History Against Hierarchy: Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus and Women’s Leadership in the Mennonite Church

Regina Wenger

In her new book The Making of Biblical Womanhood, historian Beth Allison Barr disassembles the concept of “biblical womanhood” popular in a portion of evangelicalism. Mixing memoir and scholarship, Barr’s text also chronicles her personal journey away from complementarian theology. Studying history, Barr states, convinced her of the fallacy of complementarianism and biblical womanhood.1 The publication of Barr’s book prompted me to return to a figure I examined for Barr’s class during my first semester of doctoral work: Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus.

A twentieth-century Mennonite broadcaster and pastor, Brunk Stoltzfus had a life and ministry that encompassed dramatic shifts in the Mennonite Church’s understandings of women’s roles and leadership. In Barr’s class and a subsequent blog post, I examined the function of gender, authority, and the Holy Spirit in a sermon preached by Brunk Stoltzfus as well as a message delivered by her brother, the notable evangelist George R. Brunk II. Inspired by Barr’s declaration about the power of historical argument, I wanted to revisit Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus to see how she utilized history in making her case for women’s leadership in the Mennonite Church. Of particular interest to me was how Brunk Stoltzfus’ used Anabaptist history. Since her papers have yet to be deposited into an archive, I relied on Brunk Stoltzfus’ contributions to the Gospel Herald from 1963 to 1995 as well as her memoir, A Way Was Opened. My preliminary findings show that Brunk Stoltzfus vocalized her support for women’s leadership most ardently during the 1970s and ’80s, when the topic proved a matter of intense discussion within the Mennonite Church. Additionally, I discovered that, while she preferred arguing from Scripture, Brunk Stoltzfus did occasionally rely on historical evidence.2 Before continuing into my examination of Brunk Stoltzfus’ use of history, I want to contextualize my findings with a brief sketch of her life and ministry.

Photo: Mennonite Publishing House

Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus’ family and talents primed her for ministry. The eighth child of George R. Brunk Sr. and Katie (Wenger) Brunk, she was born on March 15, 1915. A fundamentalist with inclinations toward the holiness movement, George R. Brunk Sr. built a career as a Mennonite pastor and bishop in southeastern Virginia.3 Believing that “women, including his daughters, should [not] strive for incompetence because they were female,” Brunk Sr. trained his daughter in oratory and composition.4 Ruth Brunk married Grant M. Stoltzfus on June 17, 1941. While her husband edited the Mennonite Community periodical and began graduate work, Brunk Stoltzfus started the radio ministry “Heart to Heart” in 1950. She was the first Mennonite woman with a regular program.5 Initially broadcast by WCVI in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, and later Mennonite Broadcasts, “Heart to Heart” addressed the topic of marriage and family. In 1958, Brunk Stoltzfus handed over control of her program, and she and Grant formed Concord Associates, a Family Service Ministry that produced literature and media on the topic.6 They crisscrossed the nation speaking about marriage and family until Grant’s sudden death in 1974. Then Brunk Stoltzfus continued to deliver workshops solo. This platform and reputation increasingly drew her into discussions around women in ministry in the Mennonite Church.7 After her stirring defense of women in ministry at the 1981 Mennonite General Assembly, Brunk Stolzfus started to receive invitations to serve as an interim pastor or on pastoral teams.8 In 1989, Virginia Mennonite Conference recognized Brunk Stoltzfus’ calling by ordaining her at age 74. As the first women to be credentialed in the conference, her ordination caused controversy in both the conference and her extended family.9 Upon her retirement in the early 1990s, Brunk Stoltzfus remained active in matters of church and family. The self-described “radical evangelical Anabaptist” died on December 2, 2008, age 93. 10

Brunk Stoltzfus used Anabaptist history to argue for women’s leadership in two distinct ways. First, she drew upon Anabaptist history to spur people toward active response in a present moment. Asked by Gospel Herald editor Daniel Hartzler in 1975 to encourage readers prior to that year’s Mennonite General Assembly, Brunk Stoltzfus appealed to readers – regardless of gender – to give their full allegiance to Christ in active discipleship.11 After urging support for conscientious objection and opposition to war, she highlighted the role of women in evangelism in Anabaptist history and the Bible:

We are little credit to our foremothers. In early Anabaptist days when men and women were baptized, it meant that they were also ordained to preach, teach, and baptize others. (It was more important to get the Gospel out than to fuss about which sex does it!) In Bible times women were wives, mothers, prophetesses, judges, managers, sheep tenders, employers, builders of cities, buyers of real estate, salespersons, teachers, deaconesses, co-laborers in the gospel [.] Jesus commended Mary, the meditative type, who put the kingdom before dishes. Isn’t it about time we stopped forcing all women into one mold?12

Brunk Stoltzfus read the baptism of early Anabaptist men and women as ordination for the work of the Christ and the Church. The commission compelled action, and she wanted her readers to feel that same urgency and allow all people to fulfill roles best suited to their gifts and callings regardless of gender.

Brunk Stoltzfus continued to find resonance between early Anabaptist baptism practices and women’s leadership. In her memoir, she recalled reflecting on a conversation she had on women in ministry with New Testament scholar Willard Swartley in the early 1980s: “[I told him] that we women leaders, like the early Anabaptists who baptized each other, should ordain each other. Willard had said, ‘But please let us men be present.’”13 For Brunk Stoltzfus, early Anabaptism’s defiance of political-ecclesial authority could provide a precedent for ordaining women in the Mennonite Church. By 1988, she faced the dilemma of whether she as an un-ordained women could baptize a college student in her congregation. Since neither were ordained, the agreement to baptize the young women with the congregation’s commissioned male pastor met with mixed reactions from Virginia Conference pastors and leaders. “Like the early Anabaptists, who baptized each other,” Brunk Stoltzfus recalled, “we served as representatives of the congregation [and thus could offer baptism].” Ultimately, she poured water in the male pastor’s hands as he performed the baptism.14 Within Anabaptist history Brunk Stoltzfus saw a freedom to follow the Spirit and encouraged others to respond to it as well.

Second, she found in twentieth-century Anabaptist history examples of women’s leadership. Brunk Stoltzfus spoke at the 1978 Women in Ministry symposium in Akron, Pennsylvania, on the topic of “Women in Ministry Among the Mennonites in my Lifetime.” Dutch Mennonites, she noted, started permitting female pastors at the beginning of the twentieth century.15 In addition, the title of her talk suggests she saw enough change and continuity in the Mennonite practice to make it a topic of interest to conference participants. Looking back in her memoir, Brunk Stoltzfus remembered, “I had an unusual audience response. It was like a good movie as we laughed and cried together…I received more affirmation than any other time in my life, and it felt good.”16 Her observations about contemporary Anabaptist history along with her personal experiences resonated with conference attendees. Brunk Stoltzfus showed that, in various eras of Anabaptist history, evidence existed to support women in ministry.

On occasion, she also relied on other religious history to make her case for women’s leadership. Rebutting some comments about the 1978 Women in Ministry conference, Brunk Stoltzfus quoted the nineteenth-century evangelist and educator Charles Finney. He stated, “No church that is acquainted with the Holy Ghost will object to the public ministry of women.”17 Such a statement meshed with Brunk Stoltzfus’ biblical and theological argument that the Holy Spirit equipped women and men to serve as church leaders or in other capacities that matched their gifts.18 Finney’s status as a revivalist lent credence to Brunk Stoltzfus’ claim that historically male leaders supported females exercising leadership in the Church.19 Precedent for women’s leadership existed outside the Mennonite Church.

My initial investigation into Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus’ use of history reveals that it influenced how she spoke and acted to advance women in ministry. In the future, I hope to further explore her conceptions of gender throughout all of her ministry to see how they shaped perceptions of family and gender in the Mennonite Church. A poem Brunk Stoltzfus’ wrote as part of her presentation at the 1978 Women in Ministry provides a fitting summary and a glimpse into how she understood gender, family, and ministry:

Who killed woman’s gift?
“I ,” said the man of terror
With his mix of truth and error.
“I’d rather not hear a word of truth
“Than to her it from a Jane or Ruth.
“I killed woman’s gift.”

Who saw her gift die?
“I,” said the woman who only knits.
“These ministering women give me fits.
Why can’t all women be of the same mold
“And just look out the window
“When they are old?
“I saw her gift die.”

Who’ll be the chief mourner?
“I,” said the freeing man
“I never favored the put-down or ban.
“Women should not wait till their 63
“To see if the church will set them free.
“I’ll be the chief mourner.”20


1. Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2021), 9-10.

2. An excellent encapsulation of Brunk Stoltzfus’ biblical case for women’s leadership is found in “Jesus and the Role of Women,” Gospel Herald, Vol. 79, May 20, 1986, 342-43.

3. Nathan Emerson Yoder, “Mennonite Fundamentalism: Shaping an Identity for an American Context” (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Notre Dame, 1999),125-43.

4. Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened: A Memoir, ed. Eve MacMaster (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2003), 41.

5. Mennonite Mission Network Staff, “Founder of Radio Ministry, Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus, Dies at 93,” Mennonite Mission Network, last modified December 3, 2008, https://www.mennonitemission.net/news/Founder%20of%20radio%20ministry,%20Ruth%20Brunk%20Stoltzfus, 20dies%20at%2093; Grant Stoltzfus earned an M.A. from the University of Pittsburgh and later a B.D. and Th.D. from Union Seminary (VA). From 1957-1974 he taught sociology and church history at Eastern Mennonite College, where he specialized in colonial Amish and Mennonite history. John A. Lapp, “Stoltzfus, Grant Moses,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, 1989, accessed May 4, 2021, https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Stoltzfus,_Grant_Moses_(1916-1974).

6. “Field Notes Continued: Grant and Ruth Stolzfus,” Gospel Herald, Vol. 51, April 8, 1958, 336. In her memoir, Brunk Stoltzfus said this media ministry included “radio, newspapers, conferences, and literature […such as] ‘Mother’s Pledge’ and ‘Pledge for Husband and Wife.’” Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 118.

7. Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 197-98, 209, 215, 277-78.

8. From January to June 1982, she served at Bancroft (Toledo, OH) Mennonite Church, and a few months later filled the interim role at Grace Mennonite Church in Pandora, OH, until June 1983. In 1985, First Mennonite Church in Richmond, VA, called Brunk Stoltzfus to be part of their pastoral team. She served for two years.

9. Notable protest to Brunk Stoltzfus’ ordination came from her older brother, George Brunk II. He built his reputation in the 1950s as “the Mennonite Billy Graham.” In 1989, George II expressed to Virginia Conference leadership that, if they went forward with his sister’s ordination, he would withdraw his membership and credentials in protest. When leadership chose to proceed, George II departed Virginia Conference and formed his own congregation, Calvary Mennonite Fellowship.

10. Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 352.

11. Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 193.

12. Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus, “Face Things Together,” Gospel Herald, Vol. 68, July 22, 1975, 513.

13. Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 278.

14. Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 320-21.

15. “Mennoscope: Women, Men, and Power,” Gospel Herald, Vol. 71, September 26, 1978, 744; “Women Call for Greater Involvement, Akron,” Gospel Herald, Vol. 71, November 14, 1978, 906. Other speakers at the conference included: Williard Swartely, who helped make the case for women in ministry using biblical studies in his 1983 book Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women; Emma Sommers Richards, the first woman ordained in the Mennonite Church (1973); and Dorothy Yoder Nyce, who in 1983 collected sermons by Mennonite women including Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus and published them in Weaving Wisdom: Sermons by Mennonite Women. Dutch Mennonite congregations began having female pastors in 1911. Harold S. Bender, Nanne van der Zijpp, Cornelius Krahn, Marilyn G. Peters, Anneke Welcker and M. M. Mattijssen-Berkman, “Women” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, 1989, accessed May 4, 2021, https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Women.

16. Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 209.

17. “Readers Say,” Gospel Herald, Vol. 71, December 19, 1978, 744. I have yet to determine where Brunk Stoltzfus read this quote, or from which source this statement originally appeared.

18. For example, see: Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus, “Gifts of the Spirit…to US,” in Weaving Wisdom: Sermons by Mennonite Women, ed. Dorothy Yoder Nyce (South Bend, IN: Womansage, 1983), 33-36.

19. As president of Oberlin College, Finney advocated for women’s public ministry and presence in theology classes, but did not support women as pastors. Andrea L. Turpin, A New Moral Vision: Gender, Religion, and the Changing Purposes of American Higher Education, 1837-1917 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016), 77, 79-80, 87.

20. Titled “Who Killed the Women’s Gift,” Brunk Stoltzfus modeled it on the nursery rhyme, Who Killed Cock Robin? Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 209.

1 thought on “History Against Hierarchy: Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus and Women’s Leadership in the Mennonite Church

  1. I read her book several years ago and was really moved and impressed by Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus. I am grateful to stand on the shoulders of this spiritual mother. But I can’t still believe that women still need to make the case we are called by God in both the Mennonite Church and the wider church. Sigh.

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