My Anabaptist Heritage and the Classroom

“Why does a historian study the dead ‘past’? To reveal how much of it lives in us today.”1 Recently Abigail told me that she has this brief quotation posted on her refrigerator. She had noted it during one of my lectures and wanted to keep it where she would see it every time she opened her fridge door. During our conversation, she owned that in the class on “Canadian Church History” that she had recently completed with me, she had learned for the first time that slavery is a part of our nation’s past. North of the 49th parallel, we prefer to focus on our role in helping enslaved people towards freedom through the Underground Railroad.2 As the hard truth was exposed, she confided, a new awareness of her own racism began to emerge. Our conversation confirmed for me that some of my passion for the classroom had stuck. My sense of mission had born fruit.3

My life in university classrooms spans five decades. Early on in my student life I began to imagine myself in the role of professor. I recall sitting in a class on “Canadian Indian History,” as it was called then, observing Professor Palmer Patterson and admiring his passion. As a quiet, reserved young woman sitting towards the back of the room, I remember thinking how I’d like to end up where he was, behind the podium – teaching. Not long after that Professor Patterson began to draw me out of my reserve; he assisted me in moving forward, helping to kindle the passion that he had observed in that student in the back of the classroom. His invitation to work under him as a graduate student, and to fill the role of teaching assistant was a critical moment in my development. As an undergraduate, I also admired Professor Frank Epp’s clear understanding of the multiple expressions of Mennonites in Canada and their common Anabaptist heritage that tied them together. He, too, would become a significant mentor.

Decades later I reflect back on being at the front of countless classrooms, attempting to kindle in my students some of the passion that had sparked mine as a young undergraduate. In my development as a teaching professor, I have been inspired by many scholars. Some of those are Anabaptist. But the two thinkers that I find myself returning to again and again are neither Brethren in Christ nor Mennonite. They are Jewish and Quaker. This is hardly surprising, I suppose, with the cultural connections shared between Jewish and Mennonite communities, and shared principles in Anabaptist and Quaker perspectives on peace.

A secular Jew who narrowly escaped the Nazi invasion of Austria, Gerda Lerner’s career as a historian that included the founding of women’s studies, played itself out in the United States. I share Lerner’s feminist principles. But I am a Canadian historian, formed by my Brethren in Christ background and adult academic and faith journey shaped, in part, in Mennonite communities. Although the classrooms where I have taught have been in Liberal Arts institutions and a School of Religious Studies, and they have rarely included Anabaptist students, it seems that whether I’m teaching women’s studies, Canadian history or church history, I come back to Gerda Lerner’s stimulating essay collection Why History Matters, again and again.4

Lerner has spoken to my desire to kindle in students a sense of knowing who they are in relationship to their own past, and that of others. Her work has provided a paradigm for incorporating into my course syllabi those who have suffered intolerance and persecution in the past – indigenous peoples, people of African-Canadian heritage, Asian Canadians, those with Eastern European roots, and the women who comprise more than fifty per cent of every cultural group.5 Lerner’s insistent plea, that the failure to give expression to the underside and dark moments of the past – the horrors of wars, holocausts, genocides, slavery, rape, sexual abuse – will allow such atrocities to happen again and again, reinforces my Anabaptist beliefs.6

Including voices infrequently heard means making hard decisions. What do I omit, so I can do this work? Who decides what is critical? How does one integrate the previously voiceless into the canon? Although none of this is obvious, my Anabaptist background means that from childhood I have viewed the world from outside the mainstream. I have known myself as ‘the other’. This formation has trained me to see the hidden dark places in history; it has planted in me the hope that exposure will promote healing. My Anabaptist background has me teaching in trust that creating an environment that allows students to do some of their own reconciliation work will do its small part in working towards healing and justice.

Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach provides a helpful paradigm for this reconciliation work in the classroom: “Knowing of any sort is relational, animated by a desire to come into deeper community with what we know.”7His insistence that in the classroom the student and the teacher must be in relationship, not just with each other, but with the knowledge that they are together deepening into, provides a model for a community of learners. Abigail responded with surprise as she began to own her previously unnamed racist attitudes; I have also heard students’ gratitude for the naming of their personal hurts and sense of exclusion. As we grow in community with each other and our subject matter, students come to know themselves in a deeper way, even as I do, semester after semester.

In my academic journey teaching mostly Canadian history and Women’s Studies in the Liberal Arts in a variety of universities and colleges in three Canadian provinces, the student with Anabaptist background sitting in my classrooms has been rare. But as I often hear from students whether they are theology, history, women’s studies, Canadian studies majors, that they’ve come out of our experience together in the classroom with a deepened sense of community. They have entered into relationship with me and with each other, as we together deepen our knowledge. Some, like Abigail, tell me that they have gained a new awareness of the necessity to hear the voices of the marginalized and oppressed. Others come to a deeper sense of their own experience of being ‘the other’, sometimes hurt deeply by their experience.

Are my classrooms Anabaptist? I have come to see that at least in part, my attraction to both Gerda Lerner’s insistence on exposing the dark side, and Parker Palmer’s relational way of knowing is a product of my Anabaptist formation shaped by my Brethren in Christ and Mennonite background heritage. As I reflect on my Anabaptist heritage and how it has shaped my experience of the classroom, I, too, come into a deeper knowing and relationship with the past.


  1. Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 54.
  2. Denise Gillard, “The Black Church in Canada,” McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry, Vol. 1 (1998).
  3. See, for instance, my Presidential address to the 1917 meeting of the Canadian Society of Church History published as “Reflections on the Necessity of Canadian Church History, Historical Papers, Canadian Society of Church History (1917).
  4. Thirty-five years ago, on 1 April 1982, Gerda Lerner spoke to the Organization of American Historians in Philadelphia, on “The Necessity of History and the Professional Historian.” It has since been published in her thought-provoking Why History Matters: Life and Thought (NY: Oxford University Press, 1997): 113-28.
  5. For a helpful discussion on the Canadian history of discriminatory legislation, please see Allan Levine, “Slow Road to Tolerance” Canada’s History (April-May 2016), 41-47.
  6. It also parallels the work of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where the revisionist work of numerous Canadian historians figures prominently. See “Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,” Vol. I: Summary “Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future,” (Toronto: Lorimer, 2015). J.R. Miller, Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools (University of Toronto, 1997) and John S. Milloy, A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 – 1986 (Winnipeg, MB: University of Manitoba, 1999) are key in this work.
  7. Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach, 54.

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