Dispatches from “Crossing the Line”: Mennonite Women in the Shenandoah Valley History Tour

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Conference organizer and professor of history Mary Sprunger organized a bus tour of Anabaptist historic and cultural sites in the Shenandoah Valley for Crossing the Line participants.

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The first stop was the Burkholder Myers House (built 1854), where participants heard from Ruth Stoltzfus Jost about her family’s role in the Underground Railroad as well as about her mother, Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus, who at the age of 74 became the first woman to be ordained in the Virginia Mennonite Conference (1989).

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Following a stop at the Hickory Hollow School of the Weaverland Old Order Group, the tour visited this Old Order Mennonite Church, including lively Q and A with Minister Lewis Martin.

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Sisters Ruth and Etta Showalter run the Rocky Cedars Store which sells goods such as these hats and broad coats to customers from the Shenandoah Valley’s three different horse-and-buggy Anabaptist groups.

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The tour concluded with a delicious meal at the home of Old Order entrepreneur Janet Shank, whose business is to cater dinners with the help of her family and neighbors.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.

In Search of Women’s Histories: Crossing Space, Crossing Communities, Crossing Time at “Crossing the Line”

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Sofia Samatar answering questions at “Crossing the Line.”

“We need all the women’s stories we can get.” This was the message of the third plenary talk at Crossing the Line, “In Search of Women’s Histories: Crossing Space, Crossing Communities, Crossing Time,” delivered by award-winning novelist Sofia Samatar.

Samatar, who teaches literature at James Madison University, opened her presentation with a discussion of the poem “Annie,” published in 1912 by the French writer Guillaume Apollinaire. The poem describes a chance encounter between the rakish poet and a Mennonite woman in a rose garden in eastern Texas.

“Her rose bushes and dress have no buttons,” Apollinaire writes. “And as my coat has lost two / She and I are almost of the same religion.”

Like many of us who have run across unexpected Mennonite references in literature, Samatar described the small “flash of joy” she felt upon reading Apollinaire’s poem, as well as the “sting” of wondering what, exactly, this woman in the rose garden represents. How does this short, possibly inaccurate representation reflect on Anabaptists as a whole?

Arcing through the twentieth century, Samatar took us on an insightful, often hilarious tour of Mennonites and Amish in popular media. We reflected on Witness (1985), in which Harrison Ford goes Amish to solve a crime, and learned about the thriving subgenre of Amish romance novels—so-called “bonnet rippers”—that apparently include Amish vampire romance.

Common to all these examples, according to Samatar, is the stereotyped figure of the sexualized Anabaptist woman. Chaste and coy beneath her bonnet and cape dress, this trope inherently invites uncovering by the male gaze. Think of Rachel in Witness, who memorably locks lips with Harrison Ford—or of Apollinaire’s “Annie,” based on a governess whom the poet wished to bed.

Or consider the first season of Breaking Amish, which features a young Mennonite woman named Sabrina. She is of Puerto Rican background and leaves her conservative adoptive family to find biological relatives in New York City. Long-lost sisters run a beauty parlor, it turns out, and Sabrina gets a makeover—traditional dress swapped for a t-shirt and tight shorts.

For Samatar, Sabrina’s transformation (from innocent Mennonite into sexy Latina) presupposes a narrative strategy incapable of acknowledging both aspects of the young woman’s identity. She cannot simultaneously be both Puerto Rican and Anabaptist. According to the logic of mass entertainment, she must choose.

Samatar rejects this dichotomy. Only when we welcome the messiness, the complexity of women’s lives, she suggests—when we cross lines of gender, race, religion, and language—will we be able to understand our cultural richness as well as, ultimately, ourselves.

Giving body to this idea, Samatar concluded her keynote with three readings. She chose autobiographical pieces by three Mennonite women: her grandmother, her mother, and herself. Through the multi-generational voices of Amy Kreider Glick, Lydia Glick, and Sofia Samatar, we heard unexpected, beautiful stories: of a girl growing up in rural Missouri; of a young woman traveling to Somalia and falling in love; of a brown student reading fantasy and navigating fashion at her boarding school.  

These are the stories we need. We can all look forward to Samatar’s forthcoming short story collection, Monster Portraits, as well as to her next project, an exploration of women’s experiences in a nineteenth-century Mennonite-Muslim settlement in Central Asia.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.

Dispatches from “Crossing the Line”: European Anabaptist Women Make Their Mark and Gender Identities and Leadership

EMU Campus

“Crossing the Line; Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” was hosted by Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

European Anabaptist Women Make their Mark

Panel 8: Friday 10:30-noon

“The Role of the Prophetess: An Opportunity to Cross Boundaries?”

By Christina Moss, University of Waterloo

  • In the first paper for the European panel, Christina Moss presented work from her ongoing dissertation, entitled “‘Your Sons and Daughters Shall Prophesy’: Visions, Apocalypticism, and Gender Among the Strasbourg Prophets, 1524-1539.”
  • Moss focused on the early female Anabaptist prophets Barbara Rebstock and Ursula Jost, emphasizing their prominent role in Reformation-era Strasbourg, including their influence on the leader Melchior Hoffman.
  • While radicals like Melchior Hoffman scoured scripture to find justification for supporting female preachers, detractors such as David Joris wrote polemics against such gender non-conformity, charging that in Strasbourg, “They hear and believe [Barbara Rebstock] as they do God.”

“Austrian Anabaptist Women of Status: The Case of Bartlme Dill Riemenschneider’s Family, 1527-1550,”

By Linda Huebert Hecht, Waterloo, ON and Hanns-Paul Ties, Bozen, Italy

  • Historian Linda Huebert Hecht—whom readers may know as co-editor of Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers—presented on work that she has been conducting with Hanns-Paul Ties, a doctoral candidate in sixteenth-century art history at the University of Basel.
  • Hecht began her presentation by asking what influence the Renaissance may have had on the Radical Reformation. She then revealed that the most prominent artist of the period in Tyrol, now in southwestern Austria, was an Anabaptist named Bartlme Dill Riemenschneider, famous for frescos, oil paintings, and ceramics.
  • By painstaking examination of court records, Hecht and Ties have followed the lives of six women associated with Riemenschneider, three of whom were likely Anabaptists. Multiple individuals in the household faced arrest (due to a denunciation by their maid), but were not immediately tortured, since their judge had himself been influenced by a radical preacher.

“‘By the Hand of a Woman’: Antje Brons and the Origins of Mennonite History Writing,”

By Ben Goossen, Harvard University

  • My presentation drew on research for my recently published book, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, focusing particularly on the nineteenth-century German Mennonite historian, Antje Brons.
  • Brons was likely the most widely-read Mennonite woman of the first four hundred years of Anabaptist history, and during her day she was widely recognized as the author of the first comprehensive history of the Mennonite church, published in 1884.
  • Tracing the reception of Brons’ book in Germany and the United States, I argued that her work was successful not in spite of her gender, but rather because she successfully aligned her project with contemporary notions of German nationalism and gender propriety.
Rachel Goossen, Panel 13

Rachel Goossen presenting at “Crossing the Line.”

Gender Identities and Leadership

Panel 13: Friday 1:30-3:00pm

“Finding a Home: LGBTQ Mennonite Leaders and Denominational History,”

By Rachel Waltner Goossen, Washburn University

  • This panel on LGBTQ identities opened with a paper from Rachel Waltner Goossen about queer women in church leadership positions. She interviewed women who have either remained Mennonite, switched denominations, or layered affiliations since coming out.
  • Goossen conceived of this project while research the history of sexual abuse in the Mennonite church, which revealed a substantial exodus of talented female leaders to other denominations. She spoke of this as a “legacy of loss” for Mennonites.
  • Queer interviewees and conversation partners emphasized their calling to serve as well as their love of Anabaptist communities, while also highlighting the institutional and interpersonal violence they experienced because of their sexual orientation.

“Wisdom on the Edges: Hearing the Voices of LGBTQ Women in Mennonite Church Canada,”

By Irma Fast Dueck, Canadian Mennonite University

  • Speaking from a Canadian perspective, Irma Fast Dueck raised similar themes in her discussion of a listening tour conducted with Darryl Neustaedter Barg among LGBTQ individuals affiliated with Mennonite Church Canada.
  • Dueck showed clips from these interviews, which were filmed and edited to create a 30-minute video, entitled Listening Church, intended for use in adult Mennonite Sunday School classes.
  • Interviewees responded to three questions: 1) What is your experience in the church? 2) Why is the church important to you? And 3) What wisdom do you have for the church’s ongoing discernment process? The film is moving – please watch it!

“‘Love to All’: Bayard Rustin’s Effect on Attitudes toward LGBTQ Issues in South-Central Kansas Mennonites,”

By Melanie Zuercher, Bethel College

  • Opening with the well-known story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s visit to Bethel and Goshen Colleges in 1960, Melanie Zuercher revealed that Bayard Rustin traveled among Kansas Mennonites a decade earlier.
  • Rustin was black, gay, and Quaker, and he was the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Although he faced discrimination for both his race and sexual orientation, Rustin credited his Quaker background as the source of his activism.  
  • Zuercher’s research suggests that although Rustin’s 1950 visit to Bethel College and area churches did not predispose local Mennonites to be more favorable toward queer identities, it did build bridges to the burgeoning Civil Rights movement.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.

Mennonite Fascism

Fascism often begins with sex. It can rely especially on anxieties about men of color having sex with white women.1 The pattern holds for Mennonite fascism, a specifically Anabaptist political philosophy modeled on Nazism that during the 1930s found support among German-speaking Mennonites around the world. While there are many sides to Mennonite fascism, I will focus here on the writings of J.J. Hildebrand—a Winnipeg-based immigrant from the Soviet Union who in 1933 proposed the formation of a fascist “Mennostaat,” or Mennonite State.2 This tale unfolds in a moment of global uncertainty, in which the legacies of the First World War and the shock of the Great Depression had sent democracy into retreat. Strongmen like Hitler and Mussolini drew praise even in places like Great Britain or the United States, and for many Mennonites, fascism’s unabashed racism seemed both to explain why their church had experienced so much persecution and also to offer a buffer against fresh assaults.

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J.J. Hildebrand, Mennonite fascist, ca. 1930. Credit: J.J. Hildebrand Collection, Photograph Ca MHC 303-6.0, Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg, Manitoba

Enter J.J. Hildebrand: a successful businessman born in Ukraine, a longtime advocate for Mennonite rights, and an avid observer of Nazi Germany. Emigrating to Canada after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Hildebrand had spent the following decade promoting various settlement schemes for anti-Soviet coreligionists who, like himself, were seeking both refuge from communism and economic security in their new American homelands. According to Hildebrand, Mennonites constituted a pure-blooded “nation” or “race” that, since arising in Central Europe 400 years previously, had become scattered across the earth. Dispersed among foreign populations whom he described as Russian, Persian, Chinese, Mongolian, Polish, Mexican, Paraguayan, and Brazilian, members of the faith supposedly faced a global plague of racial defilement, that if continued, might lead to their ultimate demise. Writing for the widely-read Canadian denominational paper, Mennonitische Rundschau, or “Mennonite Review,” Hildebrand emphasized the danger to his readers: “our Mennonite girls—to which we, Mennonite men, have the first and only right, and whom we approach only via the honest path to the altar—are now exposed to the sexual caprices of these and similar types.” Such a reality “makes my Germanic blood boil,” Hildebrand explained. “Yours too?”3

One can imagine the fifty-three-year-old Hildebrand in his Winnipeg office—fully bald, dark-rimmed glasses framing a face he fancied “Germanic”—fantasizing about the Mennonite girls whose sexuality he considered the property of his kind. The issue held significance against the recent backdrop of mass immigration from Eastern Europe; in contrast to the wealth and power of Anabaptist life in formerly tsarist Russia, many new arrivals faced unaccustomed hardship, to which hundreds of families responded by sending their daughters to perform domestic labor in Canadian cities.4 What bothered Hildebrand was not just the thought of brown men in dark alleyways forcing themselves on defenseless white women, as the racist stereotype held, but more insidiously the possibility that inter-ethnic relationships might be consensual—that Mennonite women in the diaspora might be led astray, allowing their wombs and thus their bloodlines to be lost to the race. Indeed, race: Hildebrand thought of Mennonitism as a distinct racial category, interwoven by centuries of intermarriage. A Native American or Indonesian convert—or even the Canadian “English”—could never be Mennonite in this sense. “There are no Slavic, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Indian, Malayan, Chinese, or Japanese Mennonites,” Hildebrand wrote. Even if converts practiced adult baptism, foot washing, opposition to oaths, and nonresistance, they would only be Christians. Mennonitism stemmed “from our racial origins.”5

How to ensure that Mennonites preserved their racial stock, that the right women bred with the right men? Hildebrand’s solution was the formation of a Mennonite State. Envisioning the “collection of our race from across the entire globe,” he proposed the establishment of an autonomous, self-administered territory. The initial sketch was vague enough to be humorous: the world’s 500,000 Mennonites could build a homeland on, say, one to seventeen islands. Their official languages would be Low and High German. Their currency, the Menno-Gulden would be pegged to the gold standard and worth 25 US cents. Each family would be given 120 acres to farm, and each household would elect one representative to the local “district assembly.” Every district assembly (each with around 100 members representing 1,000 families) would then elect two representatives to the “state assembly.” To fund the venture, Hildebrand recommended that proponents donate to a hypothetical “Menno-Collection-World-Union.” Contributors would each wear small medallions showing doves with peace palms against a blue field—“external signs” reminiscent of Nazi armbands.6

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My new book explores the origins, nature, and consequences of Mennonite fascism

Easily the oddest detail here is Hildebrand’s inclusion of the peace dove. All the other elements conform to the typical trappings of 1930s-era fascism. Racial utopias and agrarian settlements were hallmarks of fascist movements across Europe and the Americas, as was the general activity of planning the obscure details of future political and economic systems—from which certain groups, usually Jews, would be excluded. Even the concept of an island state held fascist connotations. At least some readers of the Mennonitische Rundschau, where Hildebrand’s piece appeared, were familiar with books like Aryan Race, Christian Culture, and the Jewish Problem (1931), an anti-Semitic pamphlet that advocated removing the world’s Jews from their countries of residence and sending them to Madagascar.7 Despite frequently comparing themselves to Jews (in fact Hildebrand conceived his Mennonite State as a “solution” to the “Mennonite Problem,” language evoking contemporaneous efforts to “solve” the so-called Jewish Problem), Mennonite newspapers and institutions across Canada and beyond were rife with anti-Semitism.8

But what about the dove? What made Hildebrand’s proposal absolutely unique in the history of political philosophy was that it represented a strange but surprisingly popular brand of pacifist fascism. The “Mennonite Problem” that Hildebrand hoped to solve was certainly about persecution, sex, and racial defilement. It was also about military service. While nonresistance had been a major tenet of Anabaptist thought until the nineteenth century, the rise of mass conscription and especially the events of the First World War had quite literally brought the principle under fire. “Peaceful coexistence of nations,” Hildebrand wrote, “the peace ideal—this Mennonite cultural inheritance—has been packed away in the travel trunk for protection, and in many states our freedom from military service has been trod under foot.” With yet more wars and revolutions looming on the horizon, Hildebrand believed that as long as Mennonites lived in militarist states, their pacifism would not survive the night. The state “sends the police into our homes to conscript our sons for war; it sends the police to confiscate our horses, wagons, grain, and more for war; it dictates the impossibly high taxes to cover the costs of war.”9

Hildebrand’s idea of a “peace island” inspired discussion among Mennonites across Canada and beyond.10 Over the following year, his proposal generated a lively debate in the denominational press about the feasibility and desirability of establishing a separatist Mennonite State. “Where is it supposed to be built?” wondered one skeptic, before going on to lay out the difficulty of gathering a half million Mennonites from a dozen countries, convincing them all to live and work together, and then going about the tricky business of setting up a bureaucracy and establishing diplomatic relations with other countries. “And would we eventually have communists among us?” he went on. “What do we do with them? Gently reprimand them? Or throw them out so that they go to our neighbors and turn them against us? Or perhaps condemn them to death?” Some issues generated laughter. Would mustaches be banned in the Mennonite State? But the most serious concerns revolved around military service: how could a pacifist state ensure its independence without eventually raising an army—and thus abandoning nonresistance? In the case of an invasion, foreign occupiers might, ironically, “also be interested in our beautiful girls, so that Hildebrand’s Germanic blood may once again be brought to a boil.”11

The Mennonite State never materialized—at least as Hildebrand imagined. Brushing aside questions of feasibility, he reasoned that although an independent Poland had seemed impossible before the First World War, the conflict had forged nearly overnight this improbable victory. As for small, defenseless states that managed to avoid military engagement, Hildebrand dove into the history and political structures of Switzerland, Andorra, San Marino, and Monaco. The dreamer went so far as to reach out to foreign governments about granting “complete, treaty independence” for possible Mennonite States across Africa, Latin America, and Oceania. One response from Australia informed Hildebrand that his request was “quite impossible.12 Political will was also lacking within the denomination. This wariness reflected, in part, a skepticism of Hildebrand himself. Although prominent, wealthy, and relatively well-connected, Hildebrand had never been quite as influential as he would have liked. If many commentators felt a Mennonite State was in theory possible, constructing it would require a feat worthy of a Moses or a Hitler. “In any event, Hildebrand is not this Moses,” one personal acquaintance assessed. “He may have Führer ambitions and Führer desires; Führer talent he does not have.”13

When viewed from the long arc of Anabaptist history, it is perhaps tempting to dismiss Mennonite fascism as a hapless anomaly. “Why don’t we relegate ‘the Mennonite State’ to the archive…?” suggested the editor of the Mennonitische Rundschau in an exasperated aside after one of Hildebrand’s more fanciful articles. “All in favor, raise your hands!”14 By April 1934, the matter seemed sufficiently closed that another author could refer to Hildebrand’s intervention as “unhappy and somewhat erstwhile.”15 Nevertheless, the Mennonite State was not a laughing stock. And Hildebrand was a serious enough figure to spark thoughtful debate. Consider the 1935 response of B.B. Janz, a prominent Mennonite Brethren church leader—and also an immigrant from the Soviet Union—who criticized Hildebrand’s proposal not for its implausibility but because it hit too close to home. “But wait,” Janz wrote, “we have already attempted the Mennonite State, whole hog.”16  Referring to the large semi-autonomous Mennonite settlements in the Black Sea region of the former Russian Empire, Janz noted that for more than one hundred years, Mennonites had exercised judicial, administrative, and educational independence. And what had it wrought? In his telling, conflict upon conflict—from tax and land issues to the persecution of one new religious movement after another: the Kleine Gemeinde, the Mennonite Brethren, the Templers.

Mennonite Choir at Canadian Nazi Rally, Winnipeg Free Press, January 30, 1939 (1)

Mennonites in Canada, especially recent immigrants from the Soviet Union, often praised the Third Reich or modified fascism for their own purposes. Here, a Mennonite choir performs at a Nazi rally in Manitoba. “Hitler Salute: Local Germans Hail Re-birth of Fatherland Under Fuehrer,” Winnipeg Free Press, January 20, 1939, 1.

Whether or not B.B. Janz was right about the deleterious nature of Mennonite administration in old Russia, during the years between the World Wars, he was surely in the minority of Mennonites from Eastern Europe who did not think back on the settlements with fondness. “As I was still a boy, I often and gladly looked over the green gardens and forest-filled villages of the Molotschna [colony],” volunteered a more nostalgic writer. “I loved the whole settlement, containing the whole Mennonite nation as I knew it. At that time, I too dreamed of the formation of a country where no Russian or anyone else would order us about and where Mennonitism could unfold in its full glory.”17 Stripped of their wistful sheen, such notions found deep resonance in the new imperial projects of European fascists—movements that shared Hildebrand’s racism but whose power was far greater. “Germany is fighting for its rehabilitation and for its lost colonies,” reported an Ontario-based author in the Mennonitische Rundschau. “And when this moment arrives, then we may hope that we will be incorporated into that country, whose sons and daughters we are, whose spirit is our spirit, whose blood is our blood—as an independent Mennonite colony under German protection.”18

Himmler in Halbstadt

Visions for racially homogeneous Mennonite settlements under fascist rule found realization in Nazi-occupied Ukraine. Here, Heinrich Himmler (third form right), head of the SS and an architect of the Holocaust, at a flag raising in the Molotschna Mennonite colony, 1942

Why care about Mennonite fascism? One answer is that it was far more widespread than has generally been recognized. Well beyond statist debates in the Mennonitische Rundschau, similar ideas found adherents and interlocutors among populations across Europe and the Americas. Some pockets were remote and unexpected. Schoolchildren in Paraguay’s Gran Chaco, for example, could read about “Mennonites as Genealogical Community” in one biology textbook: “They form a large family or clan. In their veins flows the same German blood.”19 In other contexts, the ideology’s influence was monumental. Across the ocean in the Third Reich, Mennonites found a special place in Nazi racial theory. During the Second World War, when Hitler’s armies conquered large swaths of the Soviet Union, prominent fascists visited, praised, and supported the large German-speaking Mennonite colonies in occupied Ukraine. Harrowing experiences under communism had prepared the way for a warm reception. “I was no enemy of the Soviets,” one local explained to Nazi occupiers, “but now that I’ve come to know them, you’ll find I’m a true enemy. Now I’m a Hitlerite, a fascist unto death.”20

Mennonites in Eastern Europe generally collaborated with Nazi colonizers—if not always fully supporting their ideology or policies, as historian Aileen Friesen explains in a recent post. While occupiers built up local settlements like Chortitza and Molotschna, providing aid and services not dissimilar from the visions of Hildebrand and his supporters, death squads—some with Mennonite members—massacred nearly all of Ukraine’s 1.2 million Jews, including tens of thousands in and around the Mennonite colonies. This is what fascism looked like in its rawest form. Hildebrand’s “peace island” was indeed an unachievable fantasy, but not because there was insufficient will to produce a racially-pure utopia. It was a fantasy because fascism is always built on racial exclusion—and hate is inherently violent. J.J. Hildebrand himself spent the Second World War in Allied Canada. While he was a decorated member of the Nazi German Canadian League, he did not personally participate in ethnic cleansing. Yet whether in democratic Canada, rural Paraguay, or the Third Reich, Mennonite fascism was never innocuous. Listen to the second stanza of Hildebrand’s proposed anthem for the Mennonite State, set to the tune of Germany’s own national song:  

Our girls among foreigners
become ever more lost to us
Who however for our young men
alone have been predestined.
Have you for our girls
not a dear warm heart?
To wrest them from the yellow to-
bacco chewer’s unwelcome jape?21

Lest we think that peace theology alone shields us from the dangers of racial nationalism, let it be said: pacifists can be fascists, too. In the 1930s and 1940s there were plenty of Mennonite fascists, pacifist or otherwise. As a denomination we have not yet come to terms with this past, nor have we fully examined which elements of Mennonite fascism slipped past the end of the Second World War, which snippets of our theology and worldviews remain influenced by the once prominent drive for Germanic racial purity in many Mennonite congregations. Paraguayan biology classes, to name one example, continued referring to Mennonites as a blood community well into the postwar years, while in Germany, a popular Mennonite history book authored by a former Nazi and emphasizing genealogical transmission remained in print as recently as 1995.22 In North America, too, we frequently hear claims that Anabaptism is a German religion or that Mennonitism constitutes a family church. Violence and exclusion, including oppressive uses of peace theology, can be tied up in such claims. We should ask: who is marginalized, demonized, or rejected in our own congregations—whether in the name of religion, nation, immigration status, or sexual orientation?

Were J.J. Hildebrand writing today, he would undoubtedly see justification for new nativist projects in the right-wing populism sweeping Europe, the United States, and the world. Nor would he be alone. Fascism as a self-conscious movement is once again gaining prominence. Indeed, immigration restrictions in the United States, power grabs in Asia and Latin America, and refugee backlash in Europe—along with a shocking spate of anti-Semitism, anti-Islamic sentiment, homophobia, and Holocaust denialism in both official and unofficial places—demonstrate that in essence, if not in formal name, the logic at fascism’s core already holds political power.

Mennonites are not immune.

This article draws on research conducted for my book, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, out this month from Princeton University Press. Thanks to Uwe Friesen, Rachel Waltner Goossen, Conrad Stoesz, John Thiesen, James Urry, and Madeline Williams for their assistance.


  1.  For a brief introduction to fascism, see Robert Paxton’s excellent, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York: Random House, 2007). On fascism and sex, see Dagmar Herzog, Sex After Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 10-63. 
  2.  The most extensive treatment of J.J. Hildebrand and his Mennostaat proposal is James Urry, “A Mennostaat for the Mennovolk? Mennonite Immigrant Fantasies in Canada in the 1930s,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 14 (1996): 65-80. For Hildebrand’s context among recent Mennonite immigrants to Canada between the World Wars, see James Urry, Mennonites, Politics, and Peoplehood: Europe—Russia— Canada, 1525 to 1980 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006), 185-204. On the Mennonite paper, Die Mennonitische Rundschau, in which Hildebrand published his proposal, see Harry Loewen and James Urry, “A Tale of Two Newspapers: Die Mennonitische Rundschau (1880-2007) and Der Bote (1924-2008),” Mennonite Quarterly Review 86, no. 2 (April 2012): 175-204. On the generally German nationalist orientation of the immigrant Mennonite press in 1930s Canada, see Frank Epp, “An Analysis of Germanism and National Socialism in the Immigrant Newspaper of a Canadian Minority Group, the Mennonites, in the 1930’s” (PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 1965).  
  3.   J.J. Hildebrand, “Zeichen der Zeit!” Die Mennonitische Rundschau, March 29, 1933, 4. 
  4.  Marlene Epp has emphasized how Mennonite immigrant families and church communities generated anxieties around the sexual safety of female domestic laborers while also asserting patriarchal control over these women’s movements and earnings: Mennonite Women in Canada: A History (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2008), 42-51. 
  5.  J.J. Hildebrand, “Mennonitische Geschichte: 60 Jahre später,” Die Mennonitische Rundschau, March 28, 1934, 2. For Hildebrand’s views of many non-Mennonite Canadians as racially “English,” see J.J. Hildebrand, “Our Flag is One Thing. Our Race is Another,” Winnipeg Free Press, November 27, 1937, 24. 
  6.  Hildebrand, “Zeichen der Zeit!” 5-6 
  7.  Egon van Winghene, Arische Rasse, Christliche Kultur und das Judenproblem (Erfurt: U. Bodung-Verlag, 1931). For a Mennonite review, see A. Kröker, “Zum Judenproblem,” Die Mennonitische Rundschau, March 14, 1934, 2-3. On van Winghene’s book and its context, see Magnus Brechtken, Madagaskar für die Juden (Munich: R. Oldenbourg Verlag, 1997), 38-42.  
  8.  On Nazi sentiment among Mennonites in Canada, see Frank Epp, “Kanadische Mennoniten, das Dritte Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg,” Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter 31 (1974): 91-102; Benjamin Redekop, “Germanism Among Mennonite Brethren Immigrants in Canada, 1930–1960: A Struggle for Ethno-Religious Integrity,” Canadian Ethnic Studies 24 (1992): 20-42 
  9.  Hildebrand, “Zeichen der Zeit!” 5-6. 
  10.  Argus, “O x O burg,” Die Mennonitische Rundschau, May 10, 1933, 12.  
  11.   Incertus [probably elder Jacob H. Janzen], “Zur Hildebrand-Utopie,” Die Mennonitische Rundschau, May 10, 1933, 11.  
  12.  Quotations from Urry, “A Mennostaat,” 65 
  13.  Incertus, “Zur Hildebrand-Utopie,” 11. 
  14.   J.J. Hildebrand, “Ueber Mennostaat,” Die Mennonitische Rundschau, May 10, 1933, 14. 
  15.  B.W., “Wanderungen,” Die Mennonitische Rundschau, April 4, 1934, 2 
  16.  B.B. Janz, “Woher und Wohin: Streiflichter auf die mennonitischen Vergangenheit, Gegenwart und Zukunft,” Die Mennonitische Rundschau, April 10, 1935, 3. 
  17.   J.B.W., “Mennonitisches Problem,” Die Mennonitische Rundschau, April 26, 1933, 4. 
  18.   B.W., “Wanderungen,” 2.  
  19.  Naturkunde, Erdkunde, Täufer und Mennonitengeschichte für die Volkschulen: 6. Schuljahr (Philadelphia, Paraguay; Druckerei “Menno-Blatt,” 1943), 17.  
  20.   Franz Hamm, “Schilderung des Volksdeutschen Franz Hamm über ein Jahr Gefängnisleben,” March 8, 1942, T-81/606/5396745-51, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. 
  21.   J.J. Hildebrand, “Zu meinen ‘Zeichen der Zeit,’” Die Mennonitische Rundschau, April 19, 1933, 12. 
  22.  Naturkunde für die mennonitischen Volksschulen, 5.-6. Schuljahr (Philadelphia, Paraguay: Druckerei “Menno-Blatt,” 1954), 32-33; Horst Penner, Horst Gerlach, and Horst Quiring, Weltweite Bruderschaft: Ein mennonitisches Geschichtsbuch, fifth edition (Kirchheimbolanden: GTS-Druck, 1995). 

Digital History: The German Mennonite Sources Database

By Ben Goossen

What does it mean to bring the “Anabaptist past into a digital century”? The subtitle of this blog includes a playful reference to the anti-modernist stance of many Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, and other so-called Plain Peoples—as well as an acknowledgement of the widely-held stereotype that Anabaptists do not use technology or engage the modern world. On one hand, the mission of Anabaptist Historians parallels that of any historical organization, namely to uncover, interpret, and make accessible the records of bygone eras for twenty-first century audiences. Yet for scholars of Anabaptism, this task holds unique challenges as well as opportunities.

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Documents in the German Mennonite Sources Database were collected during the research for Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton University Press, 2017)

“Digital History” is a practice that, over the past several years, has increasingly shaped the historical profession. In a narrow sense, Digital History refers to projects that primarily use digital tools to tell historical stories, such as animated maps, YouTube documentaries, or interactive wikis. Anabaptist-related efforts such as the extensive Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO) or the Bearing Witness website, designed to collect stories of persecuted Anabaptists from around the world, fit this definition. At an even broader level, nearly all history done today is “digital” in some way. It is hard to imagine writing an article or reviewing a book without opening Google, consulting an online repository like JSTOR, or downloading an open-access journal. Sending emails, maintaining websites, and using search engines are all part of Digital History.

Some Anabaptist groups are today among the only populations that write history without digital tools. In the summer of 2016, when the Anabaptist Historians Editorial Board was starting this blog, one tough question was how to include conservative Amish and other historians who do not use the internet. Is it possible to represent the full spectrum of Anabaptist pasts and identities in a digital format? Or does the very nature of a blog preclude the participation and accurate representation of some groups? We tried to create a website defined by simplicity – a value with cachet in Anabaptist households and Silicon Valley alike – yet reaching conservative populations remains difficult. When communicating with one historian in the Weaverland Conference, for example, I copy and paste web text into my messages or send screenshots as attachments, since he uses email but no internet browsers.

In other circumstances, Anabaptist history can feel tailor-made for digital approaches. With a relatively small population – around two million members are active worldwide – major digital projects are more feasible than they would be for larger demographics. Anabaptism, as a religious movement, is also blessed with substantial institutional resources, including church libraries, denominational archives, and nongovernmental organizations. Many have already undertaken Digital History initiatives. And joining these is a vast webscape of informal Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, chat room support groups, and genealogical sites. Previous posts on this blog have begun a fascinating dialogue about the places where Anabaptist history happens, including discussions of the value of borderland perspectives, centralized archives, and public history. How can we think about cyberspace as a location of and platform for historical work?

Over the past seven years, I have been working on a large-scale digitization project, the German Mennonite Sources Database. Released in October and hosted online by the Mennonite Library and Archives in North Newton, Kansas, this is the largest digital repository of books and newspapers by or about Mennonites in Germany as well as one of the most complete collections on this subject anywhere in the world. The database spans the years 1800 to 1950 and includes approximately 100,000 pages of text, including thousands of books, pamphlets, newsletters, and articles. Its purpose is to make historical resources available to anyone who reads German and is interested in religious history. Readers will find documents pertaining to virtually every aspect of German Mennonite life, ranging from sermons and catechisms to texts on nonresistance, the draft, and Nazism. Some topics are expected, such as hymn selections and condemnations of oath swearing. Others less so – like an 1859 rumination on vampires in the world’s first journal of folklore.

The German Mennonite Sources Database began as a personal resource, growing out of research conducted for my book, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, forthcoming in 2017 from Princeton University Press. As a history of Mennonites’ worldwide entanglement with German nationalism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Chosen Nation required familiarity with a wide spectrum of issues, from congregational and institutional life to historical, educational, and mission activities, involvement in war and political movements, peace declarations, gender, genocide, and anti-Semitism. In archives across Europe and the Americas, I found myself digitizing dozens or sometimes hundreds of documents a day. The essential tools of the Digital Historian include a computer, cell phone, digital camera, and a bevy of cords, adapters, and USB sticks. My archival desks unfailingly resembled a crow’s nest of snaking wires and metallic boxes.

A major advantage of Digital History is its ability to make scarce resources widely available. Documents that might exist only in one or two places in the world become accessible to anyone with a modem. This has a democratizing effect, since travel to distant libraries or archives usually requires deep pockets or university support, while digital files can be downloaded from the comfort of home. With Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software and online translation services (some of which now use artificial intelligence), texts in German or other languages can be rendered quickly and with stunning accuracy into English. Still another advantage is that different researchers bring diverse perspectives to the same sources. Documents in the German Mennonite Sources Database, for instance, might find wide interest beyond my initial purposes – hopefully providing a basis for articles, dissertations, scholarly debates, and family research.

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Warnings and Suggestions for Military Service, a handbook for Mennonite soldiers, is one of thousands of books, pamphlets, and articles now available via the German Mennonite Sources Database

Not all history is digital, of course, and not all Digital History is good. While open-access sites like the German Mennonite Sources Database are available to all, many research venues like Ancestry.com or HeinOnline lock material that would be provided for free in physical libraries behind digital paywalls. In this age of uneven globalization, the web remains only partially worldwide, with internet unavailable to the earth’s most disadvantaged populations – those lacking power in both senses of the word. As Anabaptists, we are also attuned to the spiritual politics of the internet. Is it possible to use digital tools in ways that are constructive rather than damaging, uniting rather than alienating? Such questions resonate with current public debates about internet bullying, cyberterrorism, and fake news. Some plain Anabaptists find a solution in eschewing digital resources altogether.

Our challenge then, as Anabaptist historians, is to consider not only how to engage Digital History, but also how to do so responsibly. Can we find ways of digitizing library holdings that also increase donations and visits to physical locations? Can we build integrated networks to share data and exchange ideas without losing sight of the distinctive needs and identities within the Anabaptist church family? Perhaps we could take cues from the wonderful work already undertaken by friends and colleagues – such as the open access website of Anabaptist Witness, the database of Anabaptist-related websites hosted by Mennonite Church USA, or the breathtaking Mennonite Archival Image Database. The tools offered by Digital History are like any new resource. They invite us to explore and affirm their limitations, while also finding fresh ways of working together.

You can access the German Mennonite Sources Database here.

Thanks to John Thiesen and the Mennonite Library and Archives for hosting the German Mennonite Sources Database, as well as to Rosalind Andreas, Kevin Enns-Rempel, Rachel Waltner Goossen, Royden Loewen, Titus Peachey, John Roth, Astrid von Schlachta, and Paul Toews for their support.

Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege

Editor’s Note: In keeping with the mission of Anabaptist Historians to foster lively debate on important topics, we have solicited responses to this post from several experts. Check in over the coming weeks to follow the discussion or contact us to submit your own contribution.

Ben Goossen

A tour of my parents’ house is also a journey into our family’s past. Tables, china hutches, and clocks carry stories of craftsmanship in Europe or of pioneer life in Nebraska, Kansas, or South Dakota. Here a bowl that crossed the Atlantic, there a Bible from Prussia. All are bound up with tales of our ancestors’ faith, of the Anabaptist values that—so the story goes—led them from country to country in search of peace, shelter, and good, hearty land.

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A “memory box” depicting the pioneer life of Mennonite immigrants from Russia.

Like other “ethnic” Mennonites across Europe and the Americas, I learned from a young age to associate my religion with genealogy. A “memory box,” perched in a place of honor in my parents’ library, shows how family stories and material objects can interweave the threads of faith and ancestry. Constructed by my great-grandmother, the box contains photographs of her own grandparents, Jacob and Suzanne Balzer, who emigrated from southern Russia to Minnesota; an invitation to the wedding of their daughter; dried straw flowers; silk worm cocoons and a silk spool; nineteenth-century German-language storybooks; heirloom seeds; and part of a shirt sewn in Russia. The box uses artifacts to build a cultural atmosphere around memories of Mennonite immigration to the United States. My forebears, the objects imply, were straight-laced and pious. They spoke German. They worked with their hands and found fulfillment in tending the soil.

Over the past century, white Mennonites have expressed uncommon interest in their ancestry. Children’s books, historical scholarship, and memoirs often follow family narratives or depict the supposedly upright and persevering character of the “Mennonite people.” I can only begin to enumerate the ways my own life has been shaped by ancestral knowledge: The largest book in my childhood room was a genealogy compiled by my grandmother. Whenever I meet “ethnic” Mennonites from Europe or the Americas, new acquaintances hear my last name and recognize me as one of their own. As a historian of Anabaptism, I frequent websites maintained by amateur genealogists, who have located an amazing number of rare documents; a printout of my own family tree from one Mennonite database revealed hundreds of direct forebearers over seventeen generations, the earliest dating to the sixteenth-century Reformation.

It is remarkable that although Anabaptist studies is a well-developed field, no scholar has yet written a history of Mennonite genealogical practices. Family researchers themselves often assume that genealogy has always been a normal and important part of Anabaptist life. Yet as historians of ancestry are beginning to demonstrate, genealogy as we understand it today is quite a recent concept, finding widespread acclaim only in the last hundred and fifty years. While some communities, Anabaptist and otherwise, had long recorded birth, death, and baptismal dates in family bibles or congregational record books—perhaps finding inspiration in the genealogies of Jesus as presented in the New Testament—it was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that such information became subject to rigorous study and publication.1 And far from an ideologically neutral undertaking, genealogy in the modern era emerged largely in the context of scientific racism and social exclusion. “From the 1860s to the mid-twentieth century,” writes François Weil in his recent book, Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America, “racial purity, nativism, and nationalism successfully dominated the quest for pedigree.”2

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Christian Mast (1885-1974), Amish Mennonite historian and genealogist.

To what degree can this charge be leveled at Mennonite genealogy? I have argued elsewhere that the blossoming of Mennonite family research in 1930s Germany intimately reflected Nazi-era concerns with blood purity and racial hygiene.3 Comparable practices in other countries developed under different, if interrelated, circumstances. My hope is that this essay will spur more sustained inquiry into the origins and nature of Mennonite family research, especially in North America. This is not the space to provide a full sketch of what such an undertaking might entail. But I can indicate some of the possibilities through a short case study: a look at the genealogist Christian Mast and his book, A Brief History of Bishop Jacob Mast and Other Mast Pioneers, printed in 1911 by the Mennonite Publishing House.

The son of an Amish Mennonite Bishop from Pennsylvania, Christian Mast wrote his Brief History while still in his mid-20s. It appeared at a time when genealogical interest was rising among Anabaptists as well as wider American society. “Never before have people been more inquisitive and diligent in investigating the study of their ancestry than at this time,” Mast explained in his introduction, noting that although only a minority of US citizens knew much about their heritage, “it is a matter of congratulation that some are turning attention to family genealogy.”4 The author himself gathered material from relatives scattered across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, and Indiana—and he corresponded with other Anabaptist genealogists researching the Funk, Oberholzer, Hostetler, and Wenger families. Upon completion, Mast sent a copy of his book to the United States’ oldest and largest repository of ancestral knowledge, the New England Historic Genealogical Society.5

Although his extensive papers await detailed analysis, it is clear that Mast was well-read in both American history and the scientific study of ancestry. His Brief History opens with a discussion of the alleged racial prowess of America’s white pioneers, supported by quotations from the likes of Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. In a section on heredity, the author dwelled extensively on the relationship between ancestry and virility, invoking the nineteenth-century phrenologist George Combe to advocate a far-reaching eugenic program. “As a nation’s greatness depends upon the character of her population,” Mast wrote, “it is the duty of every government to bestow at least as much attention upon the improvement of her human stock, as agricultural societies expend upon the improvement of the breeds of their horses and cattle.”6 Warning in particular against degeneration through endogamous marriage, he praised spousal selection as a means of preventing heredity diseases, bodily deformities, mental retardation, and even moral failings.

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This frontispiece to Christian Mast’s Brief History shows the homestead of the author’s ancestor, Jacob Mast, who migrated from Switzerland to Pennsylvania in 1750.

In its discussion of American nationhood, Mast’s Brief History identified a privileged role for Anabaptist bloodlines. “[O]ur Swiss and German ancestors,” the genealogist opined, “were the pure material of the Teutonic nation; being stern, sterling and frugal.” While Mast acknowledged that some of his relatives had become soldiers, fallen into evil ways, or otherwise lived “without God,” he maintained that most had led exemplary Christian lives of nonviolent witness. The writer especially contrasted Anabaptist qualities with those of Native Americans, whose “physical and mental power have… melted into weakness.” While the diligence, industriousness, and farming acumen of Amish and Mennonite settlers were said to exemplify the “bone and sinew of a nation,” inbreeding had supposedly left people of color with limited mental and physical abilities. When narrating Indian attacks against early Anabaptist immigrants, for instance, Mast emphasized the animal-like nature of these “savages,” in turn justifying his forebearers’ seizure of native lands.7

To what extent were Mast’s views typical of Mennonite genealogists at the beginning of the twentieth century? And in what ways do racist undertones continue to inform family research in Anabaptist communities today? A full answer to these questions awaits further study. It is nevertheless telling that although most Mennonites living across the world today are people of color, popular stereotypes continue to associate the denomination with white “ethnic” members of Germanic descent. Genealogy has remained an avenue for white Anabaptists to identify their families’ longstanding adherence to the faith, and in many cases, to trace their ancestry to the religion’s origins in Reformation-era Europe—a possibility unavailable to most members of color. Moreover, the recent advent of DNA testing and genetic research among “ethnic” populations are once again privileging the notion that Anabaptism is as much an inheritable trait as a religious conviction.8

Mennonite family research is intimately connected to issues of racial privilege. Whether in the seemingly innocuous memorial culture of my parents’ home or in the overtly racist language of historic figures like Christian Mast, it is time to take seriously its ideological power. It is time to ask how genealogists, along with the rest of us, can respond to inequalities within the church and beyond.

Thanks to Rachel Waltner Goossen and Joel H. Nofziger for their assistance with this essay.


SEE ALSO:



  1. Early examples of Mennonite genealogical publications include Jacob N. Brubacher, The Brubacher Genealogy in America (Elkhart, IN: Mennonite Publishing Co., 1884); John H. Hess, A Genealogy of the Hess Family from the First Emigrant to this Country Down to the Present Time as Far as Could Be Ascertained (Lititz, PA: Express Print, 1896); Franklin Keagy, A History of the Kägy Relationship in America from 1715 to 1900 (Harrisburg, PA: Harrisburg Publishing Company, 1899); Theodore W. Herr, Genealogical Record of Reverend Hans Herr and his Direct Lineal Descendants from his Birth A. D. 1639 to the Present Time Containing the Names, etc., of 13223 Persons (Lancaster, PA: The Examiner Printing House, 1908). 
  2.  François Weil, Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 6.  
  3.  Benjamin W. Goossen, “From Aryanism to Anabaptism: Nazi Race Science and the Language of Mennonite Ethnicity,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90 (April 2016): 135-163. 
  4.  C. Z. Mast, A Brief History of Bishop Jacob Mast and Other Mast Pioneers and a Complete Family Register and Those Related by Inter-Marriage (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House Press, 1911), 12. See also the co-authored volume, C. Z. Mast and Robert E. Simpson, Annals of the Conestoga Valley in Lancaster, Berks, and Chester Counties, Pennsylvania (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1942), which contains extensive genealogical information on Anabaptist families. 
  5.  The New England Historic Genealogical Society thanked Mast in Wm. P. Greenlaws to C. Z. Mast, March 21, 1912, Mast, Christian Z., Papers, box 2: Correspondence C. Z. M. (Annals-N.C.), folder 4: Mast Genealogy, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society. Mast’s name also appeared in “List of Donors to the Library,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register (Supplement to April Number, 1913): xxxi. 
  6.  Mast, A Brief History, 749. On pages 748 and 749, he quoted a passage on physical and mental degeneracy from George Combe, Moral Philosophy; Or, The Duties of Man Considered in His Individual, Domestic, and Social Capacities (New York: Fowler and Wells, 1863), 85. Scholars have noted the centrality of such arguments, as well as of genealogical practices generally, to the rise of eugenics programs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. See Alison Bashford and Philippa Levine, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 9-10. 
  7. Quotations from Mast, A Brief History, 12-13, 18, 748. 
  8.  On genetic testing among “ethnic” Mennonite populations, see for example Cheryl Rockman-Greenberg and Marlis Schroeder, “Mennonites, Hypophosphatasia and Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Disease: The Story of Two Genetic Disorders,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 34 (2016): 89-104. Recent scholarship on the genetic reinscriptionof race includes Nadia Abu El-Haj, The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), and Alondra Nelson, The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016).