Mennonites and the Holocaust: “Neighbors, Killers, Enablers, Witnesses”

20180316_110912Bookending Doris Bergen’s lecture “Neighbors, Killers, Enablers, Witnesses: The Many Roles of Mennonites in the Holocaust” was the call for more scholarship. Her talk, the keynote of the Mennonites and the Holocaust Conference and convocation for Bethel College, focused on the challenges of doing Holocaust scholarship.  Bergen—who is Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto—explored five specific challenges, increasing in difficulty, with the note that “like those nesting dolls”, each opens new issues even as the resolve others.

The first challenge looked at insider/outsider scholarship, including its costs and benefits. Mennonite scholars come with some advantages–they have access to some sources, especially oral memories–that could not be found by outsiders. Insiders also make special note  of details others might miss: Bergen recounted being at a talk about the nature of the guards at Auschwitz, and in the general spreadsheet of place of origin and other statistics was a column on religion; one Mennonite was listed. “As an insider you notice and care,” noted Bergen. However, insiders face disadvantages. She singled out the push and pull of mythologies, especially “the myth of Mennonite innocence,” as a factor that can lead scholars to attack, defend, or censor themselves.

The second challenge was the question of definitions, specifically “what is a Mennonite” and “what is the Holocaust?” For the former she gave two guidelines. First, a warning to avoid “the temptation to define to distract” where you become so caught up in the words that you lose sight of the matter at hand. Second, she stressed the importance of having a functional definition of identity, not one based on fluid individual identities, but one that accounts for accounts for all ages and genders, covers communal bonds and how Mennonite identity can be constructed. She also included an admonition not to forget the women, “as defining, narrating, and performing Mennonitism has largely been the work of women.” For the latter, she noted that a proper definition of the Holocaust would consider a chronological range, encompassing both the prewar years and the immediate postwar period, as well as  being constructed by the identity of the perpetrators not the victims.

Bergen’s third challenge was to maintain a clear focus on the way Jews maintained a particular place of destruction in the Holocaust, being mindful of anti-Semitism. It is especially important for Mennonites to examine how Jews and anti-Semitism are built into our narratives. As one example, she recounted hearing how “Mennonites were [like] Jews” being told as the description of their experience; an inversion common across genocides where people take on the identity of victims “as a way of erasing their memory of their roles as victimizers.” She also noted how in Mennonite literature, especially in texts in the 1920s and 1930s, Jews become narrated as villains. The solution to this held up by Bergen was to incorporate literary scholars into the research to help analyze texts deeply, as opposed to taking them at face value. She also highlighted the need to have multiple sources, not just Mennonite and German ones, but Jewish, Roma, and more as well.

20180316_110409The fourth challenge was the questions “how do we avoid writing scholarship that is moralistic or judgemental?” Bergen’s response was to start by noting that studying genocide does not imply that she would personally have done better had she lived in a genocidal context, but “scholarship is about analyzing and understanding–how could people like us behave certain ways?” She also warned against the tendency to use avoiding judgement as a way to avoid discussion. This also gets caught up with the maintenance of Mennonite mythology. One solution given was to use the tools of genocide scholarship, which use comparison. “Mennonites were not unique, though distinctive, many of the issues we explore have been and are being confronted by many other people,” said Bergen, “These can be humbling and extremely liberating.”

The final challenge, as articulated at the beginning, was the need for more scholarship, particularly work “that will contextualize the topic, that will be discipline, that will look for unknown unknowns” an use a broad range of sources and tools. While this is an impossible task for an individual, it becomes possible if many become involved. Specific topics of research named included the Stutthoff concentration camp (situated among Mennonite communities), interactions between Mennonites and Roma, pre-war relations with Jews, and the role of singing and music.

Professor Bergen’s research focuses on issues of religion, gender, and ethnicity in the Holocaust and World War II and comparatively in other cases of extreme violence. During the keynote, she confided that she had not grown up with an innate interest in Mennonite history–indeed she actively avoided it–but it found her nonetheless via the topics she researched; at every turn, Mennonites popped out of the archive. Bergen’s books include Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich (1996); War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust (2003); The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Centuries (edited, 2004); and Lessons and Legacies VIII (edited, 2008).1



Reviewed: Our Amish Devotional Heritage

Our Amish Devotional Heritage: From the Collection of the Heritage Historical Library, by David Luthy. Aylmer, Ont.: Pathway Publishers, 2016. 134 pp. Hard cover. Color illustrations.

OADHOur Amish Devotional Heritage is a consideration of religious and devotional literature used by the Amish, though not strictly comprehensive. It aims to be a less-academic counterpart to Robert Friedmann’s Mennonite Piety through the Centuries.1 Like other works from the Heritage Library, it also functions as an annotated and illustrated catalog of the library’s holdings.

The work is structured in five sections: Bibles and Bible Portions, Hymnals and Songbooks, Prayerbooks, Martyr Books, and Miscellaneous, each richly illustrated.

The Bible section begins with the Vulgate and Gutenberg versions, then moves to German-language editions, giving extensive treatment of the fourteen editions of the Froschauer Bible. The detailed listing of books kept by the Heritage Library are a mix of material construction and provenance, with notable descriptors as relevant—this remains the case throughout the rest of the book. There are a few details of interest to genealogists, such as the note that family registers started appearing within Bibles in the 1800s.

The second section, on hymnals, starts with Etliche Schone Christliche Geseng, then quickly moves onto the Ausbund and variations thereof. It then moves through Schrift and Lieder Registers (schedules of Scriptures and songs to be used in worship services), Unpartheysisches Gesangbuch, and Liedersammlung “B” and “G”, and the host of small songbooks used outside worship.

Especially interesting is Luthy’s consideration of the Ausbund hymns in that he includes in his survey Ausbund hymns that appear in non-Amish hymnals. This meshes nicely with a section on Lutheran-derived hymns that are used by the Amish. “Both Mennonites and Amish accepted Lutheran hymns, but only those which include no particular Lutheran doctrine.” To help contextualize these hymns, he includes short biographies of the Lutheran writers whose hymns appear in Amish hymnals.

The discussion on prayer books starts with Die Ernsthafte Christenpflicht and editions, including discussion on authorship of the prayers contained within. It also covers Golden Apples in Silver Bowls, Lustgärtlein, and Rules of a Godly Life.

Section four, on martyr books, is the smallest section, with some discussion of the early Dutch work Het Offer des Heeren, but mostly serving as an appendix to the 2013 publication A History of the Printings of the Martyrs Mirror. It is followed by the miscellaneous section covering daily devotionals, inspirational posters, devotional booklets and tracts, religious fiction, and several Sammelbands (collections of shorter works bound as a single volume).

Our Amish Devotional Heritage is generally a very helpful reference book and introductory text, especially given the full-color illustration and the low price. It is hampered by a poor font selection, which makes extended reading difficult. English-language speakers should also note that some of the textual comparisons are done in German only, with no English translation. Those faults, however, do not detract from the worthy accomplishment of organizing such a vast swath of literature in such an accessible way.

  1.  Robert Friedmann, Mennonite Piety through the Centuries: Its Genius and Its Literature, Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite History, no. 7 (Goshen, Ind.: Mennonite Historical Society, 1949). 

Power, History, and the Future Church Summit

Shortly after we married, my wife turned to me and asked, “Why are all the influential men in the Mennonite church historians?”

Strictly speaking, this is not a true statement, with Orie O. Miller and George Brunk1 being examples of North American Mennonite leaders who did not work historically. But, working from my context with Mennonites in the United States, there is a strong line of Mennonite leaders using history as a tool towards power, specifically the power that comes with shaping the story of Mennonites.2  The story has played a role in the way Mennonites understand their identity, and  has contributed to power dynamics in Mennonite historiography that must be reckoned with. (For a parallel in how institutions have shaped history, see posts by Jason Kauffman and Simone Horst.)

The following is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but merely a demonstration of how intimately enmeshed history is with influencing Mennonite identity and faith, a project many of these embraced as “creating a useable past.”

  • The immigrant Bishop Heinrich Funk (d. 1760) worked alongside Dielman Kolb and others to have the Ephrata Martyrs’ Mirror translated and printed as a way to remember the mythic origin of Anabaptism in the face of the Seven Years’ War.3

  • His grandson, John F. Funk (1835-1930), worked to create a unified Mennonite community, as best exemplified by Herald of Truth.  His publishing house worked to create a usable past for this newly “unified” community, reprinting texts such as The Martyrs’ Mirror  and the 1632 Dortrecht Confession of Faith.4

  • C. Henry Smith (1875-1948) wrote “Christian Peace: Four Hundred Years of Mennonite Peace Principles and Practice” as a brief overview of how Anabaptists have practiced nonresistance, written for workers in CO camps. The pamphlet ends with a doctrinal and ecclesiological discussion on the future of the peace testimony. Threats include “the subtle influence creeping into the church from certain short cut Bible schools which are committed to an unwholesome overemphasis on a militant millenarianism . . .”5

  • Harold S. Bender (1897-1962) perhaps most clearly illustrates this trend with the Anabaptist vision he and his students promoted. Because of some doctrinal disagreements, his position at Goshen was in history rather than Bible or theology, the fields of his formal training. Fred Kniss notes in Disquiet in the Land that this meant “he was thus able to avoid most of the divisive disputes over doctrine. By concentrating on Anabaptist-Mennonite history, he was able to concentrate on questions that drew communalism back into the center of Mennonite discussion.”6

  • John Howard Yoder (1927-1997), while a theologian, rooted his work in a historical methodology. The Politics of Jesus works towards systematic ethics and theology with biblical and historical scholarship. In his “Anabaptist Vision with Mennonite Reality,” John D. Roth notes that one of the innate tensions in Politics is a confusing use of history, where Anabaptism is claimed as a hermeneutic but used as a historical possibility.7

  • Moving towards the contemporary era, John D. Roth continues the tradition of historians playing leading roles in the Mennonite church with the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and its initiative, the Bearing Witness Stories Project, both of which work to create a useable past from the experience of Anabaptists around the globe.8

  • Ervin R. Stutzman, current executive director of Mennonite Church USA, also has historical inclinations. He has published a series of historical fiction novels, including the Return to Northkill series, looking at the encounters between the Hochstetler family and Native Americans, as well as From Nonresistance to Justice: The Transformation of Mennonite Church Peace Rhetoric 1908-2008, which is a rhetorical and historical look at how Mennonites articulate what they believe about peace.

All these have given valuable contributions to the Mennonite understanding of who they are, as well as helped conversations with how the faith community has related and interacted with broader culture. But it is important to recognize the power, albeit soft power, therein. One demonstration of this is, as Felipe Hinojosa notes, how “historian after historian has ignored the calls by Black and Brown Mennonites—and marginal white Mennonites— that offer us alternative visions of the future church.

The power of history as a tool for understanding and controlling identity came to the forefront during Mennonite Church USA’s Future Church Summit (FCS), part of MC USA’s biennial convention. The FCS was billed as an opportunity for the denomination to imagine what it means to “follow Jesus as Anabaptists in the 21st century.” After building community with the table groups on the first day, the process turned to the question, “How our past has shaped us and what this may mean for us going forward?”9 To provide context, there was a plenary presentation that featured John D. Roth, Erica Littlewolf (Northern Cheyenne), Jason B. Kauffman, Bishop Leslie Francisco III, and Regina Shands Stoltzfus presenting a timeline of Mennonite history, graphically presented as a tangled vine growing from sixteenth century roots and stretching into the future.

An effort was made to be as broad and inclusive as possible in the process. There was diversity represented among the presenters, with representation from African Americans and Native Americans, and participants were reassured that they would have the opportunity, indeed, were encouraged, to come up afterwards and expand the timeline. Some interesting dynamics were explored, especially as Erica Littlewolf teased out how Mennonite narratives of coming into the land and finding freedom and prosperity directly contradicted her people’s experience of suffering.

There were problems in the presentation’s content, however, with significant gaps in the material presented. There was no mention of the rich Hispanic Mennonite tradition (though this was partly because a representative could not make it at the last moment), no past for the LGBTQ Mennonites (perhaps not surprising given the politics of MC USA), and no mention of the old General Conference Mennonites (an omission, I am told, that left some people so angry they could barely speak). The history as it was told did not contain all people present.

However, the content gaps were not the most striking disconnect in the presentation. Most striking was that the lack of recognition of the power dynamics inherent in history, especially in the Mennonite church context, since church history has been equated with stories of belonging that are told in our faith tradition. The opening remark, “We all know that is history is an argument” was an example of this. It may be a true statement in the academy, but it is at odds with how history has been embodied publicly in Mennonite congregations and schools.10

History in the Mennonite church has been a tool of authority, giving an absolute view of what happened in the past. History has been a firm foundation for the purpose of maintaining Mennonite identity, not a malleable past that can be argued. There was a fundamental disconnect between the useable past given to summit participants and the history many attendees had been primed to receive by experience in church and school. This is in part why the reaction to the historical gaps was so strong: people were looking for a useable past that told them who they were, but instead were told that they needed to find history for themselves.11

As historians choosing to practice history within the church, we need to be aware of the weight of interpreting the past. The place to start is to give careful attention to the contours of power surrounding Mennonite historiography, an investigation that deserves further attention. It is from this place that we can work with individuals, congregations and broader church institutions to create history that is in the service of living traditions.12



  1.  I have not made an extensive study of George Brunk and his thought, but am basing this claim on a conversation with Javan Lapp, who has studied revivalism among Old Order and conservative Mennonites. 
  2.  There is also an interesting phenomena where non-historians writers have felt they need to translate their work into history in order to speak into the Church, but that is outside the scope of this post. 
  3.  Zijpp, Nanne van der, Harold S. Bender and Richard D. Thiessen, “Martyrs’ Mirror.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, November 2014 (accessed July 19, 2017). 
  4.  Ted Maust, “”Union with such as we might perhaps otherwise never know”: John F. Funk and the Herald of Truth, 1854-1864,” Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage 38 no. 2 (April 2015): 40-54. 
  5.  C. Henry Smith, “Christian Peace: Four Hundred Years of Mennonite Peace Principles and Practice” (Peace Committee of the General Conference of the Mennonite Church in North America, 1938), 31. 
  6.  Fred Kniss, Disquiet in the Land: Cultural Conflict in American Mennonite Communities (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 65; James C. Juhnke Vision, Doctrine, War: Mennonite Identity and Organization in America, 1890-1930 Mennonite Experience in America Vol. 3 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1985), 277-282. 
  7.  John D. Roth, “Living Between the Times: ‘The Anabaptist Vision and Mennonite Reality’ Revisited” in Refocusing a Vision, ed. John D. Roth (Goshen, Ind.: Mennonite Historical Society, 1995); John Howard Yoder, “Anabaptist Vision and Mennonite Reality,” in A. J. Klassen, ed., Consultation on Anabaptist-Mennonite Theology (Fresno, Cal.: Council of Mennonite Seminaries, 1970). 
  8. Goshen College, “Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism”, (Accessed July 19,2017). 
  9.  Mennonite Church USA, “Future Church Summit,” (accessed July 19, 2017). I attended as the delegate for Pilgrims Mennonite Church, Akron, Pennsylvania. Most of the material going forward is based on my personal notes. 
  10.  In his ethnographic study of Mennonite schools in Lancaster, Pa., Ken Sensenig notes, “Heritage [that is, history] awareness plays a significant role in Greenfield’s attempts to maintain its peace position. Remembering and interpreting the people and concepts which gave birth to the Anabaptist/Mennonites during the sixteenth century Reformation is one important method of teaching peace at this school. [. . .] More formal heritage training takes place in the classroom, with both schools devoting courses exclusively to the study of Mennonite and general church history. The commitment to peace and justice is an important focus of these studies. Kenneth L. Sensenig, “An Ethnographic Approach to the Study of Sociopolitical Views in Two Mennonite High Schools.” (Dissertation, Temple University, Philadelphia, 1991), 91-92. 
  11. This is not a bad way to do history in the church, but it is not how many are accustomed to it to being done. 
  12.  I borrow this phrase from William H. Katerberg, “Is there Such a Thing as ‘Christian’ History?” Fides et Historia 34:1 (winter/Spring 2002): 57-66. 

Dispatches from Crossing the Line

This weekend, June 22 to 24,  “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” is taking place at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Throughout the conference, contributors to Anabaptist Historians will give short dispatches for those who are unable to attend in person. “Crossing the Line” builds on the 1995 conference “The Quiet in Land? Women of Anabaptist Traditions in Historical Perspectives” held at Millersville University.


Anabaptist Historians contributors at “Crossing the Line.” From Left to right: Ben Goossen, Christina Entz Moss, Joel Horst Nofziger, Simone Horst, Devin Manzullo-Thomas, and Anna Showalter.

The conference opened with a plenary address by Hasia Diner of New York University entitled: “Jewish Women in America: A History of Their Own.” The presentation was framed by how each facet of her title—“American,” “Jewish,” and “women” shaped the experience of these individuals.

While admitting that she works a very different group from Anabaptists, she noted similarities between the two ethno-religious communities, noting that both were shaped by an inability to disconnect religion and group identity, and living lives according to the demands of religious tradition while maintaining boundaries with host cultures.

Diner noted that in America, the experience took a distinct turn for Jewish women, when they began to gain influence within the synagogue. Traditionally, synagogues were strictly male public spaces, and while the men were obligated to attend, women were neither required nor expected to come. This could be seen architecturally, where women sat hidden behind thick walled screens, able to see and hear only through thin slits into the synagogue. But in America, as Jewish women observed how heavily Protestant women were engaged with church life, they too began to push for more engagement, including starting to attend synagogue. The building design then changed, with the women’s balconies opening up and more fully allowing for the women to seen and be seen. This in part could also be traced to the Female Hebrew Benevolence associations formed by Jewish women which provided social functions, as well as aid for the poor and travelers. The men of the synagogues often turned to these associations for moneys to construct new synagogues, but the money was conditional on the women, who were successful fundraisers, to have more input.


Hasia Diner delivering the opening presentation at “Crossing the Line.”

She also noted that Jewish immigrants had a distinct experience from their contemporary eastern European immigrants. While Italians immigrated three men for every woman, and the Greeks eight men for every woman, Jewish communities migrated equally, both men and women. Especially when looking at which children to bring, Jewish families brought the oldest children, regardless of gender, while the other eastern European immigrants preferentially brought sons. Diner noted that this was because girls were not a liability in the family task of raising enough funds to bring the remainder of the family to America. In the garment industry, where many young women worked, there was no disadvantage based on gender, other than less pay. Interestingly, because many Jewish women were working in the garment industry and could clearly see that they were being paid less and facing harassment their male counterparts were not, they flocked to trade unions.

Diner noted that the question of why to study (Jewish) women was obvious: “No man was ever defined as a problem in the synagogue.” Women also had different experience than men in work culture, as well as in education. She noted a constant tension in that while the women organized and responded to local needs, the men quickly decided that the cause was “too important to be controlled by women” and would wrest control. This was the case for what has become the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, as well as the National Council of Jewish Women’s project to station receiving volunteers for single Jewish women arriving to Ellis Island.

She ended the presentation by hoping that it gave a way to think about intersectionality, and especially in thinking about how people juggle identity and demands.

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

What Young Historians Are Thinking

For the last five years, it has been my pleasure to organize “What Young Historians are Thinking” as part of my responsibilities at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society. This event brings together young or early-career historians connected to historic peace churches, and lets them share their work in a public forum. Over the years, presentations have covered topics as varied as early Anabaptist hymnody and the life of John F. Funk, to the treatment of Moravians in the American revolution and the legal position of the Amish in the United States today.

This year’s lecture will be held Monday, June 5, beginning at 7 p.m. at Ridgeview Mennonite Church, Gordonville, Pennsylvania. Preview the evening with their abstracts below.

“What Young Historians Are Thinking” is sponsored by the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society; the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies; The Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies; and the Menno Simons Historical Library at Eastern Mennonite University.

Mapping Peace: 100 years of American Friends Service Committee Transnational Work

Steven Baumann

After World War I, when most of the world was focused on punishing Germany, Quakers crossed international boundaries to establish a program called Quakerspeisung which helped over one million people get food in thousands of feeding centers. While this operation was unique for the world, in that most people did not think to help rebuild after the devastation of war, it was not unique for the Religious Society of Friends, a church with a long history of peace work.

This year is the one-hundredth anniversary of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), an organization on a mission to promote lasting peace with justice, as a practical expression of faith in action. Although the AFSC won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947, it remains one of the most understudied historical peace organizations in the world, despite an enormous amount of personal memoirs, official documentation, and local histories. Using the Philadelphia archives of the AFSC, I will map the locations and operations of the AFSC throughout its history in order to show the global reach of its relief and rehabilitation efforts.

My study will not just show where the AFSC worked and operated, but also inquire as to why places were chosen for transnational peace connections to be made. By tracing the location and the connections between the operations in Philadelphia and work done across the world, I will argue that the AFSC is a truly global non-governmental organization that transcended national boundaries long before it was standard practice to do transnational work.

One of God’s Avenues of Progress: Exploring the Outcomes of the Brethren in Christ’s Evangelical Visitor

Micah B. Brickner
In 1874, the Brethren in Christ General Council considered creating a denominational publication, but the subject was postponed.1 After thirteen years of debate and discussion, the Brethren agreed to a petition from the Michigan district to publish the Evangelical Visitor for a trial period of four years.2 However, the implementation of this new communication medium was not without opposition. In the 50th anniversary edition of the Evangelical Visitor, Editor Vernon L. Stump addressed the opposition to the publication:

“There were those then, and they are to be found in every age, who could not see the need, nor recognize this as one of God’s avenues of progress, and felt that there were too many evils attendant to the launching of a publication […]”3

Despite the disapproval that the editors of the Evangelical Visitor faced, the periodical played a significant role in shaping the identity of the church. Historian Carlton O. Wittlinger identifies four outcomes that resulted from the publication: (1) unifying a geographically diverse church; (2) expanding the religious and intellectual horizons of the community; (3) facilitating change regarding methodologies of ministry; and (4) illustrating the advantages of education.4

For this paper, my research will expound upon Wittlinger’s observations on how the Evangelical Visitor impacted the Brethren in Christ. I will also explore how the opposition to the publication may have directly correlated to these aforementioned outcomes. Finally, I will propose several insights for contemporary Anabaptist churches in regards to their communication methods and potential areas of caution.

Mennonite Films as Cultural Markers

Joel Horst Nofziger

Modern American society often turns to film as a tool to understand past, giving this medium vast control over how the collective memory is retained. This relationship between film and memory is curious in the Mennonite community, which has not been a major viewer of movies, nor prolific producers of feature length films. Since 1974, there have been only four Mennonite non-documentary films made in the United States. The first of this these was Hazel’s People (originally titled Happy as the Grass was Green) by Merle Good. Three others followed: The Weight (1983), The Radicals (1990), and Pearl Diver (2004).

For the purpose of this presentation, Mennonite films are defined as films made by people self-identifying as Mennonites. As works of art reveal their creators, these films necessarily also deal with Mennonite identity. While meant for broad audiences, all four films retain a distinct character due to the Anabaptist tradition which created them. These films are documents of Mennonite identity. This presentation will consider these films in context, and specifically examine how they address martyrdom.

  1. Origin Confession of Faith, and Church Government (Abilene, Kans.: The News Book and Job Print, 1901), 10. 
  2. Minutes of the General Conference of the Brethren in Christ, 1887. 
  3. Stump, Vernon L. “When… Why… How…” Evangelical Visitor Vol. L, (August 28–29, 1937): 7. 
  4. Carlton O. Wittlinger, Quest for piety and obedience: the story of the Brethren in Christ (Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel Press, 1978), 269. 

A Review of New (Swiss-German) Mennonite Historical Fiction

My Loyalist Origins, by Herb Swartz. Victoria, B. C.: Friesen Press, 2015. 275 pp. Paperback. $15. ISBN: 978-1-4602-7458-3.

Both My Sons, by Ken Yoder Reed. Morgantown, Pa.: Masthof Press, 2016. 412 pp. Paperback. $19.95. ISBN: 978-1-60126-499-2.

Christian’s Hope, by Ervin R. Stutzman. Harrisonburg, Va.: Herald Press, 2016. 339 pp. (paper). $14.99. ISBN: 978-0-8361-9942-0.

In his excellent monograph on what it means to understand the past, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, Sam Wineburg relates an experience from his 1996 study of how ordinary people understand themselves in relation to the past. In one interview, he spoke with a father who wanted his daughter to understand the Vietnam War experience. The father did not look to books of history, nor his coworker who fought in the war; instead he suggested, “We’ll have to get a copy of The Green Berets, you know, with John Wayne or something like that, so she’s a little bit more aware of what was going on. I don’t know how accurate all that is, but a least it would bring up some questions” (232). Fiction shapes how we see the past. Three historical fiction novels with the ability to shape how modern Anabaptists see the past were published in 2016: My Loyalist Origins, by Herb Swartz; Both My Sons, by Ken Reed; and Christian’s Hope, by Ervin Stutzman. 

My Loyalist OriginsHerb Swartz’s My Loyalist Origins is an attempt to work through his personal identity through historical fiction. He tells the story of the founding of America, from colonialism through the Revolutionary War, with some forays earlier back in time to discuss the origins of Anabaptism. Structured as a series of dreams with brief intervals of lucidity, Swartz gives a semi-historical account with a sometimes thin ribbon of story tying it all together. The book has six sections covering the discovery of America; the origins of Pennsylvania and Anabaptism; early wars, both colonial and the Revolution; the creation of the United States government; loyalist emigration to Canada, focusing on the Mennonite experience; and the settlement of Ebytown, now Kitchener, Ontario.

Swartz’s approach to understanding his personal origins in a very broad context is interesting, and he does attempt to create an approachable past throughout the book. He clearly understands that people operate in a broader milieu, and that understanding the world around them is key to gaining insight into how they understand themselves. So committed is he to helping readers understand the political environments of those colonial Americans that he includes the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, the United States Constitution, and a list of failed amendments as appendices to his book.

However, the narrative framework—a secret-agent style television producer pays Swartz-as-narrator to research his origins as background for a “rest of the story” television show, a process that inspires a feverish series of dreams he has that show him the way back—are less compelling and require great suspension of disbelief. Swartz seems to be writing more for himself, and allowing us to accompany him on his journey to see what we might learn from it. There is value in this, but it is not presented neatly. It must be found.

Unfortunately, My Loyalist Origins falls apart with a flurry of small errors, some of which I will cover, often in short, offhand comments. Puerto Rico is not the island of Hispaniola, as he mentions on page 20; Hispaniola is modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He also gives a classic monogenesis of Anabaptism in Chapter 10, as opposed to the more accurate polygenesis account. He dreams of a Quaker member of parliament in 1739 objecting to the War of Jenkins Ear (79-80), but Friends were not allowed to serve in the British Parliament until the 1798 Act of Toleration allowed them to take seats without swearing oaths. Longbows were not invented by the Scottish and during the wars of Scottish independence (114) led by Robert the Bruce—longbows are generally considered to be Welsh, and were in use centuries earlier. Swartz could have used a better fact checker. None are major errors, but as they pile on, they cloud the truth that Swartz does include.

Both My Sons Front Cover, 6.9.16Both My Sons, by Ken Reed, is a story of leaving and belonging, reconciliation and redemption, capturing in broad strokes the experiences of early immigrants to what is now Lancaster County. Reed tells the story through Klaus Greenywalt, a composite of early immigrants. The story centers around Greenywalt’s relationship to his two sons, one of which is legitimate, and their mothers—one being his European Mennonite wife, the other his Scots-Irish mistress (taken while he thought his wife had died in Europe). We are carried along as Greenywalt converts in Europe while working for a Mennonite miller after the murder of his father, purchases land in the original Pequea settlement, is involved with colonial administration, helps foster further Mennonite immigration, loses his eldest son, and dies during the middle of the French and Indian war, all the while trying to maintain relationships with his children and peace between their mothers.

Reed does engage in interesting use of perspective in Both My Sons, with two middle sections being told from the perspectives of “the indentured girl,” Janey, with whom he has an affair, and “the wife.” This helps provide fuller insight into the colonial experience—not just the perspective of a white male Mennonite settler.

Where Both My Sons runs into trouble is the nature of truth when history and fiction collide, a problem exacerbated by his characterization through historical composite. There is one notable absence in the Pequea Settlement as portrayed by Reed: Martin Kendig. Greenywalt is clearly modeled heavily from Kendig: a major land dealer, returning to Europe to recruit immigrants, and even occupying the same tracts of land on the representation of the Pequea settlement. Kendig was, however, not an adulterer, and so did not share the engaging conflict that makes Greenywalt such a compelling character. When doing history, it is important to treat those who lived in the past with respect, and eliminating Kendig without comment is not treating his subject with due deference. Reed is writing fiction, and as such has great liberty to shape his story; perhaps that he does not let historical accuracy impede a good story is a testament to his imagination. But because he is writing historical fiction instead of creating a story from scratch, he is responsible for the past he presents.

Reed makes an attempt to address this in his disclaimer, “But is it true?.” He answers, “the central character, Greenywalt, is an invention of the author. . . . The scenes and conversations of his life are imaginary. However, the main events and people in Greenywalt’s world are real” (xi). This slipperiness between history and fiction, as best indicated by the curious case of Martin Kendig, while allowing for an enjoyable story, limits its historical usefulness in appreciating the lives of those who have gone before.

Christian's-Hope-Final-medium-webChristian’s Hope, like Both My Sons, is a novel of colonial Pennsylvania set just after the French and Indian War. The third and final installment in the Return To Northkill series picks up the story of Christian Hochstetler, the youngest son of Jacob Hochstetler. Christian, having lived with the Shawnee for eight years following his capture during the “Hochstetler Massacre,” is forced to return to his father and colonial Pennsylvania society due to the terms of the treaty ending the French and Indian War. Back on the farm, he struggles to reintegrate with his birth family and farm life, bound by a vow to remain true to the native way of life. He finds peace through an enticing relationship with Orpha Rupp and her Dunkard community.

Stutzman’s prose is clear and engaging, keeping the story moving at a steady clip. Though it is part of a series, it is not necessary to have read the prior novels, Jacob’s Choice and Joseph’s Dilemma, to appreciate Christian’s Hope. The details are filled in through a prologue and some flashbacks.

In contrast to Both My Sons, Christian’s Hope sets up an excellent author-reader contract. Stutzman is clear where he has taken liberties and what we do not know. In the preface before the novel, and the historical note after, Stutzman gives helpful historical context, clearly states what he changed for clarity, and admits what cannot be known.

As I was working on this review, I discussed it with a scholar friend of mine. He said, “I don’t have the time to read that sort of stuff, but I suppose somebody has to.” The issue of time is a real one, but he is missing out on some of the most important works on Mennonite history to come out in 2016 on two counts. First, fiction allows us to enter the past in a more intimate way, such as when we follow Greenywalt on the long road to his son’s funeral or enter the conviction of Christian’s conversion. Secondly, history is made of the stories we tell ourselves. This is the only way we understand the past, and on that account these works are important because stories of the past are being told, and being told in an accessible way. The importance of historical fiction, despite any errors individual works have, is that it gives us an accessible past that we can use. As the father muses in his interview with Wineberg, “at least it would bring up some questions.” Each of these books is worth picking up.

A condensed version of this review first appeared in Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage 40:1 (January 2017)