Jason B. Kauffman
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
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.
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.
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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.” ↩
- Letter from [redacted] to Nelson Kauffman, 4-18-1960, Box 3, Folder 73. Kauffman Papers, HM1-324. ↩