Mennonite Heritage Sunday Then and Now

Jason B. Kauffman

This week the Mennonite Church USA Archives released a new collection of worship resources for Mennonite Heritage Sunday which falls this year on October 28. The resources were created by members of the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery coalition and were released on Monday, October 8, to coincide with Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the United States.

The idea of marking a Mennonite Heritage Sunday dates back to the 1970s when Leonard Gross was director of the (old) Mennonite Church Historical Committee. He successfully advocated for the importance of setting aside one Sunday each year to reflect upon our shared history as Mennonites. Mennonite Heritage Sunday has been on the official church calendar since 1980 and falls on the last Sunday of October each year. The date was initially chosen to coincide with Reformation Day, which the broader Protestant church celebrates on October 31 each year to remember the day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Church.

Original Five

The original six persons who met in Hesston, KS, in March 1987 to organize United Native Ministries. L-R Clara Major (Ojibway), Henry Smiley (Navajo), Cindy Bell (Choctaw), Ray Horst, Geraldine Isaac (Choctaw), and Larry Haskie (Navajo). (Photo courtesy MC USA Archives)

The Mennonite Church Historical Committee initiated Heritage Sunday to “remind us that our roots are in the very first church to emerge out of the Reformation.” The committee regarded Heritage Sunday as a day to “look to [our] Anabaptist heroes of faith,” to consider their stories of faithfulness, and to be “reminded of our own living faith.” 1 During the early years the historical committee produced a packet of worship materials with suggestions for congregations on how to prepare for Heritage Sunday, which included hymns, Biblical texts, suggested themes, and story illustrations. More recently, these resources have been posted online on the Mennonite Church USA website. Due to staff transition at the archives, MC USA has not developed worship resources for the broader church since 2014.

While many previous worship materials used the sixteenth century Anabaptist movement as a primary reference point and struck a more celebratory tone, in recent years those who developed the resources have begun to feature other, more recent parts of the Mennonite past. For example, the 2013 and 2014 worship materials focused on the contributions that women and youth have offered to the broader Mennonite Church, often in spite of resistance on the part of institutional leaders. They highlight the roles that conflict, change, and adaptation to change have played in our collective history as Mennonites.

This year’s worship resources take things one step further. They invite us to confess and lament the ways in which Mennonites in North America have benefited from the Doctrine of Discovery at the expense of indigenous people. While Mennonites did not directly seize land from indigenous people, they did gain access to land after their removal, thus benefiting at their expense. Mennonite-run boarding schools provided education for indigenous people but also contributed to culture loss and assimilation. While it is true that Mennonites of European descent did not directly seek to oppress indigenous people in North America, Mennonites as a group have historically enjoyed privileges (legal and otherwise) that indigenous people have not. The history of Mennonite relationships with indigenous people is complex and these worship resources invite Mennonite congregations to engage in meaningful reflection on what it means to confess and lament our role in this history.

Native Amer banner1

Poster created for a conference on the history of Mennonite/Native American relationships in Clinton, Oklahoma, March 30-April 2, 2006. (Photo courtesy MC USA Archives)

The historical relationship between Mennonites and indigenous people would also benefit from further research. I know of no baseline, comprehensive study that chronicles the history of Mennonite interactions (missionary and otherwise) with indigenous communities in North America.2 There have, however, been conferences related to this theme. For example, in 2006 there was a major conference in Clinton, Oklahoma, which gathered close to 300 people “to explore the legacy of Indian/Mennonite relationships since 1880.”3 Titled, “Cheyenne, Arapaho, Mennonite: Journey from Darlington,” the conference was sponsored by the Historical Committee of Mennonite Church USA and resulted in two special issues of Mennonite Life featuring essays from conference presenters.

Many of those who presented at the conference have continued to produce scholarship examining the relationship between Native Americans and Mennonites, including (but not limited to) Raylene Hinz-Penner, Kimberly D. Schmidt, and Marvin E. Kroeker. David Horst Lehman, a PhD student at the University of Illinois, is doing fascinating work on the agro-environmental dimensions of settler (including Mennonite) conflicts with Potawatomi communities in northern Indiana. A 2019 conference on “Mennonites and Anthropology” at the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg will offer another venue for scholars to present new work on the topic of Mennonite/indigenous relationships.

There is also new research waiting to be completed, drawing from untapped sources from the Mennonite Church USA Archives in Elkhart, the Mennonite Library and Archives at Bethel College, and likely other archives and libraries in the United States and Canada. John Thiesen, from the MLA, has started to provide digital access to many of these sources through a page on the Bethel College library website. The page includes hundreds of digitized documents from both personal manuscripts and organizational records – dating to the late nineteenth century – as well as a useful bibliography of published secondary sources on Native American/Mennonite relationships.

At the MC USA Archives the documentary record is much sparser, in part due to the more recent history of mission work with indigenous communities. Mennonite mission work with the Creek in Alabama began in 1951, work with the Navajo began in 1954, and work with Choctaw of central Mississippi began in 1958. Although there are few, if any, personal manuscript collections at the archives, the organizational records of Mennonite Board of Missions do contain correspondence and reports to document the broad contours of these histories. There are also several oral history interviews with indigenous Mennonite women in the Mennonite Women of Color Oral History collection. For more recent years, the archives houses the records of United Native Ministries, an old Mennonite organization created in the 1980s to provide social and spiritual support to Native American Mennonites.

Before arriving at the archives, I had little knowledge of the long history of Mennonite relationships with indigenous people in the United States and Canada. It is a complicated history and it looks much different to Mennonite eyes in 2018 than it likely did in 1918 or 1968. These stories, too, are part of our Anabaptist heritage, so I hope that Mennonite congregations will use the new resources during worship on October 28 (or sometime thereafter). For those of us with little prior knowledge about this history, understanding the Doctrine of Discovery and its impact on the indigenous people of North America is a good place to start. Hopefully the resources will serve as a starting point for further learning, storytelling, scholarship, and understanding.



  1. John E. Sharp, “Mennonite Heritage Sunday Rationale,” 16 February 2005. Mennonite Church Historical Committee (electronic records), I-3-3. Mennonite Church USA Archives. Elkhart, Indiana. 
  2. I’m thinking along the same line as early books by Le Roy Bechler, The Black Mennonite Church in North America, 1886-1986 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1986) and Rafael Falcón, translated by Ronald Collins, The Hispanic Mennonite Church in North America, 1932-1982 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1986). The Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online includes an article for “Indians, North America,” which provides basic information about the various indigenous peoples that Mennonites have interacted with over time. 
  3. “Editor’s Note,” Mennonite Life 61:2 (June 2006). 

An Accusation, an Apology, and a Dismissal: Mennonite Patriarchal Authority in the Archives

Jason B. Kauffman

Nelson and Christmas Carol Kauffman

Nelson E. and Christmas Carol Kauffman (Mennonite Church USA Archives)

In March 1960, Nelson Kauffman (1904-1981) received a letter from a young woman he met twelve years earlier during a revival meeting in Harrisonburg, Virginia. A well-known figure in the old Mennonite Church, at the time of their meeting Kauffman was a missionary pastor and bishop in Hannibal, Missouri. By 1960, he had relocated to Elkhart, Indiana, where he served as the Mennonite Board of Missions Secretary for Home Missions (1955-1970) and President of the Mennonite Board of Education (1950-1970). Kauffman thus occupied a position of considerable power and authority within the institutional Mennonite Church.

The woman who wrote the letter (unnamed to protect her privacy) did not occupy a position of power or authority in the Mennonite Church, a disparity of which she was acutely aware. The subject of the letter was a private meeting she attended with her mother, Kauffman, and a group of local Mennonite ministers. At the meeting, Kauffman took the young girl to task for writing false letters, “pretending they were from a minister that was interested in [her].” Rather than attempt to summarize this detailed letter, I include the full text below.1 Its contents and Kauffman’s response provide a window into the dynamics of patriarchal authority in the Mennonite Church at mid-twentieth century and parallels the many ways in which patriarchy continues to impact the Mennonite church today.

March 18, 1960

Dear Sir:

I am writing a L.O.N.G overdue letter to you, Mr. Kauffman.

You may or may not remember the “Revival?” Meeting [sic] you held at Weaver [sic] Mennonite Church near Harrisonburg, Va., some years ago. I think perhaps it may have been around 1948-1949 in Nov [sic]. If you have forgotten it I have far from forgotten. I am the “little girl” that caused so much trouble. The one that wrote those letters to Mrs. [redacted] pretending they were from a minister that was interested in me.

The purpose of this letter is not to justify my act of deceit. I feel that my side of the case was not heard at that meeting in that living room at my mother’s home that cold, winter day. You may never have experienced the feeling I did that day so many years ago – but it is an awful one. I had the feeling that I was the dirtiest thing walking or crawling. I was alone – not one person in that room was really interested in me! They were more interested in the “crime” I had committed. No one concerned themselves with why I did such a thing. I was a teenager at the time. I was so confused. There was no love in my home, and oh how I craved love. Is it a sin to desire your mother to kiss you or put her arm around you? To talk things over with you?

I don’t know when it was that this whole affair started. I think, perhaps, it was when I went along with my parents to visit the [redacted] one Sunday. I saw how she treated her daughters and I wanted it to be that way in our home. I did all sorts of things for attention at home. I got “attention” alright, but not the kind I had hoped for. I ran away from home several times. I wanted mom to miss me and to be glad when I was found – but it didn’t seem to work out like I had hoped it would. After all efforts at home failed I started looking elsewhere. I don’t really know when or how I figured up such a fantastic scheme as the letters but the answers to them certainly did thrill me.

It helped more than anyone that has not experienced love of any sort for so many years can ever know, what it means to suddenly see in black and white that someone is worried about you. It seemed that I had at last become someone! I was important to someone! That, in a very small part, is what I feel brought the letters about.

Now we come to the second act. The place where you appear on the “stage.” You sat there in my mother’s living room and told me how awful I was. You said: “You imagined that men wanted to put their arms around you. You dreamed of having affairs with older men.” You made me feel pretty dirty. Let me repeat again: What I did as far as the letters and the lies are concerned was very, very wrong. I’ll not waste ink and paper in defending a sin, but Mr. Kauffman, my feelings as far as wanting to be loved by men or women, especially men at the age of sixteen is the most natural feeling or desire on the top-side of God’s green earth! (If Mennonites are humans they feel the same way!)

Those words of yours that day burned their way so deeply into my very being that I can still hear them tonight. When I went out on dates after you spoke those words, it seemed I was cheap and dirty. I won’t begin to tell you the misery it has caused me. I stepped on this natural desire ever since that day you called it sin until it began to affect my very womanly nature. My desire turned from men to desire women in the way I should desire men.

I kept fighting it. I kept telling myself it was not wrong to desire the attention of a man. For the past few years I’ve lived in a hell of some sort as far as my emotions are concerned. Thanks to the help of a real friend, I’m on my way back to the natural ways, however I think it’s only fair that I should have my say. Yes, I’ll freely admit I sinned in lying, etc. But your wife also lied in those books she wrote that raised such a stir in Mennonite circles a few years ago. I suppose that was quite alright, seeing that she is your wife.2

I’ve suffered much at the hands of Mennonites. I have long since severed any connections with them. They have caused much damage to my emotional life as a well-known doctor here in [redacted] can testify. In fact your wife could have quite a lot of material for one of her famous books from the experiences in my life brought about as a direct result of yours and other Mennonite ministers’ blunders. If my name was Heatwole or Shenk or Showalter or some other Mennonite name I would have been treated differently but I was only a nobody by the name of [redacted].

It is pointless for me to continue this letter as you have stopped reading it long ago. I’ve never met a Mennonite yet that could take a fact and look it in the eye as far as they were concerned.

Of all those ministers in the room that day that had set themselves up to be judge and jury over the natural desires of a 16 year old girl, Reverend [redacted] is the only one that had enough of the grace of God in his heart to step out and shake the hand of a “fallen woman” like myself. I’ll always remember him for that. I’ll bet it took a lot of GUTS.
Yours truly,

[Redacted]

P.S. I have long ago forgiven my mother for her failures as I am sure she did not mean it or realize what was happening to me. I love her.

Kauffman sent a response to the letter on April 1, 1960. In it he asked for the young woman’s forgiveness and apologized for his “failures at that time.” He thanked the woman for explaining her home situation further and acknowledged that his response in the moment was inappropriate:

I am sure that if I was to counsel someone like that again I would do differently than I did at that time. I feel that persons with problems like you had need professional help and often we ministers endeavor to help persons as best we can without professional knowledge of the kind that is available today through doctors, and so we often do less than the best.

I want to confess that often we Mennonite ministers are not as aware of the problems people face as we should be, because cases such as yours do not come to us frequently enough, and so we do not learn fast enough from experience. . . .

. . . I hope you will believe me when I say that I am very sorry for my failures to be understanding at that time, and to be of help to you. I hope you will believe me when I say I sincerely wanted to help, but can see now that undoubtedly I was not using the best method in trying to help you see your own problem.

He went on to address the woman’s accusation of Mennonite superiority and ended by expressing his hope that the young woman could find a “Christian fellowship” to provide support in her ongoing faith journey.3

Several weeks later, Kauffman received a short letter from a Virginia Mennonite minister whom he had copied on his correspondence with the young woman. In contrast to Kauffman’s admission of his mistake and his request for forgiveness, the minister dismissed the young woman’s letter as irrational and questioned her mental state, writing “I am sorry for the attitude she takes but one must just overlook that because she is mentally sick.” He ended the letter by again downplaying the seriousness of the young woman’s accusations:

Don’t take her charges too seriously. I felt at the time that you did a good job in dealing with her the way you did. It may be there would have been a better way, but we all did the best we knew. Let us continue to pray for [redacted] that she may come to herself and come to a real knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.4

Clearly, there is much going on in this brief exchange of correspondence between a young Mennonite woman and two male Mennonite leaders. The young woman’s letter names the power that Mennonite ministers held to shape personal understandings of right and wrong, sin, and sexuality. Rather than offer care and concern for the young woman as a person, Kauffman used the tool of guilt to shame her for her alleged sins. The letter also draws attention to the insider-outsider dynamics that privileged members with “Mennonite names” over others.

To his credit, Kauffman offers what appears to be a sincere apology for his role in the meeting, but his letter does not provide a satisfying rationale for the practice of male Mennonite ministers acting as “judge and jury over the natural desires of a 16 year old girl.” The Virginia Mennonite minister’s dismissal of the young woman’s accusation likely mirrored those of many of his male contemporaries across the church (“…we all did the best we knew”). Institutionalized patriarchy was so normalized in their minds that neither questioned the established pattern of male leaders admonishing sinful congregants in their homes.

The letters also highlight how leaders commonly dealt with issues when they arose in the life of the church. Much of the discussions and decision-making happened between male leaders behind closed doors. In such matters there was little transparency between ministers and their congregations or the broader community. A report this week from a Pennsylvania grand jury detailing decades of systematic abuse and cover up in the Catholic Church highlights the very real dangers of not having systems in place within church institutions to hold leaders accountable for their actions. While it may not rise to the same systematic level as it has in the Catholic Church, the Mennonite community continues to grapple with its own histories of sexual abuse and cover up.

While these three letters do not deal with accusations of sexual abuse, they do offer a fascinating window into the dynamics (and material for a gendered analysis) of patriarchal authority in the Mennonite Church. At the same time, however, they do not provide a complete picture of historical events as they occurred and as those involved perceived them. A more complete picture – extending beyond this specific event – would require sustained research in archival and published sources produced by Mennonite men and women as they created and acted within Mennonite institutional structures over time.

It is obvious that patriarchal authority existed and continues to exist in the North American Mennonite community. The task of the historian is to historicize patriarchy, piecing together the specific ways in which it manifested in the life of the church and how and why it changed over time. Otherwise we risk reifying patriarchy as an ahistorical power structure that has operated in the same ways across time and space. Such historical work could complement the work that individuals, congregations, and organizations are already doing to raise awareness about the sobering toll that patriarchal authority, intersectional oppression, spiritual abuse, and sexual violence have had on the personal and sexual identities of individuals connected to the Mennonite church.


  1. Letter from [redacted] to Nelson Kauffman, 3-18-1960, Box 3, Folder 73. Nelson E. Kauffman Papers, 1911-1981. HM1-324. Mennonite Church USA Archives. Elkhart, Indiana. Conditions of access to this folder require that researchers agree not to publish personally identifiable information. Aside from Nelson Kauffman and his wife Christmas Carol Kauffman, I have removed the names of all people identified in the original letter. 
  2. This is a reference to Nelson Kauffman’s wife, Christmas Carol Kauffman, who published several semi-biographical novels on Mennonite themes between the 1940s and the 1960s. 
  3. Letter from Nelson Kauffman to [redacted], 4-1-1960, Box 3, Folder 73. Kauffman Papers, HM1-324. On Mennonite superiority, Kauffman wrote “As far as feeling ourselves above you, we have plenty of failures in our own church that no one of us should feel that we are better than any other persons we meet.” 
  4. Letter from [redacted] to Nelson Kauffman, 4-18-1960, Box 3, Folder 73. Kauffman Papers, HM1-324. 

The Young People’s Conference Movement and the Church of the Future

Jason B. Kauffman

Note: The following is an abridged version of a sermon I gave on Sunday morning, April 15, at Oak Grove Mennonite Church (Smithville, OH) during the congregation’s “Historical Reflections Weekend.” It was the first of three events planned for 2018 to celebrate Oak Grove’s bicentennial.

What does it mean to be the church together in a time of uncertainty and crisis?

Crisis is the stuff of history but, as a community of believers, conflict and confrontation often make us uncomfortable. We want to preserve harmony and unity at all costs so we don’t adequately address disagreements when they arise. It’s often easier if we just don’t talk about it.

But if the history of Christianity is any indication, conflict is unavoidable in the life of the church. In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul wrote to the early church in Corinth during a time of significant uncertainty. Factions and competing allegiances were developing and Paul wrote to remind them to put their trust in God instead of themselves.

This morning, I want to share another story of crisis that involved many people from the Oak Grove community. This is the story of the Young People’s Conference movement and its emergence during a watershed moment in the history of the (old) Mennonite Church in North America.[1] I’ll end by drawing some parallels between that story and the crisis that our denomination is facing today.

In the years following World War I, the institutional Mennonite Church was barely twenty years old and its growing pains were readily apparent.[2] The new denomination was in crisis over a polarizing conflict between traditional elements of the church and a new generation of reform-minded leaders.

One well-known example comes from Goshen College. Critics felt that the college was overly influenced by the modernist wave that had overtaken many other Protestant denominations. In 1905, the Mennonite Board of Education took oversight of the college to exercise closer control over its operations.[3] In 1923, ongoing financial troubles forced Goshen College to close for the academic year. Around the same time, Mennonite conference leaders in Indiana, Ohio, and Ontario revoked the credentials of multiple pastors deemed “at variance” with the church’s teachings on things like dress and the purchase of life insurance. In response, hundreds of people left their churches and joined other congregations from the General Conference Mennonite Church. Others left the Mennonite church altogether.

It was within this context that the Young People’s Conference movement was born. Its leaders included many from Oak Grove, including Jacob Conrad Meyer, Vernon Smucker, and Orie Benjamin Gerig. They were part of a new generation of Mennonite men and women who came of age during these first few decades of conflict in the church. Many graduated from Mennonite colleges and embraced new initiatives in home evangelism and overseas missions.

1917 J C Meyer

Portrait of Jacob Conrad Meyer taken in 1917, shortly before he left for France. MC USA Archives

More importantly, they came of age during World War I, the deadliest war in history to that point. During the war, hundreds of Mennonite men lived in work camps as conscientious objectors. Many felt abandoned by denominational leaders who they believed had not equipped young people to face the challenges of being a CO during wartime. They also came away with a renewed conviction that the church should adopt a more outward focus, one centered on service, peace, and engagement with the rest of the world.

After the war, several dozen young Mennonites acted on this conviction by volunteering to assist the reconstruction efforts in France. Here they gained firsthand exposure to the destruction of war. They also met regularly to discuss their concerns about the Mennonite Church. One of the key organizers for these meetings was Jacob Conrad Meyer. He and others became increasingly critical of what they saw as weak leadership and lack of support for the concerns of younger members.

01 WWI COs with American Friends Service Comm France

Attendees at the first Young People’s Conference in Clermont-en-Argonne, France, June 20-22, 1919. MC USA Archives

Eventually, these relief workers organized the first Young People’s Conference at Clermont-en-Argonne in June 1919. At the end of the conference, they produced a list of priorities for the “church of the future.”[4] They also drafted a constitution and elected an executive committee to provide leadership for the emerging movement. Of the six committee members, three were from Oak Grove: Vernon Smucker, J.C. Meyer, and O.B. Gerig.

04 Report Mennonites in France page 1.jpg

However, the YPC movement was short-lived. After returning to the United States, leaders planned and organized three annual meetings between 1920 and 1923. But the movement faced steady opposition from denominational leaders who accused its leaders of unorthodox theology. Ultimately, the YPC movement couldn’t convince church leaders that it sought to work with rather than against them. By 1924, the movement was over.

How should we interpret the failure of this movement?

In 1 Corinthians 3:11-13, Paul writes: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.”

For those involved in the YPC movement, its failure after just a few years must have been a big disappointment. Here were young, intelligent leaders ready to offer their gifts to the work of the church, only to see their ideas met with suspicion and rejection. Indeed, O.B. Gerig was so disillusioned that he left the Mennonite church entirely. In a letter to J.C. Meyer in 1921, Gerig wrote, “I have come to the point where I can no longer view all problems only in the light of our own little branch of the church. We have a larger project in view. In the end, our plan will live after all their intrigue has passed on the blemished page of history.”[5]

As we now know, Gerig’s words turned out to be prophetic. One hundred years later, most of the reforms that the YPC movement advocated have been implemented.[6] Indeed, many have become central to the identities of multiple generations of Mennonites who grew up during the twentieth century. For example:

  • The YPC wanted the church to take a proactive stance with the U.S. government on issues of peace and conscientious objection to war. In the 1930s, the denomination worked with leaders from other historic peace churches and the government to create the Civilian Public Service program. During WWII thousands of Mennonites served with CPS as an alternative to military service and active peacebuilding remains a key focus for Mennonites today.
  • The YPC called for a stronger emphasis on service and relief to those in need. Over the course of the twentieth century Mennonite Central Committee has emerged as one of the most highly respected inter-Mennonite institutions in North America and abroad.
  • The YPC called for more dialogue between Mennonites of different national and cultural traditions. Today, Mennonite Mission Network continues its good work and Mennonite World Conference brings together people of Anabaptist faith from across the globe.

It took the fresh eyes of new leaders to articulate a new vision for the Mennonite Church in a complex and changing world. Through these young people, God planted a seed. Over the last 100 years, you at Oak Grove have watered that seed, dedicating your lives to the work of Christ in both large and small ways. Back in 1918, and even more so in 1818, the future of the Mennonite Church was anything but clear, but God has been faithful and God—not us—caused the seed to grow.

Today we are entering a new phase of uncertainty in the history of the Mennonite community in North America. Like the church 100 years ago, our newly merged denomination—Mennonite Church USA—is less than 20 years old and the growing pains are readily apparent. Our Mennonite colleges and universities are struggling financially. Our missions, service, and publishing agencies have drastically reduced operations in the last few decades. And our denomination is experiencing a rapid decline in membership, including the departure of entire conferences. As in 1918, the current crisis grows from a conflict based largely upon differing views regarding the kind of church Christ is calling us to be.

Last summer, MC USA organized the Future Church Summit at the bi-annual convention in Orlando. The goal of the summit was to gather voices from across the denomination to identify core convictions and chart a new course for the church. One tension that I observed throughout the FCS was between denominational leadersusually heritage Mennonites, usually middle agedand younger participants, many of whom did not grow up in the Mennonite church.

I heard resentment from younger leaders about the unwillingness of the “old guard” to let go of control. And I heard older participants lament the exodus of young people from the church and their “indifference” and lack of commitment to MC USA and its ministries. But I was also impressed by the many articulate and passionate young leaders who are committed to working for positive change from within the denomination. Their words echoed many of those voiced 100 years ago at Young People’s Conferences. They were filled with the same optimism, energy, and hope.

It is a fact that church attendance among Mennonites and many other denominations is declining. Many young people no longer see the church and its institutions as relevant parts of their lives. Yet, as I look out over the pews, I am struck by the number of young people and children here at Oak Grove. So, in closing, I want to speak to you and leave you with a few questions.

Why have you chosen to stay connected to the church? What about Oak Grove made you want to invest your lives in this community? Now, more broadly, what is important to you about being Mennonite? What is your hope for the future of the church…here in Wayne County, in North America, and around the world? Do we still need institutions like MC USA, MMN, or MCC to help us do the work of God in the world? I would argue yes. These institutions connect what is now a truly global church and allow us to accomplish much more of Christ’s work than we could on our own.

But these are tough questions, ones that I continue to struggle with as a 35-year-old Mennonite by choice. As you seek answers, I challenge you to take inspiration from Oak Grove’s history and consider the “cloud of witnesses” that has gone before you. For 200 years, the community of believers gathered at Oak Grove has found a way to remain in fellowship, even in the midst of crisis. In 100 years, how will your grandchildren and their children look back on you? What will you do to help continue this work? We aren’t perfect and we will make mistakes but I pray that we will “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

OakGrove200


[1] Originally an Amish Mennonite community, Oak Grove was part of the Eastern Amish Mennonite Conference from 1893 until 1927 when the conference merged with the Ohio Mennonite Conference to form the Ohio Mennonite and Eastern Amish Mennonite Joint Conference (later the Ohio and Eastern Mennonite Conference), affiliated with the “old” Mennonite Church. From 1947 to 1970, Oak Grove held no conference affiliation. In 1970 the congregation became a dual affiliate of the Ohio and Eastern Mennonite Conference and the Central District Conference of the General Conference Mennonite Church. The Young People’s Conference movement engaged leaders mostly from the “old” Mennonite Church.

[2] Before the establishment of the General Conference Mennonite Church in 1860 and the (old) Mennonite Church in 1898, Mennonite communities in North America functioned mostly as a loose association of local districts and conferences without any centralized institutions.

[3] Most of the context and background for this section comes from a well-researched essay by Anna Showalter, “The Mennonite Young People’s Conference Movement, 1919-1923: The Legacy of a (Failed?) Vision,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 85:2 (April 2011), p. 181-217.

[4] The full list is printed in Showalter, “Mennonite Young People’s Conference Movement,” 196.

[5] Ibid., p. 182.

[6] Anna Showalter and James O. Lehman make this same point in their analyses of the YPC. See Showalter, 212-217, and James O. Lehman, Creative Congregationalism: A History of Oak Grove Mennonite Church in Wayne County, Ohio (Smithville, OH: Oak Grove Mennonite Church, 1978), 211-212.

Mennonites and the Holocaust: Panels on The Netherlands and German Mennonite Responses

Session Four: The Netherlands20180317_095008.jpg

“Dutch Mennonite Theologians and Nazism”
Pieter Post, United Mennonite Church of Heerenveen and Tjalleberd

  • Post contrasted the thought and practice of Cornelis Bonnes Hylkema (author of Werkelijkheids-theologie [The Theology of Reality] (1932), among other works) and Fritz Kuiper (author of De Gemeente in de Wereld [The Church in the World] (1941) among others). Hylkema was a retired minister from Haarlem who regarded himself as an idealist and historian.  Kuiper was a minister in Alkmaar, a member of the Social Democratic Workers Party, and founder of the “Committee for Socialism and the Church.” Post analyzed how each understood the relationship between church and state, Anabaptism, nonresistance, and the faith community.
  • Hylkema emphasized love of God as an example for the National Socialist party and believed that Christians should submit to the state as part of God’s creation order.  Hylkema agreed with the Anabaptist tenet that violence was not in the spirit of Christ but was not himself a pacifist. Instead he argued that “a Christian people is armed and able bodied” who would fight in the name of God. He also understood the church to be a universalist faith community that offered a common grace and a “place of refuge for the spirit in a turbulent reality.”
  • Kuiper believed in the strict separation of church and state, where the church serves to remind the world of God’s commandments. As a social democrat, Kuiper emphasized the freedom of Christians to choose whichever party expressed biblical justice and believed that the faith community must be prepared to suffer in order to preserve its independence.  After the execution of two of his friends, however, he confessed to a friend that he “no longer had the courage to believe in peace work.” He viewed the faith community as a service of reconciliation.

“Dutch Mennonites and the Yad Vashem Recognition”
Alle Hoekema, professor emeritus, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam

  • Hoekema used testimonies collected by the Yad Vashem and other sources from Dutch Mennonite communities to narrate the stories of individuals who aided Jewish neighbors and friends during the Holocaust.
  • He emphasized the importance of community networks and argued that most people were motivated to help, not because of their religious faith or Mennonite identity, but a more general sense of common humanity.
  • He concluded by highlighting several patterns that emerged from his analysis of Dutch Mennonites who were recognized. Most were upper-middle class, many were involved in resistance movements, few later spoke about their experiences, and most saw their actions as normal rather than extraordinary.

“From War Criminal in the Netherlands to Mennonite Abroad and Back to Prison in the Netherlands”
David Barnouw, researcher emeritus, Dutch Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies

  • Barnouw narrated the story of Jacob Luitjens, a Dutch collaborator with the Nazi regime during World War II. After the war, Luitjens managed to flee to Paraguay, claiming Mennonite identity and adopting the pseudonym Gerhard Harder. He later moved to Canada but was eventually arrested and extradited to the Netherlands where he was tried and convicted of war crimes.
  • Barnouw highlighted how Luitjens made strategic use of his Mennonite identity and connections in the Mennonite community to avoid prosecution for his wartime collaboration. In court proceedings, he said “I told my God and He forgave me.”
  • Luitjens spent time in jail but was release before serving his full sentence. Stripped of his Canadian citizenship and denied the rights of Dutch citizenship, Luitjens exists as a person without a state. Barnouw is unable to confirm whether Luitjens is still living.

Session Five: German Mennonite Responses in Theology and Memory20180317_103617.jpg

“German Mennonite Theology in the Era of National Socialism”
Arnold Neufeldt-Fast, Tyndale Seminary

  • Neufeldt-Fast’s paper used the writings of German Mennonite church leaders to analyze the underlying logic that led most of them – from across the theological and ideological spectrum – to accept and promote National Socialist ideology.
  • Drawing upon Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of the “gardening state,” Neufeldt-Fast argued that most leaders came to embrace National Socialism’s “order-making, instrumental rationale” of a modern German society in which some plants should be protected and cared for while others should be segregated, contained, removed, or destroyed.
  • While earlier writings of theologians were not explicitly anti-Semitic, they did not condemn Nazi racial doctrine as heresy. By the late 1930s, however, many actively drew upon contemporary understandings of race and blood purity to argue for the expulsion of Jewish people from Germany.
  • Neufeldt-Fast ended his discussion with a call for a critical evaluation of Mennonite theology and the need to develop a post-Holocaust theology.

“Judaism as Argument: German Mennonites between Anti-Semitism and the Old Testament God”
Astrid von Schlachta, Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein (paper delivered by John Thiesen in her absence)

  • In her paper, Astrid von Schlachta used sermons and other publications to explore the range of theological convictions among German Mennonites on the role and use of the Old Testament in the church during the 1930s.
  • Von Schlachta argued that there was not a unified opinion among Mennonites on the matter and that the influence of National Socialist ideology on Mennonite interpretations of Judaism in the Old Testament depended upon the context.
  • While some interpretations were clearly anti-Semitic, other authors pushed back against a racialized view of the Old Testament and argued for its continued relevance for Mennonites and other Christians.

“Selective Memory: Danziger Mennonite Reflections on the Nazi Era, 1945-1950”
Steve Schroeder, University of the Fraser Valley

  • Steve Schroeder drew from oral histories and memoirs to examine how Mennonites from Danzig remembered and explained their experiences during and after World War II. While other Christians in Germany were forced to account for their actions under allied occupation, Danziger Mennonites emigrated and were able to avoid critical reflection on their actions.
  • Schroeder used the framework of cycles of grief and loss – denial, bargaining, and acceptance – to categorize Mennonite memories of the Nazi era. Although many supported the Nazi regime and identified as ethnic Germans during the war, afterwards many made strategic use of their religious identity as Mennonites, distancing themselves from the German nation in an effort to seek asylum abroad.
  • Schroeder ended with a call to continue a critical examination of the role that Mennonites have played, not only in the Holocaust, but also colonial and other systems in which they continue to participate and from which they continue to benefit.

The Mennonite Encyclopedia, GAMEO, and Public History in the Digital Age

Jason B. Kauffman

Last spring, I represented Mennonite Church USA at my first Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online board meeting. GAMEO is “the most trusted online source for information on Anabaptist groups around the world” with articles on “Anabaptist-related congregations, denominations, conferences, institutions and significant individuals, as well as historical and theological topics.”1 Those familiar with GAMEO know that much of its content originated over fifty years ago with the publication of the four-volume Mennonite Encyclopedia (ME). Many updates were included in a fifth edition of ME, published in 1990, and over 4,000 more articles have been added since GAMEO went online in 1996.2 But there are still a host of articles that were published in the 1950s and have not been updated since. For example, the entry for Orrville Mennonite Church, my home congregation, was authored by Harold S. Bender in 1959.

During the board meetings, we spent much time discussing how to encourage more people to get involved with GAMEO.3 As a public history project, GAMEO holds enormous potential to harness the collective knowledge of the global Anabaptist community. Janneken Smucker pointed this out in a recent blog post on crowdsourcing Anabaptist history. As she notes, one of the biggest challenges for a public history project lies in “cultivating an enthusiastic community of participants.” But is that all it takes? In a search for answers to this question, I started to think about what went on behind the scenes during the fourteen years it took to produce the original ME, one of the most well-known, inter-Mennonite public history projects.4 What accounted for its success and what, if anything, can the project teach us about doing public history in 2018?5 I spent time looking at some of the project files of the ME at the MC USA Archives (Elkhart) and here’s what I came up with.6

ME_Writers_Acceptance

Mennonite Encyclopedia Writer’s Acceptance Card (MC USA Archives)

First, a public history project requires extensive planning and the dedication of a core group of leaders. As Smucker noted in her blog, enthusiastic communities of participants do not cultivate themselves. Before the project began, the ME editorial board enlisted the support of an international group of editorial consultants. The board also developed criteria for article topics and assembled a list of potential contributors. Managing editor Melvin Gingerich then mailed thousands of letters to prospective authors to invite their participation and supply writing instructions. The finished product included over 13,000 articles contributed by more than 2,700 writers. Like its predecessor, GAMEO has also benefitted from strong leadership. Sam Steiner, Marlene Epp, Richard Thiessen, Bert Friesen, Susan Huebert, and many others have given years to the project, commissioning or writing new articles, updating old ones, and editing submissions. While both projects have enjoyed broad participation, neither would have been possible without heavy involvement from a core of dedicated individuals. For example, over half of the content of the original ME was generated by just eight people.7 My guess is that a similar scenario is true for GAMEO.

ME_Vol_4_celebration

Celebration of the Mennonite Encyclopedia, 4th Volume, August 11, 1959: Left to right: Cornelius Krahn, Harold S. Bender, Melvin Gingerich. (MC USA Archives)

Second, a successful public history project requires institutional support. While the ME was under production, the three top-ranking editors—Bender, Krahn, and Gingerich—enjoyed the full support of their employers. In fact, Goshen College and Biblical Seminary, Bethel College, and the Mennonite Research Foundation allowed each to devote up to one quarter of their time to the project. Lead editors for the GAMEO project have never had their duties written into their job descriptions, but several institutions have given critical support. For example, Conrad Grebel University College provided computer equipment and web hosting early on and the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Winnipeg supported the digitization of volumes one through four of the ME.8 Most recently, the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism provided an institutional home for GAMEO under the direction of general editor John D. Roth.

EHB_Timesheet

Emily Horsch Bender’s time sheet while working on Mennonite Encyclopedia. (MC USA Archives)

Finally, a successful public history project requires sustained financial support. The ME was underwritten from the beginning by three denominational publishers, which covered the cost of labor, travel, and office expenses. Aside from wages paid to the three lead editors, Elizabeth Horsch Bender earned wages as a translator and assistant editor (often on under-reported hours) as did dozens of secretaries and typists.9 Over fourteen years, the three publishers paid just under $40,000 in editorial expenses.10 Adjusted for inflation, this amount is equivalent to roughly $370,000 in 2018.11 The publishers also bore the cost of printing and binding all four volumes. That figure came to $91,000.12 In the final year of the project, A.J. Metzler anticipated that returns on sales would cover the printing and binding costs but none of the editorial costs and only part of the selling costs. In other words, the Mennonite Publishing House lost a significant amount of the money it invested in the project. He concluded, “While the justification of this investment would be fully defended by our historians and scholars, it may be questioned by others.”13 GAMEO operates on a yearly budget of about $4,000. Like the ME, it relies upon financial support from Anabaptist-related institutional sponsors in the United States and Canada. As with the ME’s 2700 writers, GAMEO authors do not receive compensation. Unlike the ME, however, GAMEO cannot pay its editors and relies upon smaller-scale contributions from a wider variety of sponsors.

So what can a comparison of the ME and GAMEO teach us about doing public history in the digital age? Of course not all public history projects are cut from the same cloth. The ME was a massive project. Many other public history projects, including GAMEO, function successfully on a much smaller scale. Moreover, most public history projects in 2018 do not result in the publication of a four-volume book series, so printing and binding costs are not part of the equation. Since GAMEO lives online, the annual budget mostly covers the cost of webhosting and IT support and email makes communication among editors and with authors much more rapid and less costly than it was for ME staff.

In light of these difference, one might question the usefulness of comparing the ME with GAMEO and other current efforts to do public history. However, since much of the content of the ME was generated by 2,700 contributors, I think it is possible to draw some useful conclusions, especially in light of current efforts to crowdsource digital history projects. For me, the comparison highlights the enormous amount of work that goes on behind the scenes. The ME would not exist without the labor and expertise Elizabeth Bender gave to translations or the thousands of hours given by secretarial staff. Similarly, digital history projects like the University of Iowa’s DIY History require huge amounts of work behind the scenes. Before crowdsourcing could begin, the university invested time, labor, and resources to scan documents, store them, and develop specialized transcription software. It’s no coincidence that such an expansive project is hosted by a major public research university.

Much has been made of the “tremendous amount of work” that Bender, Krahn, and Gingerich invested in the creation of the ME.14 This is certainly true, but it didn’t hurt that they were being paid for their labor. As Conrad Stoesz pointed out in response to Smucker’s blog post, in the Anabaptist world we live in a time of “soft support for our…archival institutions” and, I would add, historical endeavors in general. This makes the volunteer efforts of GAMEO’s lead editors all the more impressive. They have given years of dedicated service to the project and created a valuable resource for anyone with access to the internet.

If you find GAMEO useful, I encourage you to give some money to support the project.15 Better yet, help us update old articles (beginning with many of the copious links included in this post) and generate new content. Please contact me or one of the other editors if you want to get involved. I would also welcome archivists, librarians, historians, and anyone else to weigh in on my conclusions and continue a conversation on the best ways to do Anabaptist public history in the digital age. Let’s get to work!


  1. Representatives of six partner organizations give oversight to the project and are responsible for its development. 
  2. GAMEO also incorporates content from multiple databases created by Marlene Epp with information on Canadian Mennonite congregations, individuals, and institutions. For a historical overview of the project, see http://www.gameo.org/index.php?title=Global_Anabaptist_Mennonite_Encyclopedia_Online_(Website) [accessed 2-22-18] 
  3. See http://gameo.org/images/3/35/GAMEO_Management_Board_2017_05_19.pdf [accessed 2-21-18] 
  4. The ME was a joint venture of the Mennonite Church, the General Conference Mennonite Church, and the Mennonite Brethren Church and was guided by a 12-person editorial board and a 6-person publishing board. Bender assumed editorial responsibility for the project and Paul Erb of the Mennonite Publishing House chaired the publishing committee. Rachel Waltner, “From Anabaptism to Mennonitism: The Mennonite Encyclopedia as a Historical Document.” Mennonite Life 37 (December 1982): p. 13-14, 19. 
  5. The ME was generally well reviewed, both within Mennonite circles and by non-Mennonite church historians. In 1982, Rachel Waltner wrote that the ME “continues to be…the most accessible and authoritative reference work available on a host of Anabaptist and Mennonite topics.” Waltner, “From Anabaptism to Mennonitism,” p. 13. 
  6. The Mennonite Library and Archives at Bethel College also holds official records of the ME, most of which were created by associate editor Cornelius Krahn and his assistants. 
  7. These were Nanne van der Zijpp, H.S. Bender, Cornelius Krahn, Christian Neff, Christian Hege, Robert Friedmann, Melvin Gingerich, and Johann Loserth. H.S. Bender, “The Mennonite Encyclopedia: Report of the Editor to the Publishing Committee,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 38:4 (October 1964), 364. 
  8. Email communication with Sam Steiner, 2-16-18. 
  9. At least 27 secretarial staff people from Goshen earned wages through the ME project. “Ninth Report of the Managing Editor to Editor Harold S. Bender for the period September 1, 1955 – August 31, 1959,” Mennonite Encyclopedia Records, X-31-1, Box 11. MC USA Archives, Elkhart, Indiana. Elizabeth Horsch Bender spent hundreds of hours translating articles in the Mennonitisches Lexicon from German to English and, later, copyediting English language submissions. 
  10. The Mennonite Publishing House paid about $23,000, Faith and Life Press paid about $14,000, and the Mennonite Brethren Publishing House paid about $3,000. The amount each press paid was in proportion to the number of books they agreed to distribute and sell. 
  11. Consumer Price Index inflation calculator from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics: https://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm [accessed, 2-22-2018]. 
  12. Our Mennonite Literature Service, 1958: Annual Report to the Mennonite Publication Board (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1959), p. 6. 
  13. Our Mennonite Literature Service, 1959: Annual Report to the Mennonite Publication Board (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1960), p. 15. 
  14. Waltner, “From Anabaptism to Mennonitism,” p. 15. 
  15. Donations should be sent to Mennonite World Conference and designated for GAMEO. 

The Gift of Leadership: Paul N. Kraybill’s Ministry to the Global Mennonite Community

For the last several weeks, I have been working to arrange and describe the personal papers of Paul Nissley Kraybill. Kraybill is best known for his work as the Executive Secretary of Mennonite World Conference (MWC), a position he held from 1973 until 1990.1 During this time, he led the effort to create and implement a new structure for the organization and oversaw planning for three assemblies in Wichita, Kansas, Strasbourg, France, and Winnipeg, Manitoba. Shortly before he began his position, the presidium for the tenth assembly chose Million Belete from Ethiopia to serve as the first non-western President of MWC. Along with Belete and MWC staff, Kraybill created a new constitution designed to better serve the organization’s diverse, global constituency and a travel fund to enable a broader segment of the Mennonite community to participate in assemblies. Under the leadership of Kraybill and Belete, the MWC blossomed into a truly global organization.2

Kraybill and Belete, 1973

Kraybill and Belete, 1973

As I worked my way through his papers, I was struck by the variety of Mennonite-related organizations with which Kraybill worked during his life. Aside from the global Mennonite and Anabaptist groups he partnered with as executive secretary of MWC, over the course of his forty-year career Kraybill worked with or served on the boards of at least a dozen other organizations. Like other successful Mennonite administrators before him, Kraybill was skilled at bridging inter-Mennonite divides, and he privileged ecumenical understanding and collaboration over rigid adherence to the creeds of a single faith community. Unlike some Mennonite leaders before him, however, Kraybill’s strengths did not lie in envisioning the creation of new organizations or initiatives, but in articulating and implementing a plan to improve those that already existed.3

By the time he planned his first MWC assembly in Wichita (1978), Kraybill had long proven himself as a skilled administrator. Born in 1925 in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Kraybill grew up attending Bossler Mennonite Church in Elizabethtown and graduated from Lancaster Mennonite School in 1943. Before completing his B.A. at Eastern Mennonite College (Harrisonburg, Virginia) in 1955, he received two separate calls to ministry: one to serve at his home congregation and the other to serve as the Assistant Secretary of the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (EMBMC) in Salunga, Pennsylvania. Kraybill chose the latter call and worked with EMBMC for a total of seventeen years, first as Assistant Secretary (1953-1958) and later as Overseas Executive Secretary (1958-1970), a position he took over from Orie O. Miller.4

FestivalQuarterlyBackCover_Feb-Apr.-1981

Back cover of Festival Quarterly, February-April, 1981

In 1970, Kraybill’s gifts in administration were further affirmed when he was appointed Executive Secretary of the (old) Mennonite Church Study Commission on Church Organization. Shortly thereafter, Kraybill assumed the role of General Secretary of the Mennonite Church General Board and moved to Lombard, Illinois, with his family and children. He held this position until 1977 when he took on full-time responsibilities with Mennonite World Conference. However, Kraybill’s Mennonite institutional influence extended far beyond his work with the Mennonite Church General Board. Over the course of his long career, Kraybill donated his time and expertise to a variety of other organizations (some Mennonite, some not) as a committee or board member:

He also served as an organizational consultant for a number of Mennonite-related organizations, including Chicago Area Mennonites, Lancaster Mennonite School, Lancaster Mennonite Conference, and Lombard Mennonite Church.

Although he never served as a pastor or received any formal seminary training, Kraybill was “ordained to ministry with [the] worldwide fellowship” of Mennonites at Lombard Mennonite Church on April 12, 1981. In his written examination for ministry in the Illinois Mennonite Conference, Kraybill reflected on his call and his “gifts for the ministry” as follows:

I do not feel that my gifts are strong in the current sense of a professional pastor . . . If I have gifts I think they are in the area of organization and leadership . . . For me that means communicating ideas, helping to shape new directions, working at reconciliation, creating larger vision and encouraging the church to be faithful to the Scriptures in terms of the understandings which grow out of our Anabaptist heritage.5

OrdinationService_B15_F12

Order of service for Kraybill’s ordination

While Kraybill expressed ambivalence about his ordination, Lombard co-pastors Joe and Emma Richards were unequivocal in their affirmation of Kraybill’s gifts. In their letter of support for his ordination, they pointed to Kraybill’s “life of consistent discipleship [and] sensitivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit” and described him as a “gifted administrator, a resourceful counselor, and a confident leader.”6

Leadership is important in the church and cannot be easily separated from other gifts of ministry. Unlike other leaders, however, administrative leaders like Kraybill held considerable power to determine the eventual shape and function of multiple church institutions over the course of their careers. In fact, these organizations welcomed Kraybill’s leadership for precisely those reasons. Fittingly, when he died in 1993, Kraybill was in the midst of planning the restructuring of the Mennonite Health Association, an organization for which he had served as president since 1990.

While leaders are often over-represented in the Mennonite historical narrative (and archives), their lives can teach us much about the historical evolution of the institutions that continue to structure relationships between members of the Mennonite faith community. They can also serve as reference points as we reflect on our past and articulate common dreams for the future.



  1. Mennonite Church USA Archives is also the official repository for the records of Mennonite World Conference
  2. For an excellent synopsis (authored by Kraybill) of Mennonite World Conference’s historical development from 1925 to 1990 and the changes that Kraybill implemented, see the following article from the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO): http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Mennonite_world_conference [accessed 10/12/2017]. 
  3. One exception is Mennonite Housing Aid, Inc., in Chicago, Illinois. Kraybill played a key role from its inception and served as president during its first six years, from 1975 to 1981. 
  4. For more on the relationship between Kraybill and Miller, see John E. Sharp, My Calling to Fulfill: The Orie O. Miller Story (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2015), 318-320 and 334-335. 
  5. Examination for Ministry, Illinois Mennonite Conference, January 9, 1981. Box 15, Folder 12. Paul N. Kraybill Papers, 1942-1992. HM1-998. Mennonite Church USA Archives – Elkhart. Elkhart, Indiana. 
  6. “Paul N. Kraybill Ordination,” Press Release, undated. Box 15, Folder 12. Paul N. Kraybill Papers, 1942-1992. HM1-998. Mennonite Church USA Archives – Elkhart. Elkhart, Indiana. 

Collections on the Move

Jason B. Kauffman

For most of my short time at the Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) Archives, I have occupied myself with “the move.” Shortly before I began in July 2016, MC USA made the decision to transfer all archival collections from their long-time home on the campus of Goshen College to a new facility at the denominational building in Elkhart. I spent the better part of ten months (July 2016-April 2017) planning for and carrying out the move of over 6,500 boxes—from three different locations—onto new shelves in Elkhart. Among these boxes were six new ones from Forks Mennonite Church, a congregation outside of Middlebury, Indiana, which closed its doors in December 2016, 159 years after it was first established. Also among the boxes were those of several Mennonite congregations which have recently withdrawn from the Indiana-Michigan Conference of MC USA.

ForksMennChurchin1963

Forks Mennonite Church, 1967

Not among the items moved were those boxes belonging to Goshen College (GC), composed mostly of institutional records and the papers of former faculty members. While these records had been managed along with those of the (old) Mennonite Church (and related agencies) since the archive’s founding in 1937, as part of the move MC USA formally relinquished “all interest in or claims to ownership” of GC records.1 The move of MC USA collections to Elkhart was the final step in a process of separating out collection management responsibilities that the two institutions initiated several years earlier. A similar phase in the decentralization of Mennonite institutional recordkeeping occurred in 2012 when Mennonite Central Committee relocated over 1,200 linear feet of material from the MC USA Archives to its headquarters in Akron, PA.

Indeed, the wheels for this year’s move were set in motion long before I arrived. These flows of collections in and out of the archives happened for practical reasons, but are also integrally related to changes that have occurred in the denominational landscape in the last two decades. How have realignments happening across MC USA—and the departures of congregations and conferences—affected its ability to preserve the history of its predecessor denominations, its agencies, and the people whose actions have shaped institutions into their present forms?

Archives move for a variety of reasons. For MC USA, one of the primary “push factors” was that we were out of space. When the archives moved into the Newcomer Center on the GC campus in 1959, it needed 1,500 square feet of space to house its entire collection. As the collection grew, the (old) Mennonite Church rented progressively more space from the college so that by 2016, collections occupied around 2,900 square feet in Newcomer and another 1,700 in the Westlawn building.2 On a basic level, then, the denominational building in Elkhart offered the space necessary to reunite dispersed records in one location.

While space was a major issue, financial considerations also figured prominently in the decision to move collections to Elkhart. For most of its history, the archives was overseen by a standing Historical Committee which supported the publication of books and spearheaded a variety of initiatives that reached global audiences. The archives was an active part of the ministry of the (old) Mennonite Church and the denomination regarded it as a major center for the preservation of Anabaptist cultural heritage. In fact, the archives accepted records that extended beyond the denomination, including many significant Hutterite and Amish collections.

Since the creation of MC USA in 2002, and likely before, denominational support for the work of the archives has gradually declined. Shortly before I arrived, reduced budgets and smaller staffs contributed, in part, to the decision to create a new collection development policy with a much narrower scope. This, in turn, led to the deaccession of manuscript collections, congregational records, and conference records to new repositories. The move to Elkhart provided an opportunity for the denomination to eliminate rental payments to Goshen College, moving the archives closer to a sustainable operational model.3

Many of the reasons behind changes in policy at the MC USA Archives are tied to its own history as an institution. However, these recent developments also reflect changes that the denomination has undergone since it was created through the merger of the (old) Mennonite Church and the General Conference in 2002. Since then, hundreds of congregations (and entire conferences) have left MC USA which, in turn, has contributed to a significant decrease in financial support for the work of the denomination and its ministries. And, like most other ministries, the archives has not been immune to this financial crisis. The move is thus an acknowledgment of the important role the archive plays in the preservation of the denomination’s historical record, but it also represents an effort to shore up the many costs associated with its operation.

But what other costs—beyond financial—have resulted from the move? On a practical level, researchers must now potentially travel to three different locations to consult collections that used to be housed in Goshen.4 On a broader level, the move ended an almost century-long relationship between Goshen College and the (old) Mennonite Church. It has also ended (and strained) a newer relationship with the Mennonite Library and Archives (MLA) at Bethel College. Since 2002, MC USA has subsidized the work of the MLA to cover the cost of housing and managing the institutional records of the General Conference, one of MC USA’s predecessor denominations. Within the last year, MC USA made the decision to discontinue funding for the MLA. Rather than ship those records to the new facility in Elkhart, Bethel College chose to take on ownership and is currently working to build an endowment to fund the MLA.5 A similar process has taken place within Mennonite Church Canada, as the denomination recently turned over management of the Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives to Canadian Mennonite University.6

As M.J. Heisey has noted, the movement and reconfiguration of archival collections over time “make significant statements on the politics of the present.” This is clearly the case with the changes that have taken place in the Mennonite archival world in the last several years. But why does all of this matter? Certainly there are more pressing issues in our denomination (and our world) that deserve our attention before the preservation of a bunch of old, dusty documents that only a fraction of Mennonites actually use.

I think at least part of the answer to this question lies in the centrality of history to Mennonite identity. As John Roth has noted,

“Mennonites are a people whose identity is formed by story. Our theology has been intimately connected with our history. So attentiveness to how we tell our story is profoundly important. How we preserve these records are not simply technical questions of keeping them dry and well organized. We also have a long tradition of gathering archival records in ways that enable historians to give the fullest possible account of our past.”7

With Roth and many others, I lament the recent fragmentation (and defunding) of Mennonite institutional archives. But these recent developments also compel Mennonites to reassess what is important to us about our past and set priorities for the institutions that will preserve our historical memory going forward. Present realities are much different today than they were in 1960 (or even 2000): resources are far scarcer, and old ways of doing things are no longer sustainable. If our story is as important to our identity as Roth suggests, then our denomination—and Mennonite-related historical organizations in general—will need to generate new, creative ways to care for the shared cultural heritage that we have created (and will continue to create). Or, as Rolando Santiago has put it, we need to think seriously about “how we care for our fragile church institutions in times when budgets and resources are decreasing . . . address their flaws, and build their financial assets.”

Such changes won’t happen overnight and they will likely require expertise, wisdom, collaboration, and support from a network of committed individuals and institutions. Already, I have been encouraged by new relationships that have grown out of the move to Elkhart. This summer the archives formed a partnership with Mennonite Mission Network’s SOOP program that will provide an opportunity for volunteers to support the work of the archives. I am also exploring avenues to create a regular internship program for college students interested in a library, archive, or museum career. They will join an existing core of committed volunteers as we work together to arrange and describe the records that continue to arrive at the archives.

If you care about our Mennonite story, I invite you to join with me and other Mennonite-related historical organizations in imagining new ways that we can work together to create sustainable and thriving programs that will benefit future generations. In the meantime, I will continue to do my best to preserve the rich stories that are already here—those of the many individuals and institutions that have shaped the history of our denomination. This includes congregations—such as Forks Mennonite Church—that are no longer meeting and those that have chosen to leave the denomination. Their histories, too, are central parts of our collective Mennonite story.

  1. This wording is taken from a Memorandum of Understanding between MC USA and Goshen College finalized in April 2017. 
  2. In 2014, the archive also shipped 342 boxes to a remote storage facility in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Archival records were first moved to the Westlawn building in 1999. Discussion of space needs in the archives administrative files date to 1986, but conversations were likely initiated earlier than this. 
  3. Due to the generous support of private donors, the denomination accrued no debt to remodel the space, install moveable shelves, and move the collection from Goshen to Elkhart. 
  4. For example, researchers interested in the life and work of Harold S. Bender will find materials in the institutional records of the (old) Mennonite Church at the MC USA Archives in Elkhart, his personal papers and faculty records at Goshen College, and Mennonite Central Committee records in Akron, PA. 
  5. A Memorandum of Understanding between MC USA and Bethel College was finalized in July 2017. 
  6. According to the press release, Mennonite Church Canada will still provide funding for the archives through a three-way partnership with CMU and the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg. 
  7. Heisey and Roth made these statements in 2012 in reference to the relocation of MCC’s archive from Goshen to Akron, PA.