Mennonite Heritage Sunday Then and Now

Jason B. Kauffman

This week the Mennonite Church USA Archives released a new collection of worship resources for Mennonite Heritage Sunday which falls this year on October 28. The resources were created by members of the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery coalition and were released on Monday, October 8, to coincide with Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the United States.

The idea of marking a Mennonite Heritage Sunday dates back to the 1970s when Leonard Gross was director of the (old) Mennonite Church Historical Committee. He successfully advocated for the importance of setting aside one Sunday each year to reflect upon our shared history as Mennonites. Mennonite Heritage Sunday has been on the official church calendar since 1980 and falls on the last Sunday of October each year. The date was initially chosen to coincide with Reformation Day, which the broader Protestant church celebrates on October 31 each year to remember the day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Church.

Original Five

The original six persons who met in Hesston, KS, in March 1987 to organize United Native Ministries. L-R Clara Major (Ojibway), Henry Smiley (Navajo), Cindy Bell (Choctaw), Ray Horst, Geraldine Isaac (Choctaw), and Larry Haskie (Navajo). (Photo courtesy MC USA Archives)

The Mennonite Church Historical Committee initiated Heritage Sunday to “remind us that our roots are in the very first church to emerge out of the Reformation.” The committee regarded Heritage Sunday as a day to “look to [our] Anabaptist heroes of faith,” to consider their stories of faithfulness, and to be “reminded of our own living faith.” 1 During the early years the historical committee produced a packet of worship materials with suggestions for congregations on how to prepare for Heritage Sunday, which included hymns, Biblical texts, suggested themes, and story illustrations. More recently, these resources have been posted online on the Mennonite Church USA website. Due to staff transition at the archives, MC USA has not developed worship resources for the broader church since 2014.

While many previous worship materials used the sixteenth century Anabaptist movement as a primary reference point and struck a more celebratory tone, in recent years those who developed the resources have begun to feature other, more recent parts of the Mennonite past. For example, the 2013 and 2014 worship materials focused on the contributions that women and youth have offered to the broader Mennonite Church, often in spite of resistance on the part of institutional leaders. They highlight the roles that conflict, change, and adaptation to change have played in our collective history as Mennonites.

This year’s worship resources take things one step further. They invite us to confess and lament the ways in which Mennonites in North America have benefited from the Doctrine of Discovery at the expense of indigenous people. While Mennonites did not directly seize land from indigenous people, they did gain access to land after their removal, thus benefiting at their expense. Mennonite-run boarding schools provided education for indigenous people but also contributed to culture loss and assimilation. While it is true that Mennonites of European descent did not directly seek to oppress indigenous people in North America, Mennonites as a group have historically enjoyed privileges (legal and otherwise) that indigenous people have not. The history of Mennonite relationships with indigenous people is complex and these worship resources invite Mennonite congregations to engage in meaningful reflection on what it means to confess and lament our role in this history.

Native Amer banner1

Poster created for a conference on the history of Mennonite/Native American relationships in Clinton, Oklahoma, March 30-April 2, 2006. (Photo courtesy MC USA Archives)

The historical relationship between Mennonites and indigenous people would also benefit from further research. I know of no baseline, comprehensive study that chronicles the history of Mennonite interactions (missionary and otherwise) with indigenous communities in North America.2 There have, however, been conferences related to this theme. For example, in 2006 there was a major conference in Clinton, Oklahoma, which gathered close to 300 people “to explore the legacy of Indian/Mennonite relationships since 1880.”3 Titled, “Cheyenne, Arapaho, Mennonite: Journey from Darlington,” the conference was sponsored by the Historical Committee of Mennonite Church USA and resulted in two special issues of Mennonite Life featuring essays from conference presenters.

Many of those who presented at the conference have continued to produce scholarship examining the relationship between Native Americans and Mennonites, including (but not limited to) Raylene Hinz-Penner, Kimberly D. Schmidt, and Marvin E. Kroeker. David Horst Lehman, a PhD student at the University of Illinois, is doing fascinating work on the agro-environmental dimensions of settler (including Mennonite) conflicts with Potawatomi communities in northern Indiana. A 2019 conference on “Mennonites and Anthropology” at the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg will offer another venue for scholars to present new work on the topic of Mennonite/indigenous relationships.

There is also new research waiting to be completed, drawing from untapped sources from the Mennonite Church USA Archives in Elkhart, the Mennonite Library and Archives at Bethel College, and likely other archives and libraries in the United States and Canada. John Thiesen, from the MLA, has started to provide digital access to many of these sources through a page on the Bethel College library website. The page includes hundreds of digitized documents from both personal manuscripts and organizational records – dating to the late nineteenth century – as well as a useful bibliography of published secondary sources on Native American/Mennonite relationships.

At the MC USA Archives the documentary record is much sparser, in part due to the more recent history of mission work with indigenous communities. Mennonite mission work with the Creek in Alabama began in 1951, work with the Navajo began in 1954, and work with Choctaw of central Mississippi began in 1958. Although there are few, if any, personal manuscript collections at the archives, the organizational records of Mennonite Board of Missions do contain correspondence and reports to document the broad contours of these histories. There are also several oral history interviews with indigenous Mennonite women in the Mennonite Women of Color Oral History collection. For more recent years, the archives houses the records of United Native Ministries, an old Mennonite organization created in the 1980s to provide social and spiritual support to Native American Mennonites.

Before arriving at the archives, I had little knowledge of the long history of Mennonite relationships with indigenous people in the United States and Canada. It is a complicated history and it looks much different to Mennonite eyes in 2018 than it likely did in 1918 or 1968. These stories, too, are part of our Anabaptist heritage, so I hope that Mennonite congregations will use the new resources during worship on October 28 (or sometime thereafter). For those of us with little prior knowledge about this history, understanding the Doctrine of Discovery and its impact on the indigenous people of North America is a good place to start. Hopefully the resources will serve as a starting point for further learning, storytelling, scholarship, and understanding.



  1. John E. Sharp, “Mennonite Heritage Sunday Rationale,” 16 February 2005. Mennonite Church Historical Committee (electronic records), I-3-3. Mennonite Church USA Archives. Elkhart, Indiana. 
  2. I’m thinking along the same line as early books by Le Roy Bechler, The Black Mennonite Church in North America, 1886-1986 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1986) and Rafael Falcón, translated by Ronald Collins, The Hispanic Mennonite Church in North America, 1932-1982 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1986). The Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online includes an article for “Indians, North America,” which provides basic information about the various indigenous peoples that Mennonites have interacted with over time. 
  3. “Editor’s Note,” Mennonite Life 61:2 (June 2006). 

6 thoughts on “Mennonite Heritage Sunday Then and Now

  1. Thanks Jason. You might also direct readers to some of the extensive resources on Indigenous-Settler Relations developed by Mennonite Church Canada, especially some of the issues of Intotemak. http://home.mennonitechurch.ca/indigenous/learn and https://www.commonword.ca/Browse/906
    Historians might also be interested in John Sharp’s summaries of statements by the Historical Committee of the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Church in 1992 in the Mennonite Life volume you’ve mentioned above. I’ve wondered whether the formal end of those two organizations meant that those earlier statements and commitments were left dangling in the wind. https://ml.bethelks.edu/issue/vol-61-no-2/article/mennonites-and-native-americans-a-reconciliation/
    I was surprised to read your characterization of “the more recent history of mission work with indigenous communities” in the 1950s. Aren’t MCUSA archives also the archives of Mennonite congregations that belonged to the General Conference, which began to work among the Cheyenne in the 1880s?

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    • Thanks for pointing out these resources, Troy. Regarding your comment about “the more recent history of mission work with indigenous communities:” In the previous paragraph I mentioned sources at the MLA at Bethel College, which houses records of the former General Conference, including records “dating to the late nineteenth century” that document Mennonite mission work with the Cheyenne. The MC USA Archives used to encompass the records of both the former MC and GC denominations. This changed in 2017, as I discussed in a previous post on this blog: https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2017/08/17/collections-on-the-move/. The MC USA Archives no longer owns or is responsible for the management of GC records housed at the MLA. This is why I described the records in the MC USA (Elkhart) archives as more recent (old Mennonite Church) than those at the MLA. Apologies for the confusion.

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      • Thanks for the reply Jason. I should also thank you for the thoughtful response to my comment on your post from last year! (I didn’t realize that you had replied.) As someone who grew up in a dual-affiliated congregation, the decision to separate GC and MC holdings feels like a symbolic loss to me, However, I understand the financial need that Elkhart felt to move everything to Indiana.

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  2. Good to hear that this history is being identified and explored in a number of ways. I would add that for Canadian perspectives, refer to the Journal of Mennonite Studies, 2001. The Mennonite Archival Image Database, a joint project of nine Mennonite archives (8 in Canada, 1 in the U.S.), is undergoing a subject headings review, replacing “Indians of North America” with more accurate and appropriate terms.

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    • Thanks, Laureen! I am admittedly less familiar with resources (archival and otherwise) on the history of Canadian Mennonite interactions with indigenous people. Thanks for taking the time to comment and draw attention to these resources.

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