sexual violence have had on the personal and sexual identities of individuals connected to the Mennonite church.


  1. Letter from [redacted] to Nelson Kauffman, 3-18-1960, Box 3, Folder 73. Nelson E. Kauffman Papers, 1911-1981. HM1-324. Mennonite Church USA Archives. Elkhart, Indiana. Conditions of access to this folder require that researchers agree not to publish personally identifiable information. Aside from Nelson Kauffman and his wife Christmas Carol Kauffman, I have removed the names of all people identified in the original letter. 
  2. This is a reference to Nelson Kauffman’s wife, Christmas Carol Kauffman, who published several semi-biographical novels on Mennonite themes between the 1940s and the 1960s. 
  3. Letter from Nelson Kauffman to [redacted], 4-1-1960, Box 3, Folder 73. Kauffman Papers, HM1-324. On Mennonite superiority, Kauffman wrote “As far as feeling ourselves above you, we have plenty of failures in our own church that no one of us should feel that we are better than any other persons we meet.” 
  4. Letter from [redacted] to Nelson Kauffman, 4-18-1960, Box 3, Folder 73. Kauffman Papers, HM1-324. 

8 thoughts on “An Accusation, an Apology, and a Dismissal: Mennonite Patriarchal Authority in the Archives

  1. Much of the blame for this kind of abuse of power and authority rests with the use of the Lot in Mennonite history. Nelson Kauffman was probably more educated and self-aware than most Mennonite ministers in that day and time. If you hand over tremendous power to totally unprepared and untrained ministers and bishops, you will get plenty of abuse and there was plenty of it. There were more ministers out there like the second minister who felt no sympathy for this young woman. But I saw the other side of it. My father was ordained by Lot, both preacher and bishop, at a crazy early age with only 8 grades of education. I am sure he would have responded to this girl in a similar fashion. There are many layers to peel away to get to the bottom of these kinds of attitudes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Eva. I hadn’t considered the use of the lot as a contributing factor but it makes sense. And thanks for your point on the importance of subject position and context in shaping the responses of people in positions of power. That’s one of my problems with terms like “patriarchy” because it is easy to give it too much explanatory power. People on the ground, acting in history, are influenced by overarching systems but also a host of other variables specific to their situations.

      Like

  2. thank you for sharing your reflections. there is still so much to unpack in Mennonite history and culture and what it has done to women, to men, to children.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The best historians know when to put a primary source front and center. You made a good call, Jason. Thank you. This is a fascinating exchange, and the words and descriptions of the letter writers evoke that mix of strange and familiar that draws me, at least, to historical inquiry. With well presented sources, analysis becomes secondary, so I trust you will not take it amiss that I challenge you a little on that aspect of the post. It seems that those Mennonite ministers went astray when they tried to shoe-horn the phenomenon of the teenager’s constructed relationships into a brittle ethical and normative framework that would only permit them to interpret her behavior in terms of honesty/dishonesty and deviancy. However, I wonder whether your interpretation of the historical events in terms of a normative framework characterized by terminology such as institutional patriarchy, intersectional oppression, and power structures may one day also prove to be brittle, judgmental and to inadequately comprehend historical human behavior. That being said, the girl’s letter and the pastor’s response, as historical documents, carry a significance that exceeds and survives all of our analyses.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment, Russell. I usually tend to do less interpretation/analysis in my posts. I try to use them to highlight resources at the archives, make connections between the Mennonite past and present, and hopefully spark thought and discussion from readers. Your point about shoe-horning understandings or analyses into artificial frameworks is well taken. That’s why, at the end of my post, I stressed the importance of historicizing patriarchy in the Mennonite church. If you are suggesting that patriarchy, intersectional oppression, or other “power structures” (whatever you want to call it) are not useful concepts for understanding the past, then that’s a different question. Of course such analytical constructs can’t serve as one-size-fits-all tools for understanding historical human behavior, but decades of scholarship in multiple fields have demonstrated conclusively that patriarchal authority is a thing and has shaped human behavior and relationships over time and in a variety (but not all) of cultures and societies. Same goes for other “power structures” like the global capitalist system. People have the agency to act within and shape these systems and they don’t all respond in the same normative ways but they are acting within and responding to them nonetheless. I don’t believe that it is possible to exist in the world (now or in the past) without navigating or responding to overarching structures or systems of thought that shape the things we say and do. This kind of gets into some meta-questions about the place of the individual in history but I’d be glad to hear more of your thoughts.

      Like

      • Hi Jason. You conclude your response by invoking ‘meta-questions’. I love the meta-questions! Also, not only does your original post stress the importance of historicizing patriarchy, it cautions against reifying patriarchy. I affirm both points. Thus, I would concur with the notion that ‘patriarchy’ is a useful concept in historical interpretation (as is global capitalism), but at the same time I would radically relativize those concepts by insisting they are intellectual and linguistic concepts that do not exist in their own right. I.e. they must not be reified (or ‘thing’ified). Patriarchy is an idea, not a thing. Methodologically, this would mean the historian ought always to subordinate the conceptual analysis to the actual ‘things’ or events of history which happened independently of the conceptual structures we use to interpret them. Thus a conclusion such as ‘the notion of patriarchy appears to be a useful framework for interpretation of these events’ is made expressly provisional to the next set of data that may be uncovered or the next set of eyes that interpret it. Most importantly, analysis is recognized as being more about the agenda of the contemporary interpreter than the reality of the historical individual. This permits the kind of nonjudgmental humility that ‘my own contemporary agenda’ finds to be manifested in Nelson Kauffman’s reply to his complainant.
        P.S. ‘the place of the individual in history’. now there is a can of worms!

        Like

      • Hi Russel…this is a fair critique. As I read back over my original post, this sentence especially does not sit well with me: “Institutionalized patriarchy was so normalized in their minds that neither questioned the established pattern of male leaders admonishing sinful congregants in their homes.” This interpretation leaves little room for independent thought and action on the part of historical actors and gives too much explanatory power to patriarchy as a concept for understanding the past. I tried to address this later in the post when I noted that the letters “do not provide a complete picture of historical events as they occurred [at the meeting in question] and as those involved perceived them.” Clearly a single letter cannot capture the entirety of who Nelson Kauffman was as a person and not every reader will interpret it in the same way. You characterize my brief interpretation as judgmental and claim it as evidence that I am seeking to advance some sort of agenda (vilifying all white male Mennonite leaders?). I think it would have been judgmental to offer an interpretation and present it as the only way to read the sources, leaving no room for alternate interpretations. This is not what I did. On your point that “patriarchy is an idea, not a thing”: yes, I agree. This is what I was referring to when I mentioned “systems of thought that shape the things we say and do.” You took my colloquial use of “thing” too literally. Thanks again for pushing me on the post. My goal was simply to provoke thought and discussion, not to speak authoritatively on the subject of patriarchy in the Mennonite church. I’m happy to leave a more in-depth and rigorous analysis/interpretation to the experts.

        Like

  4. In discussing use of the lot. What I would like to see mentioned are the dynamics of WHOSE names were given and whose names were eliminated before even given to the church to pray over. Plus those who had their names given and were actually willing BUT were gently discouraged from being in the lot for fear of the implications. Like they would actually preach the word and confront family secrets.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s