Stories “Worth Writing and Reading About”*: Thoughts of an Anabaptist Biographer

My little granddaughters love stories. A favourite is “Our Lives Together.” These excerpts from the reel-to-reel films that their great-grandfather Peter Dyck took on his movie camera, memorialize the work that he and his wife Elfrieda Klassen Dyck shared as Mennonite Central Committee volunteers in post-war England.1 Mennonite Central Committee has thrived during its one hundred-year history by virtue of such stories that North American workers have told about their experiences in the some sixty countries where they have served.

As Anabaptist historians, our mission is not so much to tell our own stories; we focus on people from the past. Biographers preserve the memory of individuals whose lives have the capacity to inspire.2 Although some do “quite explicitly” weave their “own lives into discussion of others,” the historical profession encourages us to keep a distance, to maintain objectivity.3 Historians tell the stories of individuals whose lives have made a difference in the public domain – leaders and institution builders, people who have left documents allowing their contributions to be tracked. Take for instance, GAMEO (Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia On-line).4 Brief articles provide glimpses into the lives of hundreds of men and women who are deemed to have made significant contributions to the church. Carefully contained within the interpretative framework designed by GAMEO’s management team allows for what Leon Edel, well-known as the doyen of biography, has described as “a successful biography,” one that keeps the focus on public life and institutions.5 The GAMEO format allows the biographer to disengage and write the life of another with detachment.6

The traditional view has been challenged and expanded by what biographer Barbara Caine labels as a “new biography.” In contrast to Edel, with his formula for the “successful biography,” feminist methodology allows for questions that are “more personal and impressionistic.”7 Acknowledging that “potentially all lives are of interest and worth writing and reading about,” greater fluidity opens the way to consider the struggles that individuals have faced.8 This expanded biographical approach has demonstrated that “the extent to which one individual shares experiences and problems with others,” is often what makes a life worth remembering.9

Feminist theory and social historical methodology have shaped my own writing of biography. The permission that these disciplines allow to explore little known lives, “reading between the lines,” to use Betty Jane Wylie’s words, inspires my inner detective.10 In my life as a historian, I have found meaning in searching out and writing the lives of individuals, most previously virtually unknown.11

Take, for instance, my biographical work on Alice Snyder (1917 – 2000). Searching out the story of this long-time MCC worker began as I researched the history of MCC Ontario for what would be published as Transformation of a Century. Alice Snyder’s work in the MCC Ontario Cutting Room, with her mother Ida Snyder, turned out to be foundational to MCC’s work during World War II.12 After the war, Alice would take on the challenge of volunteering in post-construction Germany. Although Alice’s schooling had ended with grade eight, her letters home from Europe proved to be a historical document worth publishing.13

Scholars have noted the significant place that letter writing has played in nurturing family ties in times of separation.14 Alice’s letters had done exactly that. Perhaps “the secret bestower of possibility” that had eluded her in her own life, Alice’s mother Ida preserved her daughter’s letters from Germany in a small black binder.15 Alice’s letters home provide insights into what a young Waterloo County Mennonite woman, with a mere grade eight education, deemed worthy of preserving and sharing with her family from her work with MCC. With their ultimate destination in the Mennonite Archives of Ontario, they also have bestowed possibility for later generations. Indeed, Alice’s letters inspired at least one of my research assistants on the letters project to do her own stint overseas in voluntary service.16

Griffen has noted the traditional wisdom “that every woman is her mother.” As much as her suggestion that “it may be that every woman of achievement is, in part, paying a debt to the past, bringing to fulfillment her mother’s dreams and potential,” reflects the mission of Ida and Alice Snyder, it resonates with the life and mission of Lucille Brechbill Lady (1910 – 1968).17 With her mental health challenges, Lucille Lady was remembered in the public record solely as a burden to her husband Jesse Lady, a prominent Brethren in Christ church leader.18 As I explored the hidden recesses of the historical record to bring her story to light, writing became a path to healing.19

In recent times biographers have become more open to exposing the personal challenges and difficulties of their subjects. With this biographical project, the burden of my great-aunt’s suicide that I felt as one carrying her name, miraculously, was lifted. Travels to California, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, places where she and her husband had lived and ministered, brought opportunities to interview people who had been close to her, some also still suffering from the aftermath of her suicide.

Out of these connections materialized documentary evidence, including family letters, her Bible, her wedding certificate, school yearbooks, and even a tape recording of her funeral.20 For the biographer, a fertile imagination is a strong asset.21 A decade of research, slowly put the pieces of the puzzle in place, creating a picture of a life well worth remembering – an intelligent, caring nurse, teacher and writer, a woman who was a devout Christian and church woman, a mystic, and a devoted wife, aunt, sister, sister-in-law, daughter and friend.22

Griffen’s notion of paying a debt to the past also speaks to my current biographical work on H. Frances Davidson.23 In the mid-1970s, when Morris Sider memorialized this icon well-known among Brethren in Christ and Mennonites, especially in Zambia and Zimbabwe where she lived out her long missionary career, I was a young woman seeking a script to follow.24 In feminist historian Gerda Lerner’s words, as women growing up in the post-war years we were still “denied the power to define, to share in creating the mental constructs that explain and order the world.”25 I was among those looking for role models, “an idealized maternal figure,” as Caine has put it.26

Now nearly fifty years later, my inner detective continues to delight in the search for past lives. This work is delicate.27 And yet, it is important work as we attempt to pay back some of the debt owed to our foremothers, women like H. Frances Davidson who struggled to find their way without scripts to follow. As Morris Sider has noted, subjects like Davidson who left ample documentary evidence are dear to the hearts of historians.28 The multiple primary documents that she left – her diaries, a travelogue, letters to family, photos, and writing for the Evangelical Visitor await further exploration.

H. Frances Davidson, whom biographer Morris Sider has identified as a “woman with great stores of energy … one of the most extraordinary and striking persons to have held membership” in the Brethren in Christ denomination,” has become a symbol for female leadership among the membership, both in North America and in Africa. She was also a woman with a rich inner life.29 With the tools of the social historian and feminist methodology, it is possible to ask and explore questions about her family, her education, the geographic and social context of her life and work. In addition, as other feminist scholars have observed, the exploration of women’s inner lives, their spirituality, is essential as we continue to create scripts to follow.30 In my role as Anabaptist historian I am anticipating many more challenges and joys as I continue to explore the reality and constraints of this nineteenth-century Brethren in Christ woman’s life.


* Barbara Caine. Biography and History (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, a division of St. Martin’s Press, 2010), 71.

1 “Peter J. Dyck, Memorial Service,” https://www.commonword.ca/ResourceView/82/12983 Accessed February 4, 2021

2 On the moral benefits of biography, see Caine, Biography and History, 31.

3 Caine. Biography and History, 71.

4 GAMEO was created by Canadian Mennonite historians to preserve data collected in the mid-1980s by researcher Marlene Epp, (now Professor of History and Peace and Conflict Studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo), originally intended for a third volume of her father Frank H. Epp’s history of Mennonites in Canada; Samuel J. Steiner, “Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (Website),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. June 2017. Web. 2 Feb 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Global_Anabaptist_Mennonite_Encyclopedia_Online_(Website)&oldid=164961

5 In Biography and History, 71-72, 88, Caine references Leon Edel. See, for instance, his Writing Lives: Principia Biographica (New York and London: Norton, 1984) and “Confessions of a Biographer,” in George Moraitis and George Pollack (ed), Psycholanalytic Studies of Biography (Madison, WI: International Universities Press, 1987): 3-29.

6 I have found it inspiring to prepare the following biographies for GAMEO: “Nighswander, Joseph Martin (1923-2006),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (March 2017) Web. 17 Apr 2017 http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Nighswander,_Joseph_Martin_(1923-2006)&oldid=147448; Sherk, J. Harold, Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (July 2013) http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Sherk,_J._Harold_(1903-1974)&oldid=100074; “Nigh, Ross Edward (1917-2001),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (November 2012) Web (17 Apr 2017) http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Nigh,_Ross_Edward_(1917-2001)&oldid=95956; Snyder, Alice (1917-2000)” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (March 2011) Web. 04 November 2011. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/snyder_alice_1917_2000; “Taves, Harvey W. (1926-1965),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (July 2009) Web. 04 November 2011. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/taves_harvey_w._1926_1965.

7 Caine, Biography and History, 88-89; In Writing a Woman’s Life (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988), Carolyn Heilbrun paved the way for feminist biographers with her call for a new interpretative framework.

8 Caine, Biography and History, 111.

9 Caine, Biography and History, 67.

10 Reading Between the Lines: The Diaries of Women (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1995); Caine, History and Biography, 111.

11 One of my recent posts on Anabaptist Historians illustrates. “Making meaning when the historical record is silent,” https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2020/11/07/making-meaning-when-the-historical-record-is-silent/ Accessed February 10, 2021. See also my biographies listed as follows: “Henry B and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson: Life and Vision,” Brethren in Christ History & Life, Volume XLI, no. 2 (August 2018): 115-54; “Conflict, Confession and Conversion: H. Frances Davidson’s Call to Brethren in Christ Mission,” Brethren in Christ History & Life XI, No. 3 (December 2017): 335-52; “Jane Drummond Redpath,” in Still Voices, Still Heard, Sermons, Addresses, Letters, and Reports The Presbyterian College, Montreal, 1865-2015, edited by J.S.S. Armour, Judith A. Kashul, William Klempa, Lucille Marr, and Dan Shute (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015); “Writing a Woman’s Life: Lucille Brechbill Lady, 1910 – 1968,” Brethren in Christ History and Life 33.1 (2010): 3-50; the author with Dora-Marie Goulet, “I guess I won’t be able to write everything I see …”: Alice Snyder’s Letters Home, 1948-1950 (Waterloo, ON: Pandora Press, 2009); “Ontario’s Conference of Historic Peace Church Families and the ‘Joy of Service’,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 19 (2001): 257-72; “Naming Valiant Women: Biographical Sketches of Three Women in the Canadian Methodist Tradition.” Consensus: A Canadian Lutheran Journal of Theology 20.2 (1994): 35-56; “If you want peace, prepare for peace”: Hanna Newcombe, Peace Researcher and Peace Activist.” Ontario History 84.4 (1992): 263-282.

12 Transforming Power of a Century: The evolution of Mennonite Central Committee in Ontario (Waterloo, ON: Pandora Press, 2003).

13 “I guess I won’t be able to write everything I see …”. As noted earlier, she also became the subject of a GAMEO article.

14 See for instance, Susan J. Rosowski, Birthing a Nation: Gender, Creativity, and the West in American Literature (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), 36.

15 On the role of mother as model, please see Heilbrun, Women’s lives: the view from the threshold (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 52-53; Gail B. Griffen, Emancipated Spirits: Portraits of Kalamazoo College Women (Kalamazoo, Michigan : Ihling Bros. Everard Co., 1983, 1990), xii.

16 See “A Biographical Sketch,” 11-21, in “I guess I won’t be able to write everything I see ….”

17 The photo’s source is “U.S., School Yearbooks, 1880-2012”; School Name: Beulah College; Year: 1949; Ancestry.com. U.S., School Yearbooks, 1900-1999 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010. Accessed 8 February 2021.

18 Samuel Lady, “Jesse F. Lady ‘A Loyal Churchman in a Time of Transition’,” Brethren in Christ History and Life (April 1995): 3-41.

19 Please see Louise DeSalvo, Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives (Beacon Press, 2000).

20 Please see also the author, “Breaking the Silence on Suicide and Mental Illness: The Brethren in Christ, 1968-1989,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 29 (2011), 121-32.

21 Caine, History and Biography, 114-15.

22 The author, “Writing a Woman’s Life: Lucille Brechbill Lady.”

23 See, for instance,” Mysticism and Evangelicalism in the Writings of a Spiritual Mothers,” Anabaptist Historians, https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2020/01/28/mysticism-and-evangelicalism-in-the-writings-of-a-spiritual-mother/ Accessed February 10, 2021; “Conflict, Confession and Conversion.”

24 “Hannah Frances Davidson,” in Nine Portraits: Brethren in Christ Biographical Sketches (Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel Press, 1978), 159 – 214; Sider, E. Morris. “Davidson, Hannah Frances (1860-1935).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1988. Web. 8 Feb 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Davidson,_Hannah_Frances_(1860-1935)&oldid=122476.

25 Gerda Lerner, Why History Matters: Life and Thought (NY: Oxford University Press, 1997), 207.

26 Caine, History and Biography, 72.

27 Biographers warn the would-be biographer about the pitfalls as one attempts to interpret the life of another. See, for instance, Sider, “Finding Vocation,” 15; Griffen, introduction to Emancipated Spirits, xi; and Caine, History and Biography, 72.

28 Sider, Nine Portraits, 9; See also his “Finding Vocation and Mission: Reflections on Writing Brethren in Christ History,” Brethren in Christ History and Life. Vol. XLIII, no. 1 (April 2020), 9; In an email exchange with the author, Sider encouraged further research on Davidson; Sider to Marr, 12 December 2012; see also Wylie, Reading Between the Lines, 224.

29 Sider, Nine Portraits, 159.

30 See for instance, Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-seventy (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993); Women’s Personal Narratives, edited by Leonore Hoffman and Margaret Culley (New York: Modern Language Arts of America, 1985); Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (New York: Norton & Company, 1996).

3 thoughts on “Stories “Worth Writing and Reading About”*: Thoughts of an Anabaptist Biographer

  1. Good essay! Even a moment’s reflection on why a given historian chooses a subject exposes an inevitable interaction between the historian’s personal concerns and the work of biographical research. Why this person rather than that one? The work that I did (BTW, as part of Peter Dyck’s MCC Eastern Europe program…) on Andreas Fischer, Oswald Glaidt, and the sabbatarianist outgrowth of Transylvanian antitrinitarianism, was explicitly a result of my own interest in the history of antijudaism in European history, and specifically to what was in the air about Luther’s strenuous and violent antijewish views. An attempt was afoot to separate Luther himself from the ensuing use of Luther in later polemic and propaganda in German history. With all of the flurry of scholarly activity leading up to the ‘500. Luther Jahre,’ Luther was too often excused as ‘after all, only a man of his time,’ as if expecting him to look beyond the deep prejudices of the 1520s and 1530s in relation to Judaism was no more reasonable than, for example, criticizing him for holding pre-Einsteinian views in relation to physics. I strongly hoped that at least one result of my work would be to undermine and dissolve at least that excuse for Luther’s antijewish tantrums – to demonstrate that there were those of his contemporaries who can and did move beyond those views. At the time of my research, I was strongly an advocate of an interfaith platform as the beginning point for any kind of Christian theology of integrity in the 20th century, and subsequently have been a (gentile) member of two Jewish congregations for the last 25 years. Thus, my concern in this regard were clearly personal and personally felt. No apologies for that! I would hope that this personal concern never led me to purposely disregard or misinterpret any relevant sources. But I never tried to claim that personal concern played no part in the research. Feminist theory was in its very nascent form then, but I tried to make this explicit by employing the Weberian language of ‘Verstehen’ to signal take some tentative conclusions were rooted in an ‘educated guess,’ a ‘feeling’ for the material – which I take to mean pretty much the same thing as pointed to in this essay.

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