A Theology of Suffering: Suffering and Martyrdom in Sixteenth-Century Anabaptist Hymnody

Alec Loganbill

Whoever wants to have fellowship with [Christ]
and be a partaker of his kingdom
must also do like him
here on this earth.
Whoever would inherit with him
must have much pain here
for the sake of his name.1

The strong connection between suffering and salvation displayed in this Swiss Brethren Anabaptist hymn is underscored throughout sixteenth-century Anabaptist hymnody. Such a connection was inspired by Anabaptists’ developing theological beliefs and by their experiences of persecution and suffering in early modern Europe. The writing and singing of hymns were popular and powerful means of religious expression for early Anabaptists, whose music could be heard everywhere from worship spaces to prison cells to the burning stake. They wrote and sang hymns to declare their faith, memorialize their martyrs, and connect to other believers. As music historian Rosella Reimer Duerksen has observed, in the case of Anabaptists, “hymnodists practiced little restraint or sophistication, but presented their views and beliefs freely in the stanzas which they penned.” 2 Thus, their compositions offer an unadulterated look into the hearts and minds of lay people rather than the formal doctrine found in other confessional hymnals of the Reformation. The lack of any formal doctrine in Anabaptist hymnody is also reflective of the fact that, as historian John Rempel has noted, “little time was taken for doctrinal or liturgical formulation; what mattered was spiritual rebirth and a life of surrender.”3 This grassroots form of religious expression and experience emphasized passionate spirituality, concern for living a holy life, and, perhaps most strikingly, the powerful and effective motifs of suffering and martyrdom.4

Among the developing doctrinal and theological ideas with which Anabaptist hymnodists interacted, adult baptism appears as one of the most prominent, for it was both the distinguishing feature of the confession theologically and politically. In the sixteenth century, adult baptism, or believer’s baptism, was “cited more often than any other doctrine as the crime condemning an Anabaptist to execution.”5 The connection between baptism and death was not lost to hymnodists, who frequently set baptism in a context of suffering. In addition to the baptismal sequence of grace followed by water, Anabaptists understood there to be a third rite of baptism: that of blood.

The Lord Jesus Christ, therefore,
assigns three witnesses for us.
The two are called water and Spirit.
The third, blood, that is, suffering.6

In a very real way, Anabaptists thought of baptism as the first step on the path to martyrdom. Baptism was a commitment to a godly life and a suffering life, a statement of faith that was a violation and rejection of the state church punishable by death. The emphasis of suffering in sixteenth-century Anabaptism, especially among the Swiss Brethren, was both a response to their experiences as a persecuted people and their theological formulation that true Christian discipleship demanded that Christians follow in the way of Christ, suffering as Christ suffered.

The importance of believer’s baptism was stressed in the context of martyr hymns, like in the account of the imprisonment, trial, and execution of Claesken Gaeledochter. In recounting Claesken’s inquisition, the hymnodist stresses her commitment to believer’s baptism, intimate knowledge of Scripture, and personal and passionate spirituality—all of which are common themes in Anabaptist martyr hymns.

About her baptism he did question;
But she, without alt’ring her course,
Courageously the Scriptures told:
That of new life and repentance
Both John and Christ most clearly tell;
‘Repentance first!’ was taught the people.7

Not confined to a baptismal context, Anabaptists’ theology of suffering consistently appears throughout their robust oral and literary traditions, most especially in their hymns.8 Like other confessions of the Reformation, Anabaptists connected their own suffering to the larger narrative of Christian persecution. One Passau hymnodist recounted the lineage of Christian suffering, declaring that “it began with Abel.”9 The author goes on to write:

Afterwards, all the prophets
and other pious also—
some were killed,
other experienced especially great humiliation
through fear and distress, cross and affliction.10

Anabaptist hymnodists accounted for the suffering of martyrs as well as their own affliction. In doing so, many hymns depicted imprisonment, torture, and execution in graphic detail. Stanzas told of burning, beheading, drowning, and stretching on the rack, along with other forms of physical torment. One of the most gruesome examples appears in the hymnal account of Elisabeth van Leeuwarden:

They had two thumbscrews put on
When for a long time she refused to confess,
So that they smashed thumb and fingers
Till the blood spurted out from her nails.11

However grim this theology of suffering may seem, it was often closely linked to messages of consolation and hope. The acceptance of “innocent suffering,” as one wrote, was not only a manifestation of discipleship but necessary for salvation.12 This union between suffering and salvation simultaneously inspired, sustained, and consoled sixteenth-century Anabaptists. Often, consolatory hymns took the form of prayers, pleading for God to grant peace to the suffering:

In anguish and distress,
Give us the bread of heaven,
And in the pain of death
Let peace to us be given.13

Anabaptist hymnodists also looked directly to Christ to inspire their work, as in this stanza, adapted from the Sermon on the Mount:

When you are slandered and abused now,
Persecuted and beaten for my sake,
be joyful, for see, your reward
is prepared for you on heaven’s throne.14

Many hymns that connected suffering to consolation and salvation were created by those who immediately needed such a message, namely, the imprisoned. The most famous collection of such hymns is the Ausbund, the primary hymnal of the Swiss Brethren. The core of this hymnal was first published in 1564 and consisted of fifty-three hymns, which were composed by Swiss Brethren Anabaptists imprisoned in Passau between 1535 and 1540 and include hymns written by well-known early Anabaptist leaders such as George Blaurock, Felix Mantz, and Michael Sattler, and others.15

Motifs of sorrow and distress underscore much of the Ausbund, a clear reflection of the immediate situation of the hymns’ authors. These understandable themes, however, are offset by “a note of triumph [and] of a conviction that [the authors’] past of sorrow and tribulation is leading them to everlasting life.”16 In one hymn, Michael Schneider joins the reality of bondage and suffering with the hope of salvation in the opening and closing stanzas:

We cry to you, Lord God,
and lament to you all our distress,
which now confronts us
in dungeons and in stocks
where they have stuck us.
Give our spirit power and much strength
that it may lay hold of the goal
which has long stood before us,
so that we might obtain it.
O God, Release the captives! Amen.17

Schneider’s urgency, religious conviction, and belief in the salvation of and from suffering were common themes often repeated in many of the hymns composed in Passau.

While the composition of many hymns was often an individual practice of meditation and expression, singing hymns was nearly always communal. For early Anabaptists across Europe, the singing of hymns was decidedly a shared practice, be it in a congregational, familial, or clandestine setting.18 Because of the wide variety of Anabaptist hymnody, songs were sung to worship God, express religious ideas, commemorate martyrs, and give comfort and hope to the persecuted and imprisoned. Dutch martyrologist Hans de Ries believed that “songs of the cross” were “profitable to be sung at times when the congregation [was] burdened with the cross and suffering.”19 Anabaptists readily recognized and employed the power that singing hymns could have for a community of believers. Simply, the hymns of the Ausbund and other hymnals were written by the suffering, for the suffering.

Related to the motif of salvation and suffering was the prevalence of a belief in imminent eschatology. Several hymns in the Ausbund expressed the hymnodist’s belief that Christ would soon return and usher in the Kingdom of God. Here, hymnal messages were intended to instill a sense of urgency to convert, repent, and “console the suffering and encourage them to endure a little longer.”20 Michael Schneider conveyed the urgency of repentance in the face of imminent eschatology on multiple instances throughout the Ausbund:

God burned Sodom
for its sinful deeds.
You should accept this.
It is certainly an example
for all who live godlessly
in this time.
God will give them their reward.
The fire is already prepared.21

In another hymn, which anticipates the New Jerusalem in a remarkable forty-six verses, Schneider consoles his audience:

You, Church of God, keep your pure covenant,
namely the covenant of your groom, Christ.
For a short time be patient and suffer.
He will soon give your rest.22

Prominently, Anabaptists experienced and expressed their suffering through the drama of martyrdom, which included not only execution but also imprisonment and prosecution. Although Protestants and Catholics of the sixteenth century also published their own extensive martyrologies, those of Anabaptists were unique in that they were preserved primarily through song. When Anabaptist hymns were published, they rarely appeared with musical notation but rather with a familiar tune designation. Believers preserved these tunes, often adopted from popular folk songs, and the lyrics through communal singing and rote memorization.23 Anabaptism’s distinctive separatism, strong in-group orientation, and low literacy levels among believers contributed to hymnal martyrology for Swiss Brethren and Dutch Anabaptists in the sixteenth century.24

The extant of hymnal martyrologies was not long-lasting among some Anabaptist groups, however. Hans de Ries, who published a new Dutch Mennonite martyrology in 1615—one that became the basis of the Martyr’s Mirror—refashioned much of the content from earlier hymnals into prose. Although no information was lost, a certain distinctiveness was. This editorial decision reflected a transition in Dutch Mennonite life: the stories of martyrs were no longer memorized and sung in secret by illiterate Christians; instead, they were studied openly by the educated.25 The Swiss Brethren and their descendants, on the other hand, continued publishing updated versions of the Ausbund in America until 1785 and in Europe until 1838, which helped to maintain a “theology of suffering…long after the actual experience of martyrdom had become relatively rare.”26 Generally, however, the intense attention paid to the theology and experience salvation and suffering, sustained through early believers’ hymns, faded with their own martyrdom. Nevertheless, an interest in Anabaptist martyrdom is still alive among many present-day Anabaptists.

Despite the near absence of sixteen-century hymns in modern Anabaptist worship and experience, these songs were absolutely foundational to the experience of the Christians who wrote and sang them. The composition and singing of original hymns provided consolation, meaning, and continuity to a persecuted religious movement still in its infancy. The themes of suffering and martyrdom pointed to a distinctive and immensely meaningful aspect unique to this Reformation-era confession. Beyond the narratives which many of these hymns outlined, early Anabaptist hymnodists also unveiled their own understandings of the larger narrative of the unfolding of the Kingdom of God, as well as their place in it. Viewed from the twenty-first century, these hymns provide a unique glimpse into the temporal and existential realities of the first Anabaptists.


1. Galen A. Peters, ed., The Earliest Hymns of the Ausbund: Some Beautiful Christian Songs Composed and Sung in the Prison at Passau, Published in 1564, trans. Robert A. Riall (Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 2003),62.

2. Rosella Reimer Duerksen, “Anabaptist Hymnody of the Sixteenth Century: A Study of Its Marked Individuality Couples with a Dependence upon Contemporary Secular and Sacred Musical Style and Form.” Ph.D. diss., Union Theological Seminary, New York, 1956, 268-269.

3. John D. Rempel, “Anabaptist Religious Literature and Hymnody,” in A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700, ed. John D. Roth and James M. Stayer (Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2007), 391.

4. Rosella Reimer Duerksen, “Doctrinal Implications in Sixteenth Century Anabaptist Hymnody,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 35, no. 1 (January, 1961), 38.

5. Ibid., 44.

6. Peters, The Earliest Hymns of the Ausbund, 266.

7. Hermina Joldersma and Louis Grijp, eds. and trans., Elisabeth’s Manly Courage: Testimonials and Songs of Martyred Anabaptist Women in the Low Countries (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2001), 91.

8. John D. Roth, “Marpeck and the Later Swiss Brethren,” in Roth and Stayer, A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700, 352.

9. Peters, The Earliest Hymns of the Ausbund, 409.

10. Ibid.

11. Joldersma and Grijp, Elisabeth’s Manly Courage, 119.

12. Duerksen, “Doctrinal Implications in Sixteenth Century Anabaptist Hymnody,” 42.

13. Quoted in Paul M. Yoder, et al., Four Hundred Years with the Ausbund (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1964), 45.

14. Quoted in Gregory, Salvation at Stake, 203.

15. Yoder, et al., Four Hundred Years with the Ausbund, 5-6.

16. Ibid.,6.

17. Peters, The Earliest Hymns of the Ausbund, 143-148.

18. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, s.v. “Hymnology of the Anabaptists,” accessed March 2, 2019, https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Hymnology_of_the_Anabaptists.

19. Quoted in Brad S. Gregory, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 239.

20. Duerksen, “Anabaptist Hymnody of the Sixteenth Century,” 259.

21. Peters, The Earliest Hymns of the Ausbund, 133.

22. Ibid.,244.

23. Yoder, et al. Four Hundred Years with the Ausbund, 7.

24. Gregory, Salvation at Stake, 212.

25. Ibid., 237.

26. Roth, “Marpeck and the Later Swiss Brethren,” in Roth and Stayer, A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700, 352.

Review of Richard Godbeer, World of Trouble: A Philadelphia Quaker Family’s Journey through the American Revolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019).

In his most recent book, World of Trouble, Richard Godbeer tells the story of Elizabeth and Henry Drinker, a respectable, upwardly-mobile Quaker couple in Philadelphia’s merchant class whose lives were inextricably bound with the economic strife, social upheaval, political chaos, and violence of the American Revolution. Godbeer, a leading scholar of early American history and a Professor of History at the University of Kansas, “resists the familiar story of the American Revolution” by presenting it through the eyes of religious pacifists who remained neutral during the imperial crisis.1 This rich and striking narrative, intimately following the lives of Elizabeth (1735-1807) and Henry Drinker (1734-1809) for over fifty years, is reconstructed from dozens of Elizabeth’s diaries and thousands of letters that Elizabeth and Henry penned in their personal and professional lives. From such a unique vantage point, Godbeer lays bare a difficult reality of the American Revolution: its turbulence and violence were virtually inescapable, whether one wore a uniform or not. In this addition to recent scholarship on the violence of the American Revolution, Godbeer shows how Quakers experienced violence as Patriots suppressed dissent before, during, and after the war through threats, imprisonment, and even killings.2

Although the Drinkers were deeply affected by the decades of revolution, their lives were not entirely defined by it. Elizabeth and Henry lived before and after the Revolution—and even during the years of revolutionary upheaval, their day-to-day lives were not entirely halted. Reflecting this, Godbeer opens their story with the courtship and early married life of Henry Drinker and Elizabeth Sandwith. Married in 1761, the Drinkers’ first years together were marked by remarkable affection for each other and considerable anxiety about social, economic, and spiritual strictures. They wed at a time when the Society of Friends was becoming increasingly insular and sought to “reinvigorate their distinctive spiritual identity through a renewed stress on marriage within the faith.”3 Elizabeth knew the social and spiritual importance of marriage as well as Henry, but for her, as was the case for most women in her time, marriage also brought a significant loss of personal independence. Once married, Elizabeth spent the next twenty years becoming and being a mother—she was pregnant eleven times, but only five of her children reached adulthood. Henry, along with his business partner Abel James, spent the decades before the revolution building their transatlantic trading business and, like many Quaker merchants at midcentury, sought to “balance Quaker values with the practicalities and opportunities of international commerce,” which they achieved with mixed success.4 Henry and Elizabeth accumulated and displayed a great deal of material wealth, letting the religious scruples of outward simplicity fall away to demonstrate their upward mobility and gentility.

The conflicts between their Quaker conscience and the socio-political milieu became even more pronounced for the Drinkers beginning in the 1760s. Godbeer describes how their Quakerism influenced James and Drinker’s politics and business, which, as taxation and importation emerged as touchstones of revolution, were becoming increasingly entangled. The two Quaker merchants saw the royal government as the source of political salvation, rather than that of the crisis. Although they joined the boycott movement in opposition to new Parliamentary taxes, they hoped that such protests would lead to a peaceful resolution within the empire. However, their refusal to endorse heavy-handed threats and violence against royal officials, compounded with the widespread suspicion and resentment that many Pennsylvania Quakers faced, made James and Drinker visibly unpopular among Patriots. Patriotic hostility toward those who showed anything but unconditional support for revolution and independence reached a new height for Quakers in 1777 when Congress connected Quaker pacifism to loyalism and arrested Drinker and ten other leading Quakers, exiling them to Virginia. This move against these Friends was founded on decades of political conflict, accusations of hypocrisy, and suspicion toward Quakers as Pennsylvania became more religiously and ethnically diverse. It was these same pressures that factored into James and Drinkers’ decision to become tea consignees in the first place. Their year of exile was likely “monotonous and anxiety-ridden” for the Quakers. Although they were imprisoned far from home, Godbeer describes their time in captivity as “an extremely relaxed version of imprisonment, based on a gentlemen’s agreement that the exiles would not try to escape.”5 Meanwhile, Quakers and other perceived opponents to independence faced trials, prison, fines, forfeiture and destruction of property, and even execution during Philadelphia’s Continental occupation.

Elizabeth, too, was deeply affected by the throes of Revolution, but in different ways than her husband. From her copious diaries, Godbeer finds that Elizabeth’s wartime concerns lay primarily with “her husband’s situation, the safety of her own household, the fate of other Friends in and around the city, and the outrage at the cruelties inflicted by both sides in the conflict.”6 While Henry was in exile, Elizabeth was forced to quarter Continental and British soldiers in their home, deal with the supply shortages during the British occupation of Philadelphia (September 1777-June 1778), and cope with and protect her family from the persecution and violence that Continents exacted on Loyalist, neutral, and pacifistic Philadelphians once they regained control of the city. Godbeer argues that Elizabeth’s attention was not limited by any distinction of gendered spheres. Rather, he casts Elizabeth as a deeply politically-informed person who applied such knowledge to those affairs she was most familiar with and affected by. In fact, Elizabeth powerfully challenged Quaker sensibilities and American socio-political gender roles when she and three other Quaker women traveled to General George Washington’s headquarters in Valley Forge to parlay with Washington for her husband’s release from exile. In telling the Drinkers’ remarkable story, Godbeer keeps a constant eye on the Drinkers’ community of faith, declaring that the “distinct and deeply felt nationhood” of the Society of Friends that triggered so much outside resentment and hostility also brought a sense of “true freedom within themselves through trust in God” and “liberated from dependence on worldly comfort and security.”7

In his final chapters, Godbeer describes the Drinkers’ lives after the Revolution, which were unfortunately no less tumultuous than those before and during the war. Henry left his career as a merchant behind him in hopes of reinventing himself in order to, prove “his worth to the new republic and [show] that Quaker values could enrich the nation morally while also turning a handsome financial profit.”8 One such project was to invest in American maple sugar, which Drinker hoped would out-compete slave-produced sugar from the West Indies and undermine the entire slave trade. This and other ventures failed because, as Godbeer argues, Henry was a poor judge of character and far too trusting and forbearing with his investors and debtors, all qualities which left him ethically and financially spent.

Godbeer also traces Elizabeth’s difficulties in the new republic as a mistress and a matron. As in many households after the war, the domestic servants of the Drinker household were swept up in the liberating rhetoric of the revolution and began to expect different treatment—treatment which Elizabeth was reluctant to give. Her attitude toward her servants—Black or white, man or woman—“reflected a blend of maternal benevolence and distrustful condescension.”9 Throughout the 1780s and 1790s, while supporting abolition and free labor, Elizabeth held firm to her vision of society in which people knew their place and did not challenge their lot in life. Despite such tumult, Godbeer’s narrative emphasizes the centrality of spirituality, a strong faith community, and the persistence of the patterns of daily living in the Drinkers’ lives, even as they entered the final years of their life at the dawn of the nineteenth century.

World of Trouble forcefully and painfully confronts the fact that “however noble its official founding ideals, the United States was born in blood, its midwife a campaign of terror” (4). Moreover, as Godbeer elucidates, the writings of the Drinkers “remind us that the fraught political issues of their era had personal, spiritual, and emotional ramifications that played out in private as well as public spaces.”10 These powerfully important themes are woven into Godbeer’s wonderfully enjoyable narrative that sheds light on far more than the experiences of one Quaker family. A World of Trouble is not only a meaningful contribution to the scholarship of the American Revolution, but also offers a great deal to anyone interested in the contours of religious pacifism in early American life.


1 Richard Godbeer, World of Trouble: A Philadelphia Quaker Family’s Journey Through the American Revolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), 8.

2 See, for example, T. H. Breen, American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2010) and Holger Hoock, Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth (New York, NY: Broadway Books, 2017).

3 Godbeer, World of Trouble, 43.

4 Ibid., 82.

5 Ibid., 150.

6 Ibid., 153.

7 Ibid., 169.

8 Ibid., 248.

9 Ibid., 261-62.

10 Ibid., 371.

Encountering Race, Creating Place, and Opening Space in the Hardings’ Mennonite House

In the early summer of 2020, I began drafting this essay about the Atlanta Mennonite House in the early 1960s as a vignette of the Civil Rights Movement and the Mennonite community. Created by black Mennonite leaders Vincent and Rosemarie Harding in 1961, the Mennonite House was both the organizational center of a voluntary service unit and an influential place in the geography of the Civil Rights Movement. However, the brutal murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, the spectacular resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the outburst of violence against people of color have thrust the needs and demands for racial justice to the forefront of the American social conscience once again. In such a contemporary situation, this short article has taken on increased pertinence and purpose. Although this study remains focused on the past, it is also an opportunity to reflect and learn about our present situation. Perhaps, in this time of turmoil, with the potential for significant change on the horizon, American Mennonites and others can find contemporary guidance in the early history of the Mennonite House. Significantly, this vignette of the Civil Rights Movement and the Mennonites highlights the importance of creating place and opening space for the cause of racial justice. As was the case in 1961, this process often requires institutional support, buy-in, and the funding of ideas to make a meaningful impact. To begin such a study of the Mennonite House, we must first understand the people who created such an significant place—Vincent and Rosemarie Harding.

Vincent Harding joined the General Conference Mennonite Church in 1957 and was soon appointed as a pastor at Woodlawn Mennonite Church in Chicago. His entrance into the Mennonite fold was rooted in his fascination with sixteenth-century Anabaptists, whom he discovered during his graduate studies at the University of Chicago. He was drawn to the “discipleship, self-sacrificing love, [defiance of] the power of kings and rulers . . . [and] willingness to accept death rather than inflict suffering” demonstrated by early Anabaptists, and he was eager to apply the ethics of “peacemaking, reconciliation, and nonviolence” to the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement.1 While at Woodlawn, Vincent met Rosemarie Freeney, a public school teacher in Chicago who had been attending a congregation in the “old” Mennonite Church, another Mennonite denomination, since 1951. They were married in 1960 and created the Mennonite House in Atlanta that next summer.2

Together and as individuals, the Hardings were “involved in trying to encourage that traditional peace church community to think more fully and creatively about how it could relate to the Freedom Movement,” and to see the “natural connection” between the Movement and Mennonite theology.3 Indeed, the Hardings’ dual identities positioned them to be effective agents for pushing Mennonites further to seek integration, practice nonviolence, and witness to society. On the one hand, the Hardings’ leadership, faith, and action within the church made them Mennonites among Mennonites. On the other hand, they were black people born outside of the Mennonite fold. This gave them a distinctive vantage point to guide white Mennonites toward their unrealized potential and criticize them for their shortcomings. The Hardings’ unique identity, personal investment in the Civil Rights Movement, and strong advocacy for Mennonite involvement in the Movement were critical in creating the Mennonite House.

Vincent and Rosemarie Harding. Source: The Mennonite, March 20, 1962, 207.

In the late summer of 1961, the Peace Section of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) established a voluntary service (VS) unit at 504 Houston Street, Atlanta, Georgia.4 The Peace Section appointed Vincent and Rosemarie Harding as its first directors, and as the first black directors of any MCC VS unit.5 Such an appointment was natural, as the Hardings had long been agitating for a greater Mennonite presence in the heart of the Freedom Movement. The Atlanta unit, which identified almost exclusively as “the Mennonite House,” was formed to “witness to the Christian way of love and self-sacrifice in all aspects of life.”6 This was part of MCC’s response to the Hardings’ charge for Mennonites “to think more fully and more creatively about how it could relate to the Freedom Movement.”7 This open-ended commission reflected the Peace Section’s recognition of the theological and social space the Hardings had carved out for themselves among socially-reticent white Mennonites. Indeed, the Hardings, with the support of MCC, created the Mennonite House with the explicit purpose of establishing a Mennonite presence in the Freedom Movement and connecting Mennonite volunteers with the work of the Movement. The MCC Peace Section recognized the importance of establishing a physical presence in the South to facilitate meaningful work. By 1961, Mennonites had made progress in the way of race relations, but much of that progress had come in the form of conferences, study groups, and statements. In 1961, much work remained to be done. Boldly, the Peace Section recognized that “Christian obedience may at times lead to violation of government laws and regulations.”8 Such a statement was reflective of Mennonites’ theological and practical departure from their traditional posture of nonresistance during the civil rights era.9

The Hardings’ dual identities helped imbue the Mennonite House’s work with a respectful, just, and Christ-centered spirit of volunteerism, rather than one of ‘white savior’ patronage. “The privilege is really ours to be allowed by God and by our brothers of the South to share in so noble a climb [toward justice],” the Hardings wrote, advertising the Mennonite House. “They urge us to come, not to carry them, not to patronize them, but simply to add our own lives to the brave company of persons who believe that God calls men to a better way than the path of segregation, discrimination, and hatred.”10 The Hardings placed volunteers—often numbering in the thirties during the summer months—with local social work organizations and community centers, the nationally known Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).11

Although the Mennonite volunteers who came to Atlanta did so with a desire to participate in the Freedom Movement, many quickly were forced to face the racism and classism that existed in their own hearts and minds. Living and working in Atlanta often came as a rude awakening for the volunteers, known colloquially as VSers. Many were struck and even staggered by the realities of racial injustice in the city. The Hardings found such attitudes and feelings unsurprising, seeing that many of these volunteers came from rural, white, Mennonite communities in the Midwest and Canada. They worked diligently to enlighten their volunteers. Reflecting on her time with the VSers at the Mennonite House, Rosemarie believed that their VSers did good meaningful work and were transformed for the better while working in Atlanta.12

Under the Hardings’ leadership, the Mennonite House certainly fulfilled its charge from MCC to connect Mennonites to the Freedom Movement. But the Hardings made the Mennonite House something far more than a home and organizational office for Mennonite VSers involved in the Civil Rights Movement. It became, in Vincent Harding’s words, “a kind of Movement center.”13 In the context of the Movement, the Mennonite House was unique in that it was the only place in Atlanta where white and black people lived together in community. “That life together,” Vincent remarked, “was a project in itself.”14 In addition to the Hardings and Mennonite volunteers, dozens, if not hundreds, of neighbors, scholars, theologians, and activists spent time sitting around the Hardings’ dining room table engaging in lively discussion, debate, and reflection. Those who gathered at the Mennonite House included Staughton Lynd, director of the SNCC; Andrew Young, SCLC leader and later prominent politician; Howard Zinn, a young American historian; and Fannie Lou Hamer, a well-known civil rights activist.15 Moreover, activists from the Civil Rights Movement, the Nation of Islam, and the Black Power movement came together under the Mennonite House’s roof. Among the most prominent and frequent guests at the Mennonite House were Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King, who lived just around the corner. Coretta would often visit to spend time with Rosemarie and the volunteers. Rosemarie believed that Coretta found their “little community house relaxing, maybe even a bit of a refuge.”16 Most of those who spent time at the Mennonite House found it to be a place of solace, a place where white and black people alike could share their experiences, process their emotions, and grow together.

The close relationship the Hardings developed with the Kings while in Atlanta became a central feature in the Hardings’ participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Not long after the Hardings’ arrived in Atlanta in 1961, King approached them with an invitation to join the SCLC and “help keep this a Christian movement.”17 Throughout the summer of 1962, Vincent and Rosemarie Harding traveled back and forth between Atlanta and Albany, Georgia, splitting their time between their Mennonite House responsibilities and the Civil Rights Movement. They did similar work with King and the Movement in Birmingham, Alabama, in the summer of 1964.18 Rosemarie recalled that while in Albany, they “quietly encourag[ed] conversation between black organizers and sympathetic whites, counsel[ed] movement participants, help[ed] to write speeches, and participat[ed] in the mass meetings, protests and marches at the Movement’s heart.”19 Through all of this, the Hardings felt called as Mennonites to teach and converse with others about peace and nonviolence—both as a tactic for the Movement and as a personal, faith-centered way of life.20

The Mennonite House, however, did not shelter those living there from the ugly realities of racism. In the early 1960s, those on “the front lines” of the Civil Rights Movement were often emotionally spent, physically exhausted, and at times severely wounded. The Mennonite House quickly became a place of physical and emotional healing. Fannie Lou Hamer originally came to the Mennonite House because she had been “brutally attacked [and] badly bruised” while working in Mississippi.21 Instead of being taken to a hospital, Hamer was brought to the Mennonite House by Andrew Young and others for a few days of rest and healing. Moreover, while this project of interracial community-building found wide acceptance among those sympathetic to the Freedom Movement in Atlanta, it was still a place that challenged a racist status quo. One VSer recalled that police cars would often slowly drive back and forth in front of the Mennonite House, “trying to check out what was going on” in there.22

The Mennonite House, at 504 Houston Street, Atlanta Georgia. Source: The Mennonite, March 20, 1962, 207.

The Hardings had a distinct vision for what the Mennonite House should be—a center for the Movement which existed in a context far broader than that of the Mennonite community. They understood their work in Atlanta to be groundbreaking on several fronts. First, they were pushing the boundaries of how Anabaptist-Mennonite theology could be understood and practiced. Second, as Rosemarie reflected, the importance of the Mennonite House was that it “was one of the places, perhaps one of the few, where interracial conversations and community was being consciously created in the South. Our work encouraged that impulse in the life of the city of Atlanta and in the life of the Freedom Movement.”23 The Hardings surely fulfilled their commission to “witness to the Christian way of love and self sacrifice in all aspects of life” in ways that few—if any—Mennonites at the time would have.24 During their time with the Mennonites, the Hardings pushed Anabaptist-Mennonite theology and social action outward in the cause of racial justice. In terms of their work at the Mennonite House, this pioneering occurred in the theological and social space the Hardings had carved out for themselves among Mennonites.

Reflecting today upon the early history of the Mennonite House, American Mennonites (and others) can find significance in what the MCC Peace Section did and did not do. The creation of the Mennonite House in Atlanta was a direct result of the early agitation of the Hardings. To a large degree, the Peace Section put their institutional, material, and spiritual support behind the Hardings’ Atlanta project while simultaneously providing the Hardings space to explore and realize new social applications of Anabaptist-Mennonite theology. This space, however, was conditional and more a result of the Hardings’ constant efforts than the benevolence of white Mennonites. For example, the Peace Section demanded that Vincent Harding account for and report on how he spent his time as leader of the Mennonite House.25 Despite such limitations, it was in this place and space that the Hardings created something important not only to the Mennonite community, but also to the Freedom Movement.

In our contemporary situation, guidance can be found in the Peace Section leaders of the early 1960s and—more importantly—in the Hardings. We must listen to and learn from our black brothers and sisters—both within and beyond our own denominational fold; create physical place and share material resources in the cause of racial justice; and, open intellectual, theological, and social spaces so that people of color can work for justice in ways white Mennonites never can. In the early history of the Mennonite House, the creation of place and opening up of space occurred because of the agitation and hard work of the Hardings. Although the institutional and financial support of the MCC Peace Section was necessary for the creation of the Mennonite House, the Hardings were the pioneers, not the white Mennonite leadership. Today, we can and should dare to do better. In these times of turmoil, white American Mennonites must turn inward to interrogate our own prejudices, turn backward to learn from our past, turn upward to understand what our faith calls us to do, and turn outward to learn from and support those fighting for freedom and justice. In Vincent Harding’s call to those seeking to serve in Atlanta comes a powerful commission—one simple in words, challenging in practice, and worthy of striving toward. “Above all, we will seek to understand our brothers [and sisters of color]. We will seek to share their living and dying; we will seek to help them in whatever ways we can. We will walk with them.”26


1. Vincent Harding, “Vincent Harding: A Black Historian,” in Peacemakers: Christian Voices from the New Abolitionist Movement, edited by Jim Wallis (San Fransisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1983), 88; Harding and Harding, “Biography, Democracy, and Spirit,” 689.

2. Vincent and Rosemarie Harding’s association with the Mennonite church ended by the end of 1966. It was a schism primarily caused by Vincent Harding’s growing frustration with the degree to which his faith community would abandon their traditional nonresistance and separatism for the cause of social and political activism. The Hardings’ leadership in and break from the Mennonite community lies outside this more specific study of the Mennonite House but is nevertheless important to note. For more on Vincent Harding’s time with the Mennonites, see Tobin Miller Shearer, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010)and Tobin Miller Shearer, “Moving Beyond Charisma in Civil Rights Scholarship: Vincent Harding’s Sojourn with the Mennonites, 1958-1966,Mennonite Quarterly Review (July, 2008), https://www.goshen.edu/mqr/2008/07/april-2008-millershearer/.

3. Rachel E. Harding and Vincent Harding, “Biography, Democracy, and Spirit: An Interview with Vincent Harding,” Callaloo 20, no. 3 (Summer, 1997), 688-689.

4. Tobin Miller Shearer, “A Prophet Pushed Out: Vincent Harding and the Mennonites,” Mennonite Life 69 (2015), https://mla.bethelks.edu/ml-archive/2015/a-prophet-pushed-out-vincent-harding-and-the-menno.php.

5. Rosemarie Freeney Harding with Rachel Elizabeth Harding, Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015),128.

6. Quoted in Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 213.

7. Harding and Harding, “Biography, Democracy, and Spirit,” 688-89.

8. Ibid.

9. For Mennonites, the postwar era was one of acculturation and politicization. See Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties; Leo Driedger and Donald B. Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994). My research has located the Civil Rights Movement as the first challenge to and a significant catalyst of the half-decade long transformation of Mennonite theology and social action. See Alec Loganbill, “A New Responsibility: The Awakening of the Mennonite Social Conscience During the Civil Rights Era, 1950-1965,” Mennonite Life 73 (2019), https://ml.bethelks.edu.

10. Vincent and Rosemarie Harding, “Come to Atlanta,” The Mennonite, March 20, 1962, 205.

11. Harding and Harding, “Biography, Democracy, and Spirit,” 689.

12. Harding, Remnants, 130.

13. Ibid.

14. Harding and Harding, “Biography, Democracy, and Spirit,” 689.

15. Harding, Remnants, 132.

16. Ibid.,133.

17. Quoted in Shearer, Daily Demonstrators, 107.

18. Ibid., 142.

19. Harding, Remnants, 156.

20. Ibid., 157.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid., 133.

23. Ibid., 135-136

24. Quoted in Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties, 213.

25. Shearer, Daily Demonstrators, 121.

26. Harding, “Come to Atlanta,” 205.

Pushed on Our Beliefs: 50 Years After Vietnam Moratorium Day

This month, October 2019, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, a national demonstration in which millions of Americans protested the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. The Moratorium Day demonstrations—along with the Moratorium March on Washington which occurred that November—marked the first time the anti-war cause manifested itself as a mass movement. An immoral war, an unpopular government, rising public concern about peace and social justice, and a fervent culture of activism all came together to create a strong sociopolitical environment. Within this context in the late 1960s, American Mennonites found themselves in a new and uncomfortable position. For the first time, they were the minority among conscientious objectors and those opposed to war. Popular public objections directed toward the U.S. government ranged specifically to their involvement in Vietnam and more generally to their use of the draft and taxes. In all of these conversations, Mennonite voices were now joined by those of worldly citizens. With the growing unpopularity of the Vietnam War, Mennonites found themselves in the unusual position of being able to openly express their pacifist beliefs without the fear of public criticism, quite a contrast to what they had experienced during previous times of war.

In this new situation, and especially by 1969, Mennonites’ views on conscientious objection, the Vietnam War, and war in general had become muddled. Individually, some Mennonites were engaged in anti-war efforts on religious grounds, while others were  more politically or morally motivated. Still others openly supported the government’s efforts in Vietnam. Additionally, any vocal position was criticized by those Mennonites who still upheld traditional nonresistance and two-kingdom theology; those who were in the world but not of it. Even these Mennonites, however, were not immune to the influences of American society. They, too, were becoming divided on the issue of the war, although they did not discuss or act upon these emerging thoughts.

On October 15, 1969, the events of Vietnam Moratorium Day brought the shifting and contested positions of Mennonites in American society into sharp relief. The Bethel College Peace Club’s Moratorium Day demonstration raised serious theological, moral, and social questions among Mennonites about active peacemaking and witnessing to the state. In this sense, this demonstration and the events surrounding it become a microcosm of the debates and transformations which occurred at the denominational level during this period. In remembering the Bethel College Moratorium Day events, one Mennonite remarked, “when there is not a conflict like this here, people tend to settle down and forget about their major beliefs because they’re not pushed on them. But when they’re pushed on them, we have to do some of our best thinking.”1 Fifty years later, as we remember the Bethel Peace Club’s Moratorium Day demonstration, two subjects come to mind: first, the significant impact that these events had on Mennonite faith and identity; and second, the compelling idea that in moments of conflicts of faith, we as Mennonites have to do some of our best thinking.

On October 15, 1969, the large campus bell at Bethel College began to toll. Students of the Peace Club rang the bell every four seconds for four days straight, one toll for each of the forty thousand Americans who had lost their lives in the Vietnam War. This peaceful and powerful act of remembrance had a profound effect at Bethel, with the continuous tolling heard on every corner of the campus and throughout North Newton, acting as a constant reminder of the suffering in Vietnam. Bethel professor J. Harold Moyer remembered the Moratorium Day activities as “one of the most effective things we’ve done.”2

Kristen Zerger ringing the Bethel College bell, October, 1969.

When the bell fell silent four days later on October 18, Bethel College students, faculty, and community members, along with members of other college campuses, marched twenty miles to Wichita’s 81 Drive-In Theater, further exemplifying a resilient commitment to peace. The march ended at the theater with a memorial service led by Bible and religion professor Alvin Beachy. Bethel’s Moratorium Day peace activities captured national attention, grabbing a front page of The New York Times and several spots on national television news broadcasts. Additionally, the national Vietnam Moratorium Committee also found out about the Peace Club’s planned demonstrations and reached out to them in the weeks leading up to October 15 to affirm and encourage the students’ efforts. “Everyone else in the office thought I was out of my mind,” wrote one committee executive, “as I ran around in ecstatic glee talking about the Mennonites and their bell.”3

For many Bethel students, faculty, and administrators, as well as Newton community members, the 1969 Moratorium Day activities brought back memories of the Peace Club’s anti-war protest which occurred three years earlier, in 1966. In November of that year, the Peace Club marched through campus to the North Newton Post Office to deliver letters to their congressional representatives protesting the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. In the weeks leading up to this event, the Peace Club was met with opposition from other Bethel students, administrators (especially from Bethel President Vernon Neufeld,) the Mennonite press, the local American Legion, and other members of the larger Newton community. Threats of violence ensued, the most striking of which was a peace marcher hanged from the Bethel Administration Building in effigy, causing the Peace Club to redirect their march. The 1966 demonstration, which occurred peacefully on November 11, generated considerable conversation among Mennonites. They became divided in their thoughts about the event itself, the theological and moral motivations, and the usefulness of public peace witness.4

Bethel College Peace Club demonstration, November, 1966.

Although the Moratorium Day events of 1969 were met with wider support from the community and the nation, the reception on campus was similar to that experienced three years earlier. Professor Alvin Beachy described the relationship between students and administration as a “clash of will.”5 The faculty was deliberate in not holding an official stance on the 1969 peace activities, though many were personally concerned with the war and participated in the student-led activities to show multi-generational support. The administration took a cautious stance, attempting to carefully balance the public image of Bethel College and the rights of its students. Bethel College President Orville Voth was deeply skeptical. “Motivation must be in the name of Jesus Christ,” Voth said, “Political arguments are insufficient for committing our lives to.”6 Voth, however, was assuming two things that were not entirely true—first, that the students’ motivations were solely political; and, second, that political action and religious commitment were mutually exclusive. In reality, the motivations of many students were rooted in their Mennonite faith, which they saw as compatible with political action. Kirsten Zerger, a leader of the Peace Club at the time, reflected, “What I wanted to do was a Mennonite thing to do, but the church as an organization was not there.”7 Zerger was convinced that “the most powerful work is done when it’s multigenerational.”8 Bethel faculty also recognized this, as some participated in peace activities to show multi-generational concern and attempted to provide stability to the contentious situation. “I couldn’t understand my participation in these peace activities apart from my religious commitment,” Professor Alvin Beachy reflected, “If it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t have been involved. I can only see my action in terms of where I’m coming from.”9

While national media attention to these events was short-lived, the Peace Club’s actions in 1969 remained a relevant focal point for the controversial issues surrounding Vietnam among Mennonites. As was also the case in 1966, the Peace Club witnessed both their position on the Vietnam War to the state and their position on witness itself to the church. Peace activism among Mennonites spread quickly to Bluffton and Goshen Colleges, where students organized anti-war teach-ins, letter-writing events, and peace marches.10 The Bethel Peace Club and President Voth were contacted directly by Mennonites from around the country. Some were concerned with the national attention the events had generated. “It is unfortunate that this is the way millions of people have been introduced to Bethel College,” one critic lamented.11 On the other hand, some alumni praised the Peace Club and shared their feelings of pride when they saw the good work of Bethel students on the national news. Furthermore, a great deal of support for the Peace Club came in the form of monetary donations to fund future club activities.

The debate which surrounded the Peace Club’s activities can be understood as a microcosm of what was happening among Mennonites at the denominational level. In November 1969, the MCC Peace Section released a statement recognizing “noncooperation with military conscription as a valid expression of nonconformity and peacemaking.”12 By 1970, the Peace Section took a major step in establishing its new position on conscription, declaring that “the very existence of the draft contributes to the militarism that now dominates American life and threatens the freedom, stability and survival of the world.”13 Perhaps most exemplary of the change in the Mennonite conception of peace came from a statement issued by the General Conference Mennonite Church in 1971, which declared that “[peace] is much more than saying ‘no’ to war. It is saying a joyful ‘yes’ to a life of self-giving discipleship and evangelistic peacemaking,” and that “the Christian brotherhood should be involved in the decision and support of persons who disobey the law for conscience’ sake.”14 Boldly, the General Conference made a definitive shift away from their commitment to nonresistance toward one of active peace witness to society. The “Old” Mennonite Church also moved further away from nonresistance in their support of active peacemaking. In all cases, these changes were justified as a return to traditional Anabaptist theology.

It is here where we can circle back to the reflection stated earlier by a Mennonite in response to the Peace Club’s Moratorium Day demonstration. “When there is not a conflict like this here, people tend to settle down and forget about their major beliefs because they’re not pushed on them. But when they’re pushed on them, we have to do some of our best thinking.”15 Now, fifty years later, when active peacemaking has become a defining feature of Anabaptist-Mennonite faith and identity, this statement can and should still resonate with us. Yet, it is much easier to look back proudly on past events such as these and praise the progress we have made theologically and socially than it is to look at our current situation and find where changes still need to be made. People of faith, Anabaptist and otherwise, have never lived inside a vacuum. The students who pushed the edges of the Mennonite faith during in the 1960s were reinterpreting it in order to respond to the realities of their world. It seems that more and more our convictions are being pushed by political, social, and environmental forces, as well as by tensions which exist within the church itself. But how are we responding? Surely today’s world is changing, requiring from us a renewed Anabaptist vision, for our own sake, for the sake of the oppressed, and for the sake of all. Indeed, in situations of theological, social, and political conflict, we as a people of faith must do some of our best thinking, striving to face and address the challenges of the ever-changing world in which we live and witness.


  1. Mennonites and the Vietnam War: An Oral History, tape 41, tape recording, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, KS (MLA).
  2. J. Harold Moyer, interviewed by Raymond Reimer, October 30, 1972, interview 30, tape recording, MLA.
  3. Lynn Edwards to Peace Club, September 23, 1969, Bethel College Peace Club Papers, MLA.III.1.A 29.e, b. 1, f. 2, MLA.
  4. Maynard Shelly, “Peace Walk Baffles Peace Church,” The Mennonite, December 13, 1966, 757-764.
  5. Alvin Beachy, interviewed by Raymond Reimer, November 10, 1972, interview 31/32A, tape recording, MLA.
  6. Quoted in Maynard Shelly, “For Us the Bell Tolled,” The Mennonite, November 4, 1969, 663.
  7. Kirsten Zerger, interviewed by Dan Krehbiel, April 11, 2001, interview 83, tape recording, MLA.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Beachy.
  10. Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America, (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 242.
  11. Letter to Orville Voth, Bethel College Peace Club Papers, MLA.III.1.A 29.e, b. 7, f. 1, MLA.
  12. Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section, A Message from the Consolation on Conscience and Conscription, November 22, 1969, in Urbane Peachey, ed., Mennonite Statements on Peace and Social Concerns, 1900-1978 (Akron, Pa.: Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Peace Section, 1980), 74.
  13. Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section, The Draft Should Be Abolished, June 5, 1970, in Peachey, 75.
  14. General Conference Mennonite Church, The Way of Peace, August 14-20, 1971, in Peachey, 145.
  15. Mennonites and the Vietnam War.