Are you in this? Remembering Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance and Civil Liberties in World War I Through Today

Laureen Harder-Gissing

4540“Are you in this?” asked a popular British propaganda poster from the First World War. A nattily dressed young man, hands in pockets, walks through a landscape in which other men and women are actively fighting, nursing, and manufacturing armaments. Their society is fully engaged in war. His non-participation is clearly shameful.

From October 19-22, 240 delegates gathered at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City to hear 70 presentations. Historians described forgotten voices of dissent and conscientious objection, while today’s defenders of conscience and civil liberties drew connections between the long-ago war and their current work. Music began the conference with a performance of Vaughan Williams’s Dona Nobis Pacem, and ended it with hymns and songs of peace sung by the Hutterian Baker and Silverwinds Youth Choirs from Manitoba. Their music accompanied the moving story of two American Hutterite conscientious objectors who died in prison.

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Inscribed brick to be added to the museum’s Walk of Honor (Photograph by Laureen Harder-Gissing)

The site of the conference added to the atmosphere. The museum sits at the base of a dramatic Egyptian Revival-style monument, the Liberty Memorial, which opened in 1926. The state-of-the-art museum, constructed in 2006, tells the story of the war to a modern audience. On Sunday morning, a memorial service for war dissenters was held at the entrance–a glass bridge spanning a field of poppies. The conference ended with a bus tour of Fort Leavenworth where 16 imprisoned conscientious objectors died.

Did the conference succeed in unmuting voices? While the traveling exhibit “Voices of Conscience” told stories of peace witness in the Great War, conference participants observed that voices of dissent are nearly absent from the museum’s permanent exhibits. During the memorial service, Hutterite delegates partially rectified this by unveiling a stone in memory of the Hofer brothers who died at Fort Leavenworth. The stone will join the “walk of honor” at the museum’s entrance.

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A base historian at Fort Leavenworth describes wartime conditions in the former prison hospital. (Photograph by Laureen Harder-Gissing)

Some religious voices were unmuted. In addition to papers about traditional peace church members, papers about Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and mainline church members uncovered additional stories of religious dissent.

While the conference predominantly focused on American and British history, papers on opposition to the war in Germany and African diaspora communities hinted at a broadening of diversity. While the role of women in leadership in the anti-war movement was explored, much ground in terms of gender was left untouched.

The conference did not succeed in unmuting all voices, but I believe it helped participants sharpen our hearing. Whether we are primarily engaged as historians or activists (or both), becoming attuned to muted voices of conscience and dissent is a valuable skill. After all, there are many ways in which we are “in this” still.

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Sunday’s memorial service took place on the museum’s glass bridge. The bridge floats over a simulated field of poppies. (Photograph by Laureen Harder-Gissing)

Some Clarity on an Old Mystery

John D. Thiesen

Samuel S. Haury (1847-1929) was the first missionary sent out by a North American Mennonite denomination, working among Arapaho and Cheyenne people in what is now Oklahoma starting in 1880. His mission career lasted only seven years, however, ending in scandal in 1887. The end of Haury’s career has only been publicly known in vague generalities. The most specific explanation is found in Lois Barrett’s 1983 history of General Conference home missions, where she says Haury resigned because of “his sexual indiscretion with another missionary at Cantonment.”1

Darlington school children and teachers;

Darlington school children and teachers; left to right at top, Dian Luginbuel (m. Jacob Meschberger), Maria Lehrman (m. Jacob Warkentin), Susie Richert (m. C. H. Wedel), S. S. Haury, Barbara Baer Voth and baby Frieda, H. R. Voth (top of head cut off). Mennonite Library and Archives Photo Collection 2003-0081

The archival record does actually allow for a bit fuller explanation. Haury was located at Cantonment, Indian Territory, where the General Conference had a school for Cheyenne and Arapaho children. Haury was in charge of all of the Cheyenne-Arapaho mission activities. Another missionary, Heinrich R. Voth, was located at Darlington, where Haury had started the first Mennonite mission school several years earlier. In a letter on May 14, 1887, from Haury to Voth, Haury says, “C. Krehbiel [chair of the mission board] has already informed you of my approaching departure from the mission, and of the sad cause, brought about by my own conduct and fault. The consequences are terrible. My heart is shattered. Pray for a deeply fallen one.”2

A week later, May 21, there is another letter to Voth: “Our departure is not yet specified. I expected to get my dismissal in today’s mail but it did not come. I hope that it will come soon. It would be best under these circumstances to leave tomorrow. But we will hardly be able to get away by the first of June.”3

The timeline of events seems a little muddied, however, since a letter also dated May 21, 1887, from Haury to the mission board, says: “I write these lines in deep shame and humiliation. I have already given the president of the board verbally and the secretary in written form my confession of my deep fall. . . . My deep fall consists of marital infidelity with Christina Hirschler, sister of my dear wife, so that she is already about 6 months pregnant.”4 This letter circulated among the members of the mission board, scattered from Kansas to Pennsylvania, through at least June 10.

A week later we find the sole surviving voice from one of the women concerned, Susie Hirschler Haury writing to H. R. Voth on May 28, in English (most of the other correspondence is in German): “We will go away soon, & it will be no more than natural that everybody at the Agency & at the schools will want to know why we have. Please tell them that we felt we could not remain or something to that effect. I would not ask you to tell an untruth, Never, but there is no need of having it spread among outsiders. It is not on my or our account I ask this, but on account of the Mission work & Christianity’s sake. For such people as live in the Agency & in this country generally, hearing anything of that kind, would call ‘the whole thing a fraud.’ Having had no Christian experience, they cannot know of the hearts-anguish such a person that has fallen, has in his own chamber & in the silent nightwatches.”5 Voth reassured her the next day that he would comply with her wishes.6

Samuel Schmidt Haury (1847-1929) and Susanna Hirschler Haury (1861-1944)

Samuel Schmidt Haury (1847-1929) and Susanna Hirschler Haury (1861-1944). Mennonite Library and Archives Photo Collection 2006-0096

Susie Hirschler Haury gave birth to a son Paul on Jan. 28, 1887.7 This means that if her sister Christina was 6 months pregnant in mid-May, then that event must have occurred in mid- December 1886 when Susie was about 8 months pregnant. Presumably her sister Christina had come out to help with household tasks before and after the birth. Paul died on June 14, 1887. “This morning at about 5:00 the Lord took our little son Paul to himself, after several days of severe suffering and a 2 hour hard death struggle. The burial will be tomorrow afternoon about 2:00, Lord willing, and would like to ask you sincerely and urgently to lead this service. The service should be in English.”8

The Haurys must have finally left Indian Territory sometime around the end of June. A letter from G. D. Williams, the Indian agent for the Cheyenne and Arapaho, to J. D. C. Atkins, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, DC, on Aug. 12, 1887, gives a perspective from outside of Mennonite circles:

In accordance with instructions of Office letter of the 9th ult. [July 9] I have the honor to report that in the latter part of May last there were rumors about Cantonment, involving the moral character of Mr. Haury. As he had the entire confidence of this community as well as my own, and standing so high in his Church I gave them no credence. June 4th Mr. Haury advised me, by letter, of his resignation as Missionary among these Indians, without alleging any cause. On the 22nd day of June last, in company with Inspector Gardner, I visited Cantonment and learned beyond question that the charges were true.

During the second day of inspection of Indian houses, a number of the head men of the Cheyenne talked with Inspector Gardner about the matter, saying that they did not wish any more such men sent among then and that they desired Mr. Haury sent away. They were assured that he was about to depart, which he did in a few days thereafter.

These Indians do not entertain the highest sentiment regarding chastity, and while I do not believe the unfortunate act within itself would deter them from sending their children to the school, they will use it as an incontrovertible argument against a mission school under the same patronage and decline to support it. This applies more particularly to the Cheyennes who are largely in the majority at Cantonment and who have no earnest desire for the education of their children.

They grasp any excuse for withholding their children; for two years past they have given as a reason that the buildings were old, damp and unhealthful, but as soon as a new building was erected they would fill it.

In view of this I submit that they will use the late unfortunate occurrence with great effect among their people. I do not believe the scandal will in the least injure the mission school located at the Agency and in charge of the Rev. Mr. Voth, as for several years past Mr. Haury has not, in the Indian mind, been identified with it, and I am constrained to believe that the Cantonment Mission will not soon recover from the recent blow and that its success for the next year or two is in the gravest doubt.

The present “picket” structures at Cantonment will serve another year with some few repairs – but a new building is needed and I believe it should be conducted solely by the Government to insure [sic] its success.9

The leading historian of the Arapaho, Loretta Fowler, offers some further explanation of Williams’ comments.

When Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs directly challenged officials, they often did so by appropriating elements of the dominant ideology. For example, in the delegates’ attempt to counter Agent Woodson’s disparaging description of Cheyennes and Arapahos, they turned his own discourse against him: Woodson was lazy, neglected his work, was fiscally imprudent, and fell short of the ideals of monogamy and sobriety. He spent idle hours dancing while trying to prevent the Cheyennes and Arapahos from having dances. This same tactic was used in regard to local boarding school superintendents and even to missionary Haury, who was caught in an adulterous relationship.10

Fowler gives no sources for her comment about Haury’s “adulterous relationship.”

On Aug. 16, 1887, H. R. Voth wrote to a Captain J. M. Lee, who had apparently had some previous role in the Cheyenne-Arapaho area and remained friends with Voth.

Mr. H. has fallen very deeply. He had had unlawful intercourse with his sister in law, the sinful deed bearing bitter fruit. Mr. H. acknowledged his guilt voluntarily to the Mission Board, was of course promptly discharged, & had to leave. Although covered with shame & disgrace, yet accompanied by the deep sympathy & genuine regret of thousands of friends, his field of faithful labor and is now living in obscurity. The child was born a few weeks ago, but did not live long. That is, in a few words, the deplorable history which ended in such an extremely tragical manner, Mr. Haury’s evidently successful career as an Indian Educator and missionary.11

Haury moved to St. Louis to attend medical school.12 There is one major postscript to the 1887 scandal. At a meeting of the Kansas Conference (predecessor to today’s Western District area conference) at First Mennonite Church in Newton, Kansas, Nov. 5-6, 1889, there is this resolution:

  1. At the request of the brother, S. S. Haury, that the Conference use its influence in favor of his admission into the Mennonite denomination, the Conference resolves that as such it is ready to offer him the hand gladly and to let his reception take place in a public meeting to which all of the conference churches are herewith invited, on the 13t h inst. in the Alexanderwohl Church by Elder Chr. Krehbiel with the assistance of Elder Jak. Buller, as commissioners of the Conference.13

Two persons recorded the actual event at Alexanderwohl. Johann Jantzen, a Mennonite minister from Beatrice, Nebraska, who was attending a ministers’ meeting, noted the event in his diary:

In the Alexanderwohl church, the former missionary Haury, who had been separated from the church, was re-accepted. He seemed very repentant. Elder Balzer read Psalm 51 and had the opening prayer. Elder Gaeddert preached on John 10:12, a very nice exposition. Elder Christian Krehbiel carried out the acceptance and Elder Stucky closed with prayer. It was a large gathering and a very large church, recently built. On the way back [to Newton] we had very nice weather and better roads; we stopped at the Bethel College foundation [construction site], it is around 15 feet high now, with 3 feet in the ground.14

Then, H. R. Voth’s father Cornelius described the event in a letter to his son, mixed in with news about the farm and crops, in a Nov. 17, 1889, letter:

We still have 20 acres of corn to [cut?] and also so much work to prepare the cattle for winter. Now dear son, I must write to you a little about the acceptance of S. S. Haury into the community [Gemeinschaft] on the 13th last Wednesday in our church (it was a nice day), there were quite many people present, especially many elders and preachers because the day before in our school was the preachers’ conference, it was really a sad sight how deeply humiliated Haury was, an evil picture of how sin can bring a person down, it was too bad that you could not be present and also at the conference, since there is always something to learn for our life, I certainly believe Haury has genuine repentance, he cried many tears and was very broken down, there were also many tears from the assembly with him, it was a moving performance, to begin Elder Buller read Psalm 51, how we are kept, then Elder Gaeddert preached very seriously and Christian Krehbiel did the actual acceptance, Elders Buller, Gaeddert and Newton elder Toews stood around him and greeted him with hand and mouth [holy kiss?] and with moving words of encouragement, may the dear Lord protect everyone from such a heavy burden since one sees what serious sins bring about. They are again gathering potatoes which will be brought to Newton on Tuesday and sent to you.15

It is completely unclear what kind of reconciliation service took place on Nov. 13, 1889. It was not an Alexanderwohl congregational matter but something more general, Kansas/Western District conference or General Conference. There is no evidence that Haury was ever a member of Alexanderwohl church. He joined First Mennonite in Halstead on Mar. 30, 189016 and then transferred to First Mennonite in Newton on Nov. 21, 1897.17 These record books do not indicate where he was a member before 1890, but it was probably Summerfield, Illinois. The Summerfield membership records have been lost.

The Hirschler family was fairly prominent in General Conference Mennonite circles. The father of Christina and Susanna, Daniel A. Hirschler (1821-1888), was a minister at Summerfield, Illinois.  Their brother John S. Hirschler (1847-1915) was also a widely-known minister. A brother, Daniel B. Hirschler was an Oklahoma missionary. A niece (daughter of John S. Hirschler), Anna, married Gustav A. Linscheid and they were later Cheyenne missionaries. Another sister, Anna (1854-1896), was married to Peter S. Haury, brother of Samuel S.18

Two additional pieces of misinformation about the Haury incident deserve to be clarified. One rumor that apparently circulated in the Berne, Indiana, Mennonite community tied Haury to another sister-in-law, Elisabeth Welty Hirschler, wife of Daniel B. Hirschler. The rumor claims that Haury fathered the child Dorothea Hirschler born Nov. 20, 1885. Daniel and Elisabeth Hirschler were mission workers in Cantonment.19 But obviously this does not fit the chronology of Haury’s departure almost two years later nor the contents of the Haury and Voth correspondence. Presumably someone in the community knew, well after the event, that Haury had had a sexual relationship with his “sister-in-law” and extrapolated to the wrong sister-in-law.

The second piece of misinformation appears in Donald Berthrong’s 1976 The Cheyenne and Arapaho Ordeal. Berthrong stated that Haury “had been involved with school-girls at Cantonment.” But the only source he cites for this is the letter from Williams to Atkins of August 12, 1887, quoted above, which makes no mention of school girls.20 Obviously Berthrong had not seen Haury’s letter of resignation or the other mission-related correspondence, so he was reading into the Williams letter assumptions that were unsupported by his evidence.

Jim Juhnke also references this student-involvement rumor but footnotes Berthrong so apparently he did not have an independent source for it.21

Christina Hirschler (1865-1941) married Louis M. Ledig in 1891, and they moved from Summerfield to Upland, California, in 1895. They had one son. Samuel and Susie Haury also moved to Upland when he retired in 1913. 22


  1.  Lois Barrett, The Vision and the Reality: The Story of Home Missions in the General Conference Mennonite Church (Newton, Kans.: Faith and Life Press, 1983), 22. 
  2.  H. R. Voth papers, MS.21, folder 63, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kans. 
  3.  H. R. Voth papers, MS.21, folder 63. 
  4.  General Conference Mennonite Church, Board of Missions records, I.A.1.a, folder 29 “Correspondence 1887 Jan-June.” 
  5.  H. R. Voth papers, MS.21, folder 63. 
  6.  H. R. Voth papers, MS.21, copy book 2, p. 675. 
  7.  GRANDMA database 
  8.  Haury to Voth, June 16, 1887, H. R. Voth papers, MS.21, folder 24. 
  9.  Oklahoma Historical Society, Cheyenne Arapaho Agency microfilms, reel 17, vol. 20, 236-239. 
  10.  Loretta Fowler, Tribal Sovereignty and the Historical Imagination: Cheyenne-Arapaho Politics (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 46. 
  11.  H. R. Voth papers, MS.21, copy book 2, p. 763-764. 
  12.  Haury to Voth, Sept. 13, 1887, H. R. Voth papers, MS.21, folder 63. 
  13.  Minutes of the Kansas Conference, Nov. 5-6, 1889, English translation. 
  14.     Jantzen, Johann (1823-1903) Collection, MS.549 
  15.  H. R. Voth papers, MS.21, folder 2. 
  16.  Halstead Kirchenbuch, 90 (Mennonite Library and Archives). 
  17.  First Mennonite Stammbuch (Mennonite Library and Archives). 
  18.  See Melvin J. Voigt, From Whence We Came ([Del Mar, California: Voigt, 1989), esp. p. 12. Voigt is aware of the Samuel S. Haury scandal but seems to have no indication that it involved anyone else in the Hirschler family. 
  19.  Email from David Habegger to John D. Thiesen, 15 Sep 2006. Printed copy in S. S. Haury papers, MS.76, folder 1. 
  20.  Donald J. Berthrong, The Cheyenne and Arapaho Ordeal: Reservation and Agency Life in the Indian Territory, 1875-1907 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976), 144. 
  21.  James C. Juhnke, “General Conference Mennonite Missions to the American Indians in the Late Nineteenth Century,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 54 (April 1980): 126. 
  22.  Voigt, From Whence We Came. It seems like that would have been awkward situation. 

Bishop Jacob Hostetter (1774-1865)

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Jacob Hostetter (or Hochstetter) was a farmer, mechanic, tailor, shoemaker, and basket-maker from the Manheim area. He was a bishop in the Lancaster Mennonite Conference who served as the Conference moderator following the death of Bishop Peter Eby in 1843.

This photographic portrait was taken in the 1850s and is remarkable in several ways. First, it depicts someone who was born before the United States of America existed. Second, it was made at a time when there was some contention among the Lancaster Mennonites about the use of photographic portraits. John Ruth writes that Hostetter “reluctantly yielded to his family’s persistent requests for his picture. But that brought him serious criticism, as expressed by an anonymous letter writer from Farmersville, in the conservative region of Groffdale. Bishop Hochstetter had acknowledged to the conference several years earlier that his picture had been taken, and he did not find it pleasant to have the matter thrown up to him again at the age of eighty-four.”1


  1.  John L. Ruth, The Earth Is the Lord’s: A Narrative History of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2001), 533-534. 

William and Clara Anderson, ca. 1940

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William and Clara Anderson, ca. 1940

William and Clara Anderson, pictured here in plain Mennonite attire circa 1940, were early members of the Rocky Ridge Mennonite Mission near Quakertown, Pennsylvania. They were the first African-Americans to join a Franconia Conference congregation, in 1932. That year, at the conference in Franconia meetinghouse, a resolution was passed: “That a colored applicant applying for admission at the Rocky Ridge Mission, be baptized and received into the Mennonite Church.” This resolution, which was read from the pulpit in all conference congregations, established a standard of racial integration.

Forrest Moyer, Archivist, Mennonite Heritage Center

An Honest Look at Ancestry Reveals Diversity

This is a response to “Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege” by Ben Goossen.

Darvin L. Martin

Ben Goossen convincingly explains that the development of Mennonite family research a century ago was at least partially motivated by a quest for “blood purity and racial hygiene” (“Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege”). Bridging to the present, Goossen also asserts that these themes become exacerbated through the recent advent of DNA testing, “privileging the notion that Anabaptism is as much an inheritable trait as a religious conviction.” The implication is that interest in ancestry today continues to foster attitudes of exclusion and superiority, when in my experience the opposite can and should be true.

As a prime historic example, Goossen cites the Amish-Mennonite historian C. Z. Mast, who published a genealogy in 1911, and within it spent pages to express his thoughts of heredity, defending a position we now understand as white supremacist. [^1] What Mast articulated on paper, many and perhaps most of his contemporary Mennonites had also embraced, but were ill-equipped to write or to express in detail.

In a lengthy epilogue, Mast proposed that the same natural law exemplified by selecting physical vitality in breeding agricultural stock likewise applied to humans.  He further projected that moral tendencies, in addition to outward form and features, were physically transmitted from parents to their children (747). Mast endorsed the responsibility of governments to convince their populations of the natural laws of heredity, selectively improving “human stock,” by implementing and enforcing regulations against endogamous marriage, and praised purposeful spousal selection as a means to reduce and ultimately eliminate undesirable characteristics and diseases, including blindness, tuberculous, curved legs, and mental handicaps (749).

Mast argued that the remarkable progress of his contemporary early twentieth-century Americans was the expected outcome of inheriting the vitality of the most successful men and women of the different nationalities of Europe. In contrast, he gave examples from other cultures where “divine displeasure is announced.” He cited Native Americans and other “ancient tribes and races of the Orient” having succumbed to severe inbreeding, causing “their physical and mental power [to have] melted into weakness” (748).  He criticized the Catholic royalty in Spain and Portugal, concluding their congenital disorders were the product of pope-blessed marriages between princes and their nieces.  He imprecated the emirs of Turkey for producing “simpletons and imbeciles,” as they have “intermarried so long and extensively [. . .] among those who revere the memory of the prophet” (749).

To use a common and necessary tag line of our time, it is not far-fetched to clearly report that Mast’s comments are the “textbook definition” of racism.  Yet here we have them, published by our very own Mennonite Publishing House in 1911.  In his defense, Mast had merely articulated the mainstream thoughts of the scientific and intellectual community of his time, with a directed passion to convince his Amish and Mennonite cousins to extend the tent a bit wider when looking for a spouse among the community.  But his words also subsequently labeled the “other” communities as inexcusable for the very problems that he found in his own.

Goossen calls us to own the historic racism exhibited by Mast and his fellow Mennonite and Amish family researchers, as rightly we should.  Just like those who descend from slave holders, those of us who are ethnic Mennonites have our own demons to expose. We cannot pretend that our ancestors thought of their whiteness as but one variety among many.  Likewise, let’s not be haphazard in our attempt to separate family history research from racism, as this is no easy task. Especially when Mast and others have been intent on keeping these themes so tightly bound.

For myself, an honest account showcases that Mast’s supremacist ideas sit uncomfortably close to home.  C. Z. Mast’s father was a first cousin to my great-great grandmother, Hannah Kurtz (1855-1937).  They grew up in the same congregation along the upper reaches of the Conestoga River, just west of Morgantown, Pennsylvania.  C. Z. lived on the farm of our common ancestor, Stephen Mast (1800-1868), two miles south of Morgantown.

Perhaps some of C. Z.’s prowess and detail towards family history found a home in my genes as well.  I can relate.  C. Z. was only in his mid-twenties when he wrote this history, and he certainly pursued it as a way to exercise his intellectual curiosity and differentiate himself from the expected mandate to become a farmer.  C. Z. was well read, and ascribed to the basic understanding of genetics promoted in his day—that human genetics were understood as having an ideal, pure and original form; that we exhibit various stages of corruption from that pure form . . . and for some, in Mast’s warped view, the corruption is more extreme than in others.

This understanding, although now proven untrue, had filtered down through my family. Physical and mental problems were blamed on such corruption.  My grandmother (the granddaughter of the Hannah Kurtz mentioned above) scolded her younger brother when in middle-age he fell in love with a woman and decided to marry.  This brother was somewhat mentally and physically limited, had always lived with his parents, and was part of the Friendship Community program sponsored by Mennonites in Lancaster for handicapped individuals.  

From my grandmother’s perspective, marriage and the benefits and responsibilities that came with it were not to be made available to those constrained by handicaps assigned from birth.  In childhood she was told that we have a moral duty to keep handicapped individuals from having children, otherwise we inhibit humanity from rising to its full potential.  She grew up in the face of the eugenics movement, and ultimately had enough control over her brother that he decided not to marry, even though both he and his partner were well beyond child bearing age.  Both my grandmother and her brother had passed away within three weeks of each other in February 2016. These attitudes of restricting bloodlines to attain a supposed ethnic purity haunt our recent past, and perhaps have found expression in new contemporary forms.

Goossen suggests that DNA testing has become a new avenue to enforce concepts of ethnic exclusion—that those who grew up Mennonite use this to privilege common ancestry over shared convictions. While there is a tendency to use DNA testing to play the “Mennonite Game,” my own experience in interpreting DNA results of several hundred individuals, both inside and outside the Mennonite circles of ethnicity and persuasion, challenges this notion. DNA testing is all about surprises—that our ancestry is not straightforward, but rather a complicated web of interconnectedness.  We see the surprises advertised in the commercials by the two most prevalent DNA testing companies, Ancestry DNA and 23andMe.  DNA testing reveals the unexpected, and that is what people find attractive.

There are at least a dozen Mennonite DNA projects on the internet that seek to use DNA as a means to link families together.  And all of these clearly reveal an astounding amount of diversity among ethnic Mennonite populations. An honest assessment of the Y-DNA profiles among testers who share the common surnames familiar to ethnic Mennonites reveals that they are not homogenous, but rather span a wide cluster of populations of origin. The “Mennonite DNA Project” by Tim Janzen, the “Swiss Anabaptist DNA Project” by Bonnie Schrack and my own “Mennonite and Amish Immigrants to Pennsylvania DNA Project” are but three examples. While a very selective reading of DNA can enforce a tester’s prejudices, a more complete assessment determines that ancestry is much more complex than first assumed.

Here’s why.  All of us, if we extend our family trees into the past, have an increasing diversity of ancestors.  This is statistically inevitable. Eight great-grandparents descend from sixteen great-great grandparents and thirty-two three great-grandparents, and so forth back through time.  Ten generations back, about 350 years ago, we each should have 512 ancestors.  At twenty generations back, about 700 years ago, that number of ancestors increases to 524,288, and at thirty generations, around 1000 A.D., we should have 536 million, more than the total population of the world at that time.

Those statistics eventually break down due to the inevitable placement of common ancestors in different places on one’s tree.  In my personal example, (through recordkeeping as the result of the privileges received because of 300 years of relative economic and social stability), I can create a nearly complete ancestral chart back ten generations on each side of my family. And in spite of having strong Mennonite background on both sides of my family, the chart shows increasing diversity.

I don’t have 512 ancestors ten generations ago, but instead have 372, due to duplications on my tree.  This is caused by fourth, fifth and sixth cousins marrying each other.  But even so, diversity far outweighs the truncation experienced by intermarriages.  For myself, truncation first appears seven generations back, where a seventh-generation ancestor of my father’s lineage also appears as an eighth-generation ancestor on my mother’s side.  This one and a few others reduce my total ancestral count by about ten percent in the eighth generation, and consistently another ten percent in the ninth, and another ten percent in the tenth, so I am left with 372 unique ancestors, 350 years ago.  

Each of these has a unique story of their own life experience.  Many crossed the ocean to carve out a new existence in America. Many were Swiss—representing at least four cantons, about four dozen were German, as many as ten held Dutch nationality, a few were French, and at least five were Irish.  And I have a few unknowns.  That’s where my genealogy ends.

But let’s assume out of those 372, they each had 372 ancestors ten generations further back.  That gives me 138,384 ancestors twenty generations ago, around the year 1300.  That is far less than the 524,288 I should have, assuming each ancestor a unique individual. Even if a full half of them were duplicates, I’m left with 65,000 people that I can statistically claim as ancestors.  Writing their names alone would fill more than a thousand-page book.  What are the statistics that every one of those had the same five nationalities as my most recent ancestors? The amount itself simply forces further diversity.

And we all experience this diversity, if we take an honest look at ancestry. Some Americans can claim ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War.  Some have found ancestors among the Native Americans, among Africans forced into slavery and transported to America, and among those engaging in the slave trade, all at the same time.  Go back further in time and the probability increases that your ancestors were not just the ones you perceive as friends, but also your foes.

And among these 65,000 people 700 years ago, what if they each had 372 ancestors ten generations back?  That’s twenty-four million ancestors in the year 950.  It is statistically inevitable that at least one of these is a Central Asian merchant of the Nestorian Christian persuasion. At least one is an Arab from the Maghreb practicing Muslim faith, one a caravanning Mongol whose abode lies far to the east in modern China, one a Hindu who bathed in the Ganges, and one a sub-Saharan African herding cattle within the shadow of Kilimanjaro.

I’m only considering a thousand years ago. Jump back another thousand years and it is not difficult to assume that nearly every person alive at that time was an ancestor, statistically speaking.  Even those island populations that have lived in relative isolation for tens of thousands of years, such as the indigenous populations of Australia, New Guinea, and the Andaman Islands would have had occasional escapees and castaways in nearly every generation who mixed with nearby continental populations. Over time the web that starts with yourself extends wider and wider back through time until everyone is included.

Modern DNA testing as it relates to family history grants us the ability to apply specific data towards these statistical results. Through a 23andMe DNA test, I found that my grandmother (mentioned above) has a small snippet of Native American ancestry, predicted to have arisen eight generations back. In one woman around the year 1730, I find the DNA evidence to include 200 to 400 Native American ancestors by the year 1380, and 40,000 in the year 1030, encompassing all the known Native peoples’ groups of the Mid-Atlantic region and likely far beyond.  Can anyone doubt that every one of those migrant families who resided along the Bering land bridge linking Siberia to Alaska during the last Ice Age 15,000 years ago was also an ancestor?  Of course, some left no descendants, but those who left descendants ultimately became the ancestors of all of us.

Through Y-DNA testing, we have uncovered that the prominent Mennonite Groff family shares Y-chromosome affinity not with fellow Swiss Mennonite families, but with a Greco-Roman cluster of Italian families with surnames such as Albarano, Margarelli and Visentin.  Through similar testing, we have uncovered that Mennonites who share the Swiss surname Hollinger, Hullinger or Holiger, have as their next closest matches the Saudi families Almotawa and Al Daihan and the Turkish family Kahanizaman. The Mennonite Metzler family, tracing their lineage of descent through Valentine Metzler, a German immigrant who arrived in Lancaster County with his father Jacob in 1738, has close Y-DNA matches to Jewish families such as Kronik (in Belarus), Cohen and Langer (in Ukraine) and Friedman and Wengrowski (in Poland).

These are only a few of the examples in which DNA showcases the statistical inevitability of diversity as one takes a serious look at ancestry. I haven’t even touched the Y-DNA results of the Mennonite Good family, which reveal an origin in Afghanistan predating the time of Alexander the Great. Nor have we seriously examined the Amish Bassinger families from Ohio, which have a Central Asian Y-DNA signature closer aligned to the Asian origins of the Native Americans than to most European families.  Nor have we investigated the selection of European surnames than showcase Y-DNA signatures more closely matching a recent African origin than the typical Celtic or Greco-Roman cultures of European antiquity.

An honest look at DNA can and should break down the racial prejudices that have defined the last few generations of family researchers.  DNA analysis provides concrete ways that forecast the inevitable diversity that a statistical evaluation of our ancestry requires. Eventually, given enough time, all humans around the world are included in our ancestry, along with their diverse cultures and traditions.  That fusion throws the ideas of genetic purity on its head.  If a pure genepool of humanity exists, it includes the genes of everyone. As family history research increasingly considers DNA as a means to fill in the gaps and extend family trees, these notions of inclusion become inevitable.

I certainly am privileged to be able to construct a genealogy of my ancestry back ten generations.  But DNA testing has now broken down these barriers.  Today, anyone, even one who knows nothing of his or her ancestry, can find pertinent and often surprising information through DNA testing. The most accurate records are the ones stored in our bodies. These records are now becoming accessible and, in many cases, challenge the assertions of a century of family history researchers.

I ponder what C. Z. Mast would think of genetic testing for family history as it exists today.  Would he selectively interpret it to confirm and promote his own stereotypes, or would he embrace the data in its diversity, extending the genealogical fence to include everyone?  I don’t know for sure, but I would like to think that C. Z. Mast could be persuaded through the presentation of DNA test results that his Swiss Mennonite ancestors were vastly more diverse than he could ever have imagined.


Darvin L. Martin is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University (B.S., Agriculture) and Millersville University (B.S., Analytical Chemistry).  As a real occupation, he tinkers with chemistry related instrumentation, but on the side, manages the “Mennonite and Amish Immigrants to Pennsylvania DNA Project” through Family Tree DNA.


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Chortitza region, Russia, October 1922

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#1-Chortitza, Fordson Tractors, Oct 1922

By mid-1922, many of the horses and other draft animals in South Russia had died due to the war and starvation. On June 26, Mennonite Central Committee purchased 25 Fordson tractors and Oliver gang plows, plus necessary spare parts, which left New York on July 24, arriving in Odessa in late August. These first tractor-plow units went to Chortitza and Molotschna. The total cost of the delivered shipment was US$13,838.90. A second shipment of tractors and plows left New York on December 23.

Frank Peachey, Mennonite Central Committee Archives

Argentine Relics

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ArgentinianRelics1

Relics from the early years of Mennonite mission work in Argentina: Catholic religious medals and symbols “given up” by converts. T.K. Hershey carried this little collection with him when he returned to tour North American churches. Sewed on to green sateen cloth and rolled up with a black velvet tie, he could unfurl this object lesson of mission success in individual or group presentations. From the museum collection, Mennonite Historical Library, Goshen (Ind.) College.

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of the arrival of Mennonite missions in Argentina. On September 11, 1917, the families of T.K. and Mae (Hertzler) Hershey and J.W. and Emma (Hershey) Shank stepped off the S.S. Vauban in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Shank had pursued a vision for mission outreach to Spanish-speaking people for over a decade. The Hersheys, inspired by the example of earlier missionaries to India, had first worked in a city mission in Youngstown.  The call to Argentina reached them in La Junta, Colorado where they had gone due to T.K.’s health.  In January 1919, after language study and scouting trips, the two families settled in Pehuajó, about 230 miles southwest of Buenos Aires.  Hershey later recalled that they were viewed as “foreigners, heretics, Protestants—despised, hated folks.”[^1] (Hershey. I’d Do It Again, 1961) In those early years, most of the Mennonite mission work in Argentina focused on evangelizing Catholics.  (See Hershey’s translation of the tract they distributed in Pehaujó during that first year).  In the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen, we have many published and other resources to explore some of the many results of those first Mennonite steps on Argentinian soil: evolving approaches to mission, influence on outreach to Spanish-speaking people in Chicago, examples of collaboration and alienation, and much more.

Joe Springer, Curator, Mennonite Historical Library