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

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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

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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.

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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. 

Mennonites and the Doctrine of Discovery: A Report from “Indiana Indian Day”

Indiana Indian Day event program 4-22-2017_Page_1Jason B. Kauffman

On September 5, 1838, members of the Potawatomi nation—859 men, women, and children—were marched at gunpoint through the main street of Rochester, Indiana. It was the beginning of a two-month forced march of over six hundred miles that ended in remote eastern Kansas along a tributary of the Osage River. Almost 180 years later, at an “Indiana Indian Day” event on April 22, 2017, Father Mike McKinney of St. Joseph Catholic Church walked to the middle of that same street in Rochester. With police cars stopping traffic and those in attendance looking on, Father McKinney blessed Main Street, “reclaiming it for peace.” It was a powerful and moving gesture of reconciliation between the descendants of the Potawatomi and those who benefited from their removal. After the blessing, Father McKinney left the road and the idling cars continued on their way.

Along with Denominational Minister Nancy Kauffmann, I represented Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) at the April 22 event at the invitation of co-organizers Shirley Willard, retired Fulton County historian and founding officer of the Potawatomi Trail of Death Association, and Adam Friesen Miller, a fourth grade teacher at Bethany Christian Schools in Goshen, Indiana. Over the past school year, Adam has been teaching his students about the history of the Potawatomi people and their forced removal from Indiana in 1838, using a curriculum developed by Char Mast, an Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary alumna.

DSC01880 Bethany 4th graders

Students from Bethany Christian Schools present on the erasure of Potawatomi experiences in Indiana history textbooks. Photo by Annette Brill Bergstresser, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary

I had little prior knowledge of Potawatomi history or the confluence of historical circumstances and events that led to their removal from Indiana, but I was excited to participate in support of Adam and his students. I certainly don’t remember learning as a fourth grader about the violence and injustice that Native Americans faced as colonists and settlers moved west in search of land. I was impressed that Adam exposed his students to these tough questions and that they, in turn, wanted to do something to make a difference.

Shirley and Adam requested MC USA participation in the event because many early Mennonite settlers to northern Indiana gained title to land previously occupied by the Potawatomi, thus benefiting at their expense. Nancy and I agreed to offer a formal statement of apology to the Potawatomi and Miami people on behalf of Mennonite Church USA. As the date approached, however, we modified our statement at the request of the event organizers to include more information about the Doctrine of Discovery1 and the work that Mennonites are doing to address the legacies of injustice that Native American communities continue to face. After some last minute changes, we finalized our Statement of Confession and Commitment and read it publicly on April 22.2

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Bob Pearl, a Potawatomi descendant, speaking during Indiana Indian Day. Photo by Annette Brill Bergstresser, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary

The event itself went well and was a meaningful time to publicly confess the ways that Mennonites—and the rest of North American society—have profited from the marginalization of the Potawatomi and other Native American communities. It was also a great opportunity to meet and begin building relationships with members of the Potawatomi and Miami nations and to stand with members of the broader northern Indiana community in support of justice for Native Americans.

But the event and the statement we produced also left me with lingering questions about the relationship between words and action and what it takes to bridge the divide that often separates them. In particular, the following quote from Sarah Augustine on the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition website has continued to challenge me since the event: “Until individuals representing committed institutions stand together with indigenous and vulnerable peoples, our words and gestures too are rendered hollow and symbolic.”3 In other words, it’s one thing to acknowledge and lament this history of injustice and another thing entirely to do something about it. This is why the image of Father McKinney’s blessing and the stopped cars on Main Street in Rochester has stuck with me. After the powerful moment of reclaiming that space for peace the idling cars continued on their way, consuming a resource that our society continues to privilege ahead of justice for indigenous and other marginalized people.

These patterns of exploitation and injustice against indigenous people have deep historical roots which took hold with a series of papal bulls dating to the fifteenth century. These papal bulls established the legal and theological framework for the Doctrine of Discovery and played an early and enduring role during the period of Spanish and Portuguese colonization in the Americas.4 Under the encomienda system, for example, indigenous populations in the central valley of Mexico and the Andean highlands were forced to provide tribute—in the form of labor or goods—to colonial title holders. In return, encomenderos were supposed to instruct indigenous people in the Christian faith.5 In some regions, such as the Andean highlands, the system later evolved into a forced labor draft through which indigenous communities provided an annual quota of laborers to the Spanish colonial government.6 Many of these workers ended up toiling in mines to produce the silver that fueled Spain’s colonial empire. In one notorious case, untold numbers of indigenous people died from prolonged exposure to mercury, the toxic mineral used by colonists to extract silver from mined ore.7

These injustices have taken on new forms over time. Across the Americas, indigenous people continue to struggle against unjust systems. In South America, indigenous communities are fighting to maintain their livelihoods and access to communal lands in the face of multinational corporations seeking to profit from the production of oil and hydroelectric power. Similar dynamics are playing out in North America between the Standing Rock Sioux and developers of the Dakota Access Pipeline. At the heart of both colonial, pre-capitalist economic systems and the current globalized, neoliberal order is the desire to maximize profit through the control of natural resources and the labor of others. And, as history shows, those in power—including governments and corporations—are not above using violence and repression to protect those interests.

As people who care about peace and social justice, what responsibility do Mennonite and other members of the Anabaptist community have to right the wrongs of history? In our statement on April 22, I said that Mennonite Church USA affirms the current efforts among Mennonites and people of Anabaptist faith to “actively dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery at every level of society—in our laws and policies, in our states, in our communities, in our church institutions and in our congregations.” What can we do as individuals and as a denomination to make good on this commitment? This seems like a daunting (even impossible) goal to accomplish in light of over 500 years of injustice and a global economic system that continues to favor the interests of the powerful few at the expense of millions. But I think it is important to think about what it would look like to put these convictions into practice.

Education and consciousness-raising are clearly two of the best places to start. We can’t address injustice without first taking the time to understand how it has functioned in both its historical and present contexts. The Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition has already done much work in this regard. The coalition recently produced a documentary that explains the historical context and theological basis of the Doctrine of Discovery and has also published study guides and reflections that help establish a biblical foundation to expose the misinterpretation of God’s word that the fifteenth century Church used to justify colonization.

It’s also important to open dialogue and build relationships with indigenous brothers and sisters in our local communities and across the country. For example, Ervin Stutzman, executive director of MC USA, and Jess McPherson, an educator and multidisciplinary artist of Susquehanna descent, have engaged in conversation about Stutzman’s work in historical fiction and how identities (as Amish, Native American, etc.) influence our ability to “tell history with integrity.” In northern Indiana, people like Rich Meyer have spent years researching the history of the Potawatomi and building relationships with members of the Potawatomi community. More recently, students and faculty at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary have worked to plan and lead a nine-day Trail of Death Pilgrimage from Indiana to Kansas. The course provides opportunities for participants to learn from members of the Potawatomi community about their history and the challenges they continue to face.

How do we get from education and relationship-building to the “actively dismantling” part? What would justice look like for Native American communities today and how can Mennonites best work in solidarity with them to achieve it? Would justice involve returning land, as the Jesuit order recently did to the Rosebud Sioux? Should Mennonite Church USA or member conferences and congregations establish a tithe paid to descendants of indigenous communities expelled from their lands? Or would dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery require a more radical restructuring of society and the legal, economic, and philosophical frameworks that underpin it? I don’t have answers to these questions. But the examples of people like Adam Friesen Miller and his students give me hope that God is at work in the relationships that Mennonites are building with Native American brothers and sisters, and that justice is possible.


  1.  The Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition defines the Doctrine of Discovery as a “philosophical and legal framework dating to the 15th century that gave Christian governments moral and legal rights to invade and seize indigenous lands and dominate indigenous peoples.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website contains a brief synopsis of its historical evolution as a concept. 
  2. The statement benefited greatly from feedback and phrasing suggestions given by Rich Meyer, Sarah Augustine, Katerina Friesen, and David B. Miller. 
  3. Augustine is co-director of Suriname Indigenous Health Fund, a private international charity, and Professor of Sociology at Heritage University. She is also actively involved in Mennonite efforts to work towards justice for indigenous communities in North America through the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition. 
  4. I’m most familiar with the case of Latin America but these dynamics played out in the context of British, French, and Dutch colonialism as well. 
  5. The encomienda was not initially a land grant. In the early years of colonization land held little inherent value without access to indigenous laborers to make it productive. This is one reason why the encomienda system became so entrenched in the highly populated regions of central Mexico and highland Peru. For a classic essay on the subject, see James Lockhart, “Encomienda and Hacienda: The Evolution of the Great Estate in the Spanish Indies,” Hispanic American Historical Review 49:3 (Aug. 1969), 411-429. 
  6. Many indigenous “elites” and middlemen actually profited from such colonial labor systems. 
  7. Nicholas A. Robins, Mercury, Mining, and Empire: The Human and Ecological Cost of Colonial Silver Mining in the Andes (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2011). 

“The People of God around the World”: Melvin Gingerich’s Archival World Tour

Jason B. Kauffman

On January 13, 1969, Melvin and Verna Mae (Roth) Gingerich embarked on a tour of Mennonite church communities around the world. During a period of 4.5 months the couple traveled more than 54,000 miles (“by air, train, taxi, jeep, and touring cars”) over a distance spanning five continents and twenty four different countries or territories.1 In all, their itinerary included 47 flights on 25 different airlines. The tour was commissioned by the inter-Mennonite Council of Mission Board Secretaries (COMBS) with financial support from the Historical Committee of the (old) Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).2

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Melvin and Verna Gingerich contemplate the itinerary for the 1969 archival world tour

By 1969, Gingerich had directed the archives of the (old) Mennonite Church for 22 years.3 He was also heavily involved in the Mennonite publishing world. Aside from his work as managing editor for the Mennonite Historical Bulletin and the Mennonite Quarterly Review, he was an editor and frequent contributor to several other publications including Mennonite Life, Mennonite Weekly Review, and the Gospel Herald. From 1955-1958, he represented the Peace Section of the Mennonite Central Committee in Japan. Gingerich’s active involvement with Mennonite institutions, his familiarity with trends in Mennonite writing and scholarship, and his experiences abroad shaped his worldview and over time he developed a keen interest in the global Mennonite Church.

Gingerich’s stated objectives for the archival world tour were to “determine the amount and nature of archival materials relating to American Mennonite missions located outside of the U.S. and Canada,” to consult with missionaries and church workers about record management practices, and to identify potential authors for the Mennonite Encyclopedia and other publications. But, for Gingerich, the trip was much more than a simple fact-finding mission. During his time abroad, Gingerich also planned to offer lectures on the important role of history in shaping the vision and identity of the global Mennonite community. He hoped that his meetings with mission workers, church leaders, and school groups would create a space for them to “examine together the Christian approach to history and to consider how historical interest could be aroused where it did not exist.”4

Such concerns became a recurring theme in his reports. After his visit with mission workers and church leaders in Argentina, Gingerich wrote:

It seems to me that perhaps my major contribution has been in making them aware of the fact that they have an obligation to witness to the rest of the church what God has been doing among them. The Bible is largely the account of God’s mighty works among His children. Much of the Old Testament was designed to review their history. The great sermons in the New Testament do the same thing. We have an obligation in our day to record and witness to this continuing history.5

Later in the trip, during a conversation with Dr. Saphir Athyal of the Union Biblical Seminary in Yavatmal, India, Gingerich discussed “the problem of how to get [seminary] students to feel that contemporary church history is a part of the ongoing stream of church history, directly related to past centuries of the story of God’s people.”

While educating the “younger churches” about Mennonite history was clearly part of his agenda, Gingerich was also sensitive to the local realities and traditions of the communities that hosted him.5 According to Gingerich, “the purpose of this visit to the fields was not a paternalistic one,” but rather “to encourage our brethren to share their story with the entire Christian brotherhood. We are brethren who can all share with each other and learn from each other.” As such, he felt that local Mennonite conferences should take the lead to develop “their own historians or historical committees and [to] cultivate the consciousness of their unique role in history.”

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Melvin and Verna Gingerich in Japan, Christmas 1956

Gingerich also had the intercultural awareness to recognize that not all members of the global Mennonite community transmitted and preserved history primarily through the written record. In several locations, Gingerich met with local church leaders to discuss plans for commemorating the upcoming anniversaries of their churches. In Ethiopia, he encouraged leaders from the Meserete Kristos Church to produce an account of their own history in order to tell “their own story from the Ethiopian perspective.” On other legs of the trip he also discussed the importance of recorded oral histories as a tool for preserving the life stories of early church members and leaders.

When Gingerich undertook his archival world tour, the global Mennonite population stood between 400,000 and 600,000 people. Roughly one third of these people lived in places outside of North America or Europe. Since then, the global Mennonite population has grown rapidly so that, today, Mennonites in Latin America, Asia, and Africa outnumber Mennonites in North America and Europe by a ratio of 2 to 1.6 The demographic shift that has occurred in the global Mennonite community in the last several decades raises important questions about the stories we tell about our shared history. Specifically, what should global Mennonite history look like and who should set the terms for those discussions?

Gingerich envisioned global Mennonite history as an unbroken narrative thread connecting the past to the present through the lives of “the people of God around the world.” His efforts to involve local believers in the telling of their own stories were ahead of their time. However, in his vision Mennonites from North America and Europe remained firmly at the center of this story as keepers of the collective memory of an Anabaptist tradition rooted in sixteenth century Europe.

Today, organizations such as the Mennonite World Conference and the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism are modifying this vision through initiatives such as Renewal 2027, a 10-year series of events during which Mennonites will meet annually in locations across the globe to commemorate and reflect upon the five hundredth anniversary of the beginnings of the Anabaptist movement. Organizers are planning the events with a broad, ecumenical vision which recognizes shared heritage and convictions but also the unique and varied ways followers have lived out the Anabaptist-Mennonite faith in diverse cultural contexts around the world.7 According to John D. Roth, the commemorations present an opportunity to “engage in fresh thinking” about the “global nature of the Anabaptist-Mennonite church today” and how this global nature “challenges or expands definitions of the word ‘Anabaptist.’”8 Such efforts are important steps toward decentering North America and Europe in the stories we tell about “the people of God around the world.”

Footnotes:


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Letter from Melvin Gingerich to Verna Gingerich, December 24, 1968


  1. Melvin and Verna visited Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Colombia, Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Ghana, Nigeria, Congo, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, India, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, the Fiji Islands, and Hawaii. 
  2. Gingerich was careful to specify that the couple paid for Verna’s travel expenses from their own funds (see photo). 
  3. Gingerich was born and raised in Kalona, Iowa. After graduating from Goshen College – where he met his wife, Verna – in 1926 he later earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Iowa in 1938. After some short teaching stints at Washington Junior College (Iowa) and Bethel College (Kansas), he moved with his family to Goshen (Indiana) where he served as archivist of the (Old) Mennonite Church Archives for the rest of his career (1947-1970). For part of this time he also directed the Mennonite Research Foundation and edited the Mennonite Encyclopedia
  4. Quotations come from reports contained in the Melvin Gingerich Papers, HM1-129, Archival World Trip – 1969, Box 78, Mennonite Church USA Archives, Goshen, Indiana. 
  5. Ibid. 
  6. Throughout his reports, Gingerich drew a distinction between the “younger churches” and the “older churches” in the global Mennonite community. 
  7. These are rough estimates based upon statistics from 1958 and 1978 published on the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online at http://gameo.org/index.php?title=World_Mennonite_Membership_Distribution 
  8. John Roth uses the concept of “right remembering” to examine the relationship between commemorations, historical memory, and collective identity formation in the global Anabaptist-Mennonite community. See John D. Roth, “How to Commemorate a Division? Reflections on the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation and its Relevance for the Global Anabaptist-Mennonite Church Today,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 91:1 (January 2017), 24-35. 

Now You’re the Institution

Jason B. Kauffman

My reference to a Ben Folds song probably dates me, but lately I’ve been thinking about the relationship between archives, institutions, and power. According to historian Paul Toews (described by Felipe Hinojosa in a recent blog), as I write this blog I am sitting in one of the “archival centers of the Mennonite universe.” I recently began working as director of the Mennonite Church USA Archives in Goshen. As a senior at Goshen College (2005) I spent long hours in the archives researching for my history thesis project.

When I reported for my first day of work in July, the archives looked (and smelled) pretty much like I remembered them, complete with a stone bust of Sanford Calvin Yoder (President of Goshen College from 1923 to 1940) and a large plaque listing the names of “pioneer leaders” (all white men of European descent) in the (old) Mennonite Church. One of the men, Jacob Gottschalk (the first Mennonite bishop in Germantown, Pennsylvania), is a distant family relative. So, to quote Ben Folds again, “how’s it feel to be the man?”

I don’t have a simple answer to that question. As a historian, I resonate with Hinojosa’s call to “deterritorialize Mennonite studies” and to tell the stories of Mennonites whose lives unfolded on the periphery, far removed from “holy places” like Goshen, Newton, Lancaster, or Winnipeg. I spent the majority of graduate school resisting the centralizing forces in my discipline which told me that the only topics worthy of study were those with an established historiography, focused on places at the centers of political or economic power. Latin American history is very nation-centric and I found a niche in the study of frontiers and borderlands, a subfield which questions the centrality of the nation-state in the stories historians tell about the region and its people. In a similar way to the Mennonite community in south Texas that Hinojosa describes, I discovered that what it means to be Brazilian or Bolivian looks very different from the margins than it does at the center. Place matters.

However, institutions also matter. For historians, institutions matter because they are the entities most likely to preserve the documents that we rely upon to analyze and write about the past. While my research focused on one of the most sparsely populated regions in South America, I would not have been able to write my dissertation without going to institutional archives in Rio de Janeiro or La Paz. Indeed, the available sources often dictate the types of questions we can ask (and answer) about the past. Through my research, I was able to learn much about how representatives of the Bolivian state felt about migratory laborers and the many ways officials attempted to control the movement of goods and people across borders. I learned comparatively little about the complex motivations that guided individuals in their decisions to migrate in search of work, how they felt about these decisions, and how such decisions impacted their lives and families.

Such archival silences are, of course, also present at the MC USA Archives. For example, collections in the archives yield much information about how church leaders and academics felt about growing Mennonite involvement in business after World War II but much less about businesspeople themselves, those who built successful businesses while navigating the norms and expectations of the broader Mennonite community. Despite such limitations, many historians have made creative use of the MC USA Archives. For example, recent studies have mined collections for sources that document Mennonite involvement during the Civil Rights movement and the complicated dynamics of racial prejudice and discrimination that pervaded this involvement.1 And there are many more sources yet to be discovered. But this does not change the fact that the voices of institutional (white, male) leaders are overrepresented in the archives and those of ethnic minorities, women, LGBTQ people, and those otherwise removed from institutional centers are underrepresented. This reality is itself a reflection of the history of the Mennonite Church as an institution.

Through my job as the archivist, I am now a part of this institution. I am keenly aware of the power that institutions hold to shape the terms of historical memory and its production.2 Archives play a key role in this equation because the written word is one of the primary ways in which people and institutions preserve history for future generations.3 Archives are also powerful weapons that institutions have used in their efforts to minimize or, in some cases, completely erase elements of the past.4 History is replete with examples of the many ways that institutions have done damage to the broader communities that they represent.

At the same time, now that I’m on the “inside” my perspective is beginning to shift. From the outside, institutions often seem like faceless entities, engaged in a timeless quest to centralize authority and wield power to advance their own agendas. It is often easy to forget that the Mennonite Church is a complex institution made up of complex individuals, each with different backgrounds and changing (and, in many cases, different) beliefs, motivations, and goals. All share a deep commitment to the broader Mennonite community and many are actively working to promote peace and social justice; to combat racism, prejudice, and discrimination; and to redefine what it means to be Mennonite.

No institution is perfect and good intentions do not erase the inequalities and injustices that persist. It is difficult to predict what form the institutional Mennonite Church will take in the next decades or how it will evolve or adapt in response to our rapidly changing denominational landscape. In 2116, who will future generations of Mennonites look back and recognize as the “pioneer leaders” of the twenty-first century? I hope that the list will be much different than the one currently hanging in the archives, made up of many more people from the farthest reaches of the Mennonite universe.

To explore one of the ways that the MC USA Archives is working to document the diversity of Mennonites voices, check out this online archive of Mennonite websites, which preserves the websites of Mennonite news outlets, MC USA agencies and conferences, and Mennonite bloggers. Let me know of others that I should add to the list!


  1.  Many of these recent studies also make excellent use of oral histories, critical sources for documenting and understanding the lives and experiences of people underrepresented in the written historical record. 
  2.  See, for example, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995). 
  3.  Kathryn Burns, Into the Archive: Writing and Power in Colonial Peru (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010). 
  4. For a recent – and excellent – exploration of these dynamics at play, see Kirsten Weld, Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).