Tobin Miller Shearer
In 1955, white Mennonite church periodical editor Paul Erb wrote, “Perhaps in nothing have our Mennonite people so completely conformed themselves to a worldly idea as in this.”1 He was not referring to dancing, watching movies, cutting hair (women’s! – not men’s), wearing wedding rings, or any of the other worldly pursuits deemed anathema by Mennonite church leaders at the time. He was referring to racial discrimination and segregation.
He did so on the occasion of the release of the 1955 Mennonite uber race relations statement, “The Way of Christian Love in Race Relations.” That carefully vetted document, largely a result of the wordsmithing provided by Guy F. Hershberger and Grant M. Stoltzfus, called the Mennonite Church community to repent of the sin of racism and embark on a “ministry of reconciliation” by working “against the evils of prejudice and discrimination wherever they may be found.”2
The 1955 document was one in a series of twenty-two race-focused statements that Mennonite bodies in the United States released between 1940 and 1976.3 By far the most high-profile of any of those statements, it was not the boldest, the most challenging, or the most theologically sophisticated of that set of twenty-two pronouncements. It was, however, the touchstone that statements for the next twenty-years – and beyond – referred back to and built upon.
Yet I am less interested in the impact of that particular statement than I am in the context of all but two of the twenty-two statements issued by Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren. For the three and half decades here examined, written statements about race by U.S. Mennonites were prompted by external political forces and almost exclusively a project of white men. Not once in any of those twenty-two statements did the white male authors identify, name, or evaluate their own racial identity. As a result, I will argue that, with one exception, these statements failed to address the underlying problem of white domination and supremacy in the church.
The story that I am focusing on begins not with the oft-touted 1688 Germantown anti-slavery statement because, as I have argued elsewhere, it was a document written to a Quaker assembly by practicing Quakers. It simply wasn’t a Mennonite document in terms of audience, sensibility, or authorship.4 Instead the story begins with the 1940 Virginia Conference statement that mandated racial segregation in church sacraments such as communion, footwashing, and the Holy Kiss.5
That 1940 statement – like only one other of the twenty-two I have documented – was released primarily in response to dynamics internal to the Mennonite community. In essence, the workers at Broad Street Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, had in their bishops’ eyes become too racially progressive. As a result, the Virginia bishops reigned them in by segregating the sacraments.6 When Broad Street leaders Fannie and Ernest Swartzentruber resisted that racist doctrine, the bishops dismissed the couple from their posts.7
To be certain, the Virginia bishops also passed the segregation mandate in hopes of placating the critics who called into question their patriotism as a result of the Mennonites’ refusal to bear arms in the midst of World War II. By making the decision to conform to segregationist practices, Virginia Mennonites could at least demonstrate they were willing to cooperate with the dictates of a racially segregated and white supremacist society.
The first record I can find of a Mennonite group issuing a statement challenging racism – as opposed to instituting segregation – was a 1948 statement by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Conference in which they declared their opposition to “prejudices and discrimination against minority groups.”8 In keeping with broader national trends, few white majority Protestant groups issued any statements against racism until after the Federal Council of Churches issued their declaration of the same in 1946. In that year the FCC declared that “the pattern of segregation in race relations is unnecessary and undesirable and a violation of the Gospel of love and human brotherhood.”9
Prior to the 1955 Mennonite church statement issued in the immediate aftermath of the previous year’s Supreme Court Brown v. Board desegregation ruling, a study group meeting at Laurelville Mennonite retreat center in 1951 had released a general statement on Christian Community Relations that included a short section calling for action against “racial discrimination.”10 That same year, Lancaster Mennonite Conference bishops C. K. Lehman, J. Paul Graybill, and Amos Horst were tasked with drafting a statement on “racialism,” but the Bishop board failed to act upon or promote the “tentative statements” developed by the three bishops.11
The 1955 statement deserves its reputation as the principal document that defined the parameters of Mennonite theology and practice in response to – employing the language of the day – “race relations.” In addition to reviewing the biblical texts supporting racial unity, the statement declared racial prejudice and discrimination a sin, confessed complicity in that sin, and called for full integration of all congregations and church institutions, robust teaching on the evils of racial discrimination, and a “ministry of reconciliation” focused on correcting “the evils of racial intolerance within our society.”12
That same year Bluffton College in Ohio released a statement encouraging racial integration and advising students to carefully consider the “potential richness” and “painful consequences” of interracial marriage, a topic that received frequent and near universal attention by white people at that time.13
List of Twenty-Two Race-Focused Statements by Mennonites – 1940-1979
- 1940 Virginia Conference segregation statement
- 1948 Southwestern Pennsylvania Conference statement on race
- 1951 Laurelville Study Conference on Christian Community Relations
- 1951 Lancaster Conference Bishop board statement on race (limited action)
- 1955 Mennonite Church statement on race – The Way of Christian love in Race Relations
- 1955 Bluffton College Statement on race
- 1959 General Conference Mennonites: A Christian Declaration on Race Relations
- 1960 Lancaster Conference Statement on Race Relations
- 1961 The Christian In Race Relations Statement/Paper
- 1963 Mennonite General Conference statement on Reconciliation
- 1963 Mennonite Brethren Statement on Race and Baptism
- 1963 IN-MI statement on race Relations
- 1964 MCC Statement from Words to Deeds in Race Relations
- 1964 EMC Faculty Statement on Race Relations
- 1964 MCC Peace Section statement on race discrimination and human rights
- 1964 Virginia Conference Statement on Race Relations
- 1967 Virginia Conference statement overturning segregation
- 1969 Mennonite Church General Conference Statement on Urban-Racial Concerns
- 1969 Lancaster Conference Statement on the Black Manifesto
- 1971 Minority Ministries Council Statement to the Mennonite Church
- 1971 Lancaster Conference Statement on Racism
- 1976 Liberty and Justice Workshop statement
The 1960s then erupted with a host of statements – more than half of the total examined here – in response to national events and presidential prompting. In keeping with the efforts spearheaded by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to gain passage of a civil rights bill and President Kennedy’s June 11, 1963, civil rights address, white church leaders across the country – not just white Mennonites – issued race-focused statements and developed new race relations programs.14 In 1963 and 1964 alone, Mennonites generated seven official statements including denomination-level pronouncements by the General Conferences of the Mennonite and the Mennonite Brethren churches. In addition the faculty at Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg, Virginia, released a statement against the “evils of racial discrimination” in 1964, the same year that Virginia Conference called for full integration of all their institutions.15 Yet they did not at that time address their existing mandate to segregate the sacraments. They would not overturn those segregationist dictates until three later when they did so in 1967.16
Through the end of the 1960s, all of the statements generated by Mennonites had been in direct response to national events or political promptings. Although the correspondence around those statements and the articles and letters to the editor that filled that pages of church periodicals in those years of racial tumult and unrest pointed to much hand wringing and genuine discomfort on the part of the white Mennonites who wanted to do better, this set of race-focused declarations consistently shied away from naming the racial make-up of the church itself. In short, none of the statements up through the 1960s specifically talked about the problem of racism as a white issue for which white people needed to take responsibility.
In contrast to the relative silence of Mennonites about white involvement in racism, others outside the church did name white responsibility for racism. White civil rights leaders and activists like Anne Braden, Juliette Morgan, Will Campbell, Clarence Jordan, and many others had long been calling white people to recognize the particular role they played in perpetuating a racist society. In the Mennonite community, African-American minister and civil rights activist Vincent Harding famously challenged white Mennonites in 1967 to confront “the power of Mennonite prestige, the power of middle-class respectability, the power of whiteness.”17 Yet, the vast majority of the statements authored and released by white Mennonites rendered their own racial identities invisible and therefore unexamined.
It was not until 1971 that a statement emerged directly engaging with racial identities in the church. The Minority Ministries Council, then only three years old, released a statement to the Mennonite Church in which they confronted “our white Christian brothers” for not accepting them “on their terms” but instead demanding that they deny their “cultures and backgrounds” in order to become assimilated into “the main stream of white America.” They confessed that they had “accepted a ‘false kind of integration’ in which all power remained in the hands of white brothers” (the repeated male reference is notable here as well). They concluded by committing themselves to speak honestly to their “white Mennonite brothers” while seeking to develop “indigenous congregations” in which they would be the “generals” and white people the “foot soldiers.”18
In far more specific and unapologetic ways than any of the statements up to that point, this 1971 statement named the racial dynamics of the church, called for authentic engagement across racial lines, and introduced – for the first time in an official statement – voices from communities of color writing as Mennonites to their co-religionists. Although limited by the idioms and practices of patriarchy and sexism, the document did what none of the previous statements had done before. It called attention to what Paul Erb had noted back in 1955, that white Mennonites had “completely conformed themselves” to the “worldly” identity of white people. Only a direct and unapologetic wrestling with that kind of conformity would move the church forward to a more authentic anti-racist identity.
I have documented two other statements in the 1970s. One was a new statement by Lancaster Conference also released in 1971 that echoed much of the conference’s previous position paper while introducing the language of “racism” for the first time. The second one was released in 1976 by participants at a Race and Reconciliation conference in Newark, New Jersey, sponsored by Evangelicals for Social Action. This was the only one of the twenty-two statements documented here to have included women in the development of the statement; in this case Lois Leidig of Canton, Ohio, and Bev Lord of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They were two of twelve signatories. Yet, neither of these two additional statements named white people or reflected on the identities of those drafting the documents.
To date, I have been unable to locate any race-focused statements by Mennonite groups in the following decade and a half through 1988.19In 1989, a joint statement by the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church entitled “A Church of Many Peoples Confronts Racism” did take on racism directly, but again the drafters did not see fit to focus their attention on white people or name them directly.20
This tabulation of Mennonite statements on race is not intended to suggest that the passing of statements is a futile exercise. We have many historical examples of faith-based statements igniting action, changing minds, and re-directing resources.
Rather this essay argues that Mennonites have had a particular history of putting pen to paper and declaring their position on “race relations.” At key junctures, the passage of those statements challenged racial discrimination both within and without the church community. But by failing to address white people as white people, those statements fostered more assimilation than they did anti-racism.21 By demanding that African Americans, Native Americans, Latinex, and Asian American members of the Mennonite church become like white people to become Mennonite, those statements did little to change the nature, structures, and power relations within the church itself.
I await with eagerness for the day when white people in the Mennonite church will truly reckon with our conformity to whiteness. I expect that a statement may assist in that work, but the true mark of movement forward will be lived out in the collective action of white Mennonites to dismantle racism both within and without the church.
- Paul Erb, “Nonconformity in Race Relations,” Gospel Herald, June 7, 1955, 531.↩
- Mennonite General Conference, “The Way of Christian Love in Race Relations,” (Hesston, Kans.: Mennonite General Conference, 1955).↩
- I have been able to document twenty-two such statements. I invite amendments and additions from readers who are aware of additional statements other than those listed at the end of this article. If you know of other race-focused statements issued by Mennonite groups between 1940 and 19990, please contact me at email@example.com.↩
- Tobin Miller Shearer, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2010), 255.↩
- “Policy Governing the Organization of a Mennonite Colored Organization,” (Harrisonburg, Va.: Virginia Mennonite Conference; Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions And Charities, 1940).↩
- Shearer, 36-37.↩
- Ibid., 42-43.↩
- Ibid., 269.↩
- Ibid., 357-58.↩
- “Statement of Concerns of the Study Conference on Christian Community Relations,” (Laurelville, Pa., 1951).↩
- “Lancaster Conference Bishop Board Minutes,” (Lancaster, Pa.: Lancaster Conference, 1951).↩
- Conference, “The Way of Christian Love.”↩
- “Attitude of Bluffton College on Relationships between Races on the Campus,” (Bluffton, Ohio: Bluffton College, 1955).↩
- “Churches Respond to Race,” The Mennonite, August 6, 1963.↩
- “E.M.C. Faculty Statement on Racial Discrimination,” Gospel Herald, January 14 1964; Guy F. Hershberger, “Executive Secretary’s Report,” (Goshen, Ind.: Committee on Economic and Social Relations, 1965).↩
- “Minutes Forty-Fifth Annual Meeting Virginia Mennonite Conference,” in Minutes of the Virginia Mennonite Conference Including Historical Introduction, Statistical Section with Data on Conference Members and Her Official Statement of Christian Fundamentals (Harrisonburg, Va.: Virginia Mennonite Conference, 1967).↩
- Vincent Harding, “Voices of Revolution,” The Mennonite, October 3, 1967.↩
- “Minority Statement to Mennonite Church,” (Elkhart, Ind.: Minority Ministries Council, 1971).↩
- As noted above, I would invite readers to alert me to any statements not named here.↩
- http://home.mennonitechurch.ca/1989-racism (accessed October 2, 2019).↩
- Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped From the Beginning (New York: Bold Type Books, 2016), 2.↩