Southern Anabaptist Colleges and Civil War Memory: Eastern Mennonite

Regina Wenger

This is my second post exploring the relationship between southern Anabaptist colleges and Civil War memory. In my first post, I summarized the experiences of Anabaptists during the Civil War before discussing how Bridgewater College—founded in 1880—recalled the Civil War. I suggest reviewing that piece before reading the one that follows. Below I examine Civil War memory at Eastern Mennonite and offer some conclusions that compare it to how memory operated at Bridgewater.


As an adolescent, Peter S. Hartman witnessed the tribulations the Civil War unleashed on the Shenandoah Valley. Years later, the Mennonite recalled Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign and the Battles of Good’s Farm (Harrisonburg), Cross Keys, Port Republic, and New Market. Though, he stated, none of those conflicts compared to General Philip Sheridan’s “never-to-be-forgotten raid” in 1864:

We just began to realize what war was when Sheridan made his raid. They came [to Harrisonburg] Sunday noon . . . . There was no preaching anywhere that Sunday, so I went over to visit one of our neighbors right at Weaver’s Church. We could see from there Sheridan’s army coming up the [Valley] Pike and spreading all over the country, and I concluded I would better go home. When I got home the whole farm was overrun with soldiers shooting the stock…. Everything was taken, horses, hogs, sheep, except some chickens and four milk cows.1

Sixty-four years after Sheridan’s Union troops charred the Shenandoah Valley, Hartman told the tale of his experiences to students at Eastern Mennonite School.2 Founded in 1917, the Mennonite educational institution did not endure the war, but through the stories of Hartman and others, there developed a collective memory of the Civil War.

Early in the twentieth century, a group of Virginia Mennonite leaders wished to create a school for Mennonites in the eastern part of the United States. There already existed schools such Goshen College, which served Mennonites in the Midwest; however, no such institution existed for the 75 percent of Mennonites in the East.3 Bishops Lewis James (L.J.) Heatwole and George R. Brunk, as well as other leaders, advocated for higher education opportunities for Mennonites that simultaneously built up the church.4 Evan Knappenberger characterizes most of these men as “religious moderates willing to push the church in new directions while still remain­ing committed to the ideals of nonresistance and plain dress.”5 The school they envisioned shared those goals. In 1912, George R. Brunk developed a plan for a school located in Warwick, Virginia, and asked fellow church leaders for help. However, in mid-1913, Brunk proposed moving the institution to the Hayfield mansion near Alexandria, Virginia. The Alexandria Mennonite Institute and later the Hayfield Bible School floundered amongst personality, ecclesial, and financial conflicts.6 Through the efforts of Bishop L.J. Heatwole and Peter S. Hartman, Virginia Mennonites acquired land in Assembly Park, north of Harrisonburg, Virginia. From that site Eastern Mennonite emerged.

Eastern Mennonite—officially chartered in 1917—ran as a Bible school independent of broader Mennonite Church control until 1923. These Virginia Mennonites, including Bishop Heatwole, selected John B. (J.B.) Smith of Ohio as president (principal) of the school and developed a Bible school curriculum that operated on four tracks: academy, Bible, preparatory, and correspondence.7 However, within a few years, Smith ran afoul of the Board and departed back to Ohio. They then appointed noted evangelist and Virginian Amos Daniel (A.D.) Wenger to the presidency. He served from 1922 until his death in 1935, and it is during his administration that Civil War remembrances at Eastern Mennonite first come into view.

The activities of student literary societies and the periodical the Eastern Mennonite School Journal show an institution that idealized the South, and while condemning slavery, embraced derogatory stereotypes about African Americans. In April 1927, John D. Burkholder wrote a piece called “Family Life: As Seen by Jim Owen, Indentured Servant.” It detailed how an English indentured servant fell in love with southern culture and told of interactions with “mammies” and “darkies.” The piece concluded by saying, “As [he and his master] drove up the shady, inviting drive to the old mansion, Jim felt that he had indeed reached the Utopia of his dreams.”8 Though Eastern Mennonite included students from elsewhere in the United States, the early years of the Journal contains rhapsodic accounts of the “Sunny Southland,” the endearing peculiarity of African Americans, and the high quality of postbellum southern literature.9 In 1928 and 1929, respectively, the Philomathian and Smithsonian literary societies held programs on “The Negro” and “Southern Literature” that both featured “Negro spirituals” as musical selections.10 Through featuring an idealistic portrait of the South, southern culture, and African Americans, the Journal showed sympathy for the South and minimized the affect of slavery on African Americans. In addition, student Grace Showalter observed, that “Southern conventionality,” formed an important aspect of Virginia Mennonites’ spirituality.11 However, more important than the Journal’s contents was the role played by Peter S. Hartman on Civil War memory at Eastern Mennonite.

Beginning at least in 1920, Hartman delivered an annual lecture featuring his Civil War memories to Eastern Mennonite students and faculty.12 As noted in the opening story, Hartman was a young man when the war started in 1861. He later served as a lay leader in Virginia Mennonite Conference, was instrumental in purchasing the former plantation land on which the school was built, and acted as an informal development officer for Eastern Mennonite.13 Each of the written versions of his oral account followed the same narrative structure: (1) reiteration of the Mennonite Church’s nonresistance and stance against slavery, (2) the foreshadowing of the Civil War in John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and Lincoln’s election to the presidency, (3) the imprisonment of Anabaptists in Richmond for nonresistance, (4) the passage of conscription laws accounting for members of Anabaptist churches, (5) war’s material hardships, (6) the local battles of Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign, as well as the Burning, (7) Hartman’s interactions with General Sheridan and journey North with his Union caravan, (8) work experience in the North, and finally (9) viewing Lincoln’s body in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, before returning home to a decimated Virginia.14 He summarized the primary theme in his lecture’s concluding line: “All this time the Church stood for non-resistance.”15 In addition to his annual lecture, Hartman also shared with students his recollections of Reconstruction.16 Other narrations of the Civil War by Virginia Mennonites Emmanuel Suter and Bishop L.J. Heatwole echoed Hartman’s emphasis on hardship and nonresistance.17 Students at Eastern Mennonite thus heard about the Civil War as a conflict Mennonites were in, but not a part of.

Historical memory of the Civil War at Eastern Mennonite consisted of a singular stream of nonresistance, muddied by a romanticized view of the pastoral South and its culture. Explicit valorization of the Confederacy does not appear in any Eastern Mennonite sources. Rather, despite their occasional harshness and destruction, the Union is discussed more frequently and favorably in Eastern Mennonite memories of the war. Though a “savage looking man,” Hartman described how General Sheridan ensured his safe passage North.18 The Mennonite Church’s distain for slavery, even while simultaneously resisting and engaging with Confederate Virginia, also comes through in Hartman’s telling. As previously noted, Anabaptist participation in the Confederate economy made it difficult for them to receive financial compensation for the destruction of the war, despite sympathies for the Union. Additionally, American Mennonite identity as a nonresistant people partially lies in the centrality of suffering for the faith, as told in the stories of sixteenth-century European Anabaptist martyrs recorded in Thieleman J. van Braght’s Martyrs Mirror. Though born two years after the Civil War, Eastern Mennonite President A.D. Wenger found the text instrumental to his conversion.19 As Julia Spicher Kasdorf contends, “the publication history of Martyrs Mirror doesn’t precisely coincide with the nation’s wars, and yet American Mennonites tend to rally around the big book whenever the rest of the nation rallies around the flag.”20 Primed with tales from the Martyrs Mirror, Eastern Mennonite students likely heard a similar message of suffering and nonresistance in Peter Hartman’s Civil War recollections that he regularly delivered after the hardships of World War I. While Eastern Mennonite’s southern context shaped the imagination of many of its students and administrators, the dominant narrative surrounding Civil War recollections remained nonresistance amidst suffering.

Conclusions

Mennonites, Brethren, and their respective educational institutions possessed common religious memories of the Civil War grounded in the nonresistant theology of Anabaptism, but diverged by degree of emphasis. Ritual sites of memory appeared at both Bridgewater and Eastern Mennonite. Literary societies perpetuated nostalgic narratives about the South and African Americans. John Wayland and Bridgewater recalled the war through annually commemorating Lee’s birthday, while Eastern Mennonite’s Hartman lecture narrated another tale of heroic suffering for a cause. The nonresistant perspective also allowed John Wayland to describe Elder John Kline as a faithful Christian martyr. Likewise, Peter Hartman described himself and the Mennonite Church as the innocent suffering amidst the tribulations of the Civil War. Both Bridgewater and Eastern Mennonite also shared a history as institutions started by white southerners. As James Lehman and Steve Nolt observe, Anabaptists, like many of their neighbors in the reconstructing South, chose to value the repair of national and local relationships over advocating for the rights of African Americans. Thus their historical memory coincides with the reconcilationist narrative that historian David Blight chronicled in Race and Reunion.21

While both institutions held nonresistance as a wartime memory, only Bridgewater College explicitly endorsed the religion of the Lost Cause. The Lost Cause existed with nonresistance for the Brethren school as intermingling religious memories.22 On the other hand, Eastern Mennonite’s religious remembrances favored the Union, though they appear to not have competed with its nonresistant memories but, rather, reinforced them. Mennonites narrated themselves as distinct from their southern neighbors in their opposition to slavery and the Confederacy, as well as their pacifism. However, the presence of southern influence at both institutions raises the question as to what extent its culture served as a defining characteristic of the schools. Perhaps nonresistance defined demographics and marketing rather the schools’ cultures.23 After Eastern Mennonite graduated its first African American student in 1954, a local Mennonite schoolteacher explained reluctance around desegregation stating, “A bit of the Southern attitude rubs off on us, perhaps as a result of our public school experience. One tends to feel sympathetic to one’s state and its part in the Civil War.”24 Thus a fuller understanding of Civil War memory at southern Anabaptist colleges requires attention to the presence, in varying degrees, of the religious recollections of the Lost Cause and nonresistance.


1. Peter S. Hartman, “Civil War Reminiscences,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, February 1928, 17.

2. Originally started as Eastern Mennonite School, it later became Eastern Mennonite College, and is today known as Eastern Mennonite University. In this paper, the school will be referred to as Eastern Mennonite.

3. Donald B. Kraybill, Eastern Mennonite University: A Century of Countercultural Education (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017), 24. The relationship between the foundings of Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite remain a matter of historiographical debate. The longstanding narrative reproduced in Eastern Mennonite’s institutional histories describe the school as a conservative reaction to Goshen which resulted in hostility between the schools for decades. Kraybill, Eastern Mennonite University: A Century of Countercultural Education; Hubert R. Pellman, Eastern Mennonite College, 1917-1967: A History (Harrisonburg, VA: Eastern Mennonite College, 1967); Nathan Emerson Yoder, “Mennonite Fundamentalism: Shaping an Identity for an American Context” (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Notre Dame, 1999). Recently, Evan Knappenberger pushed back against that interpretation with a compelling argument that Eastern Mennonite shared an educational vision with Goshen and was started not as “an ideological alternative to Goshen but a geographical extension of it.” Evan K. Knappenberger, “To Shake The Whole World From Error’s Chain: An Alternative History Of The Founding Of Eastern Mennonite” (M.A. Thesis, Eastern Mennonite Seminary, 2016), 68, emphasis original.

4. Knappenberger, 88-98.

5. Evan K. Knappenberger, “New Take on an Old War: Valley Mennonites and the Lingering Consequences of the Civil War,” Shenandoah Mennonite Historian, Summer 2016, 16.

6. For a more detailed treatment of the earlier iterations of Eastern Mennonite see: Kraybill, Chapters 1 & 2, Knappenberger, “To Shake The Whole World,” 88-98.

7. Kraybill, 55-57.

8. John D. Burkholder, “Family Life: As Seen by Jim Owen, Indentured Servant,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, April 1927, 3-6. It’s unclear whether Burkholder created this piece as a work of fiction or recorded the oral account of Mr. Owen.

9. Mary M. Wenger, “Vacation on Vineland Farm,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, January 1923, 2-4; A.D Wenger, Jr., “Southern Literature,” April 1923, The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, 2-3; “Personal News Notes,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, April 1926, 19.

10. “Philomathean,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, June 1928, 17; “With Our Literaries: Smithsonian,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, July 1929, 21.

11. Kraybill, 112. Showalter went on to serve as director of Eastern Mennonite’s Historical Library from 1955-1990.

12. “Editorials,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, February 1928, 1; Harry A. Brunk, “The Gist of the Short Term Lectures,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, March 1930, 5-6. Hartman likely delivered the lecture regularly until his death in 1934.

13. Brunk, Harry A., Life of Peter S. Hartman: Including His Lecture Reminiscences of the Civil War and Articles by the Hartman Family (Harrisonburg, VA: The Hartman Family, 1937), 31-40; Hartman, “Civil War Reminiscences,” 7.

14. Hartman, “Civil War Reminiscences,” 7-21, Brunk, Life of Peter S. Hartman, 1937; Peter S. Hartman and Harry A. Brunk, Reminiscences of the Civil War (Lancaster, PA: Eastern Mennonite Associated Libraries and Archives, 1964). Though Hartman does not name Bishop Kline, the imprisonment of Anabaptists and development of conscription laws favoring those traditions that he mentions were incidents in which the clergyman was personally involved. Additionally, Hartman needed to go north with General Sheridan because Hartman joined the Mennonite Church during the war and thus was not protected by the draft exemption that only covered members of Anabaptist churches who joined before the legislation passed in 1862.

15. Hartman, “Civil War Reminiscences,” 21.

16. “Personal Mention,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, January 1923, 12.

17. See: Virginia Mennonite Conference Archives at Eastern Mennonite University Historical Library, L.J. Heatwole Papers (I-MS-1, mostly Boxes 3, 5.1; LJH Miscellany) and Emmanuel Suter Diaries Collection; Virginia Grove, “Grandfather,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, January 1939, 27-28.

18. Hartman, “Civil War Reminiscences,” 18.

19. John C. Wenger and Mary W. Kratz, A.D. Wenger (Harrisonburg, VA: Park View Press, 1961), 4–5, 7. Van Braght, Thieleman J., The Bloody Theatre, or Martyrs’ Mirror, of the Defenceless Christians: who suffered and were put to death for the testimony of Jesus, their Savior, from the time of Christ until the year A. D. 1660. Lampeter Square, Lancaster Co., PA: David Miller, 1837.

20. Julia Spicher Kasdorf, “Mightier than the Sword: Martyrs Mirror in the New World,” The Conrad Grebel Review 31, no. 1 (Winter 2013), https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/publications/conrad-grebel-review/issues/winter-2013/mightier-sword-martyrs-mirror-new-world

21. Lehman and Nolt, 222-23. Though they make this claim only about Mennonites, the similarities shared between Mennonites and Brethren make the claim likely to pertain to both groups. David A. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2001).

22. Based on feedback I received from Dr. R. Eric Platt, I have revised my conclusions about historical memory at Bridgewater. I think he’s correct in observing they likely informed one another. I hope to continue to explore the extent of that connection as I continue working on this project.

23. I am grateful to Dr. Elesha Coffman for raising this question after I presented my paper at the American Society of Church History. I intend to pursue this question further.

24. Kraybill, 173.

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