My Anabaptist Heritage and the Classroom

“Why does a historian study the dead ‘past’? To reveal how much of it lives in us today.”1 Recently Abigail told me that she has this brief quotation posted on her refrigerator. She had noted it during one of my lectures and wanted to keep it where she would see it every time she opened her fridge door. During our conversation, she owned that in the class on “Canadian Church History” that she had recently completed with me, she had learned for the first time that slavery is a part of our nation’s past. North of the 49th parallel, we prefer to focus on our role in helping enslaved people towards freedom through the Underground Railroad.2 As the hard truth was exposed, she confided, a new awareness of her own racism began to emerge. Our conversation confirmed for me that some of my passion for the classroom had stuck. My sense of mission had born fruit.3

My life in university classrooms spans five decades. Early on in my student life I began to imagine myself in the role of professor. I recall sitting in a class on “Canadian Indian History,” as it was called then, observing Professor Palmer Patterson and admiring his passion. As a quiet, reserved young woman sitting towards the back of the room, I remember thinking how I’d like to end up where he was, behind the podium – teaching. Not long after that Professor Patterson began to draw me out of my reserve; he assisted me in moving forward, helping to kindle the passion that he had observed in that student in the back of the classroom. His invitation to work under him as a graduate student, and to fill the role of teaching assistant was a critical moment in my development. As an undergraduate, I also admired Professor Frank Epp’s clear understanding of the multiple expressions of Mennonites in Canada and their common Anabaptist heritage that tied them together. He, too, would become a significant mentor.

Decades later I reflect back on being at the front of countless classrooms, attempting to kindle in my students some of the passion that had sparked mine as a young undergraduate. In my development as a teaching professor, I have been inspired by many scholars. Some of those are Anabaptist. But the two thinkers that I find myself returning to again and again are neither Brethren in Christ nor Mennonite. They are Jewish and Quaker. This is hardly surprising, I suppose, with the cultural connections shared between Jewish and Mennonite communities, and shared principles in Anabaptist and Quaker perspectives on peace.

A secular Jew who narrowly escaped the Nazi invasion of Austria, Gerda Lerner’s career as a historian that included the founding of women’s studies, played itself out in the United States. I share Lerner’s feminist principles. But I am a Canadian historian, formed by my Brethren in Christ background and adult academic and faith journey shaped, in part, in Mennonite communities. Although the classrooms where I have taught have been in Liberal Arts institutions and a School of Religious Studies, and they have rarely included Anabaptist students, it seems that whether I’m teaching women’s studies, Canadian history or church history, I come back to Gerda Lerner’s stimulating essay collection Why History Matters, again and again.4

Lerner has spoken to my desire to kindle in students a sense of knowing who they are in relationship to their own past, and that of others. Her work has provided a paradigm for incorporating into my course syllabi those who have suffered intolerance and persecution in the past – indigenous peoples, people of African-Canadian heritage, Asian Canadians, those with Eastern European roots, and the women who comprise more than fifty per cent of every cultural group.5 Lerner’s insistent plea, that the failure to give expression to the underside and dark moments of the past – the horrors of wars, holocausts, genocides, slavery, rape, sexual abuse – will allow such atrocities to happen again and again, reinforces my Anabaptist beliefs.6

Including voices infrequently heard means making hard decisions. What do I omit, so I can do this work? Who decides what is critical? How does one integrate the previously voiceless into the canon? Although none of this is obvious, my Anabaptist background means that from childhood I have viewed the world from outside the mainstream. I have known myself as ‘the other’. This formation has trained me to see the hidden dark places in history; it has planted in me the hope that exposure will promote healing. My Anabaptist background has me teaching in trust that creating an environment that allows students to do some of their own reconciliation work will do its small part in working towards healing and justice.

Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach provides a helpful paradigm for this reconciliation work in the classroom: “Knowing of any sort is relational, animated by a desire to come into deeper community with what we know.”7His insistence that in the classroom the student and the teacher must be in relationship, not just with each other, but with the knowledge that they are together deepening into, provides a model for a community of learners. Abigail responded with surprise as she began to own her previously unnamed racist attitudes; I have also heard students’ gratitude for the naming of their personal hurts and sense of exclusion. As we grow in community with each other and our subject matter, students come to know themselves in a deeper way, even as I do, semester after semester.

In my academic journey teaching mostly Canadian history and Women’s Studies in the Liberal Arts in a variety of universities and colleges in three Canadian provinces, the student with Anabaptist background sitting in my classrooms has been rare. But as I often hear from students whether they are theology, history, women’s studies, Canadian studies majors, that they’ve come out of our experience together in the classroom with a deepened sense of community. They have entered into relationship with me and with each other, as we together deepen our knowledge. Some, like Abigail, tell me that they have gained a new awareness of the necessity to hear the voices of the marginalized and oppressed. Others come to a deeper sense of their own experience of being ‘the other’, sometimes hurt deeply by their experience.

Are my classrooms Anabaptist? I have come to see that at least in part, my attraction to both Gerda Lerner’s insistence on exposing the dark side, and Parker Palmer’s relational way of knowing is a product of my Anabaptist formation shaped by my Brethren in Christ and Mennonite background heritage. As I reflect on my Anabaptist heritage and how it has shaped my experience of the classroom, I, too, come into a deeper knowing and relationship with the past.


  1. Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 54.
  2. Denise Gillard, “The Black Church in Canada,” McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry, Vol. 1 (1998).
  3. See, for instance, my Presidential address to the 1917 meeting of the Canadian Society of Church History published as “Reflections on the Necessity of Canadian Church History, Historical Papers, Canadian Society of Church History (1917).
  4. Thirty-five years ago, on 1 April 1982, Gerda Lerner spoke to the Organization of American Historians in Philadelphia, on “The Necessity of History and the Professional Historian.” It has since been published in her thought-provoking Why History Matters: Life and Thought (NY: Oxford University Press, 1997): 113-28.
  5. For a helpful discussion on the Canadian history of discriminatory legislation, please see Allan Levine, “Slow Road to Tolerance” Canada’s History (April-May 2016), 41-47.
  6. It also parallels the work of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where the revisionist work of numerous Canadian historians figures prominently. See “Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,” Vol. I: Summary “Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future,” (Toronto: Lorimer, 2015). J.R. Miller, Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools (University of Toronto, 1997) and John S. Milloy, A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 – 1986 (Winnipeg, MB: University of Manitoba, 1999) are key in this work.
  7. Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach, 54.

History as Relationship 2: Reflections on “A People of Diversity” Conference

 In mid-November I traveled with two other colleagues from la société histoire Mennonite du Québec to the University of Winnipeg to participate in “A People of Diversity,” a conference hosted by Royden Loewen, Chair of Mennonite Studies.   This exploration of the diverse history of Mennonites in Canada since 1970 provided the occasion to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada and to explore the potential for a future fourth volume of Mennonites in Canada.  

My first exposure to the history of Mennonites in Canada was in 1971. Raised in the Brethren in Christ denomination, I had come to Conrad Grebel College at University of Waterloo for studies. The encouragement of Frank H. Epp to take his newly designed course on the History of Mennonites in Canada would shape my future, as I began to explore my own roots in that context. Little did I know how much my own future career as a historian would be informed and supported by the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada formed three years earlier.

 In 1967, Canada had celebrated its centennial. Multiculturalism had become a significant cultural force in the way Canadians saw themselves. Having caught the vision of multiculturalism, Frank Epp and a Manitoba Mennonite publisher Ted Friesen saw the potential of writing the Mennonite story into the Canadian one. With the support of Mennonite Central Committee Canada, Frank H. Epp would pen two large volumes. They detailed Mennonite history in Canada from  the earliest coming of Swiss Mennonites from Pennsylvania in the wake of the American Revolution to what would become Ontario, through immigrations from Russia in the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries to Ontario and the western provinces.1 These volumes detailed the varieties and distinctives of faith expression and practice as they evolved in the Canadian context until 1940. Epp enlisted the help of his wife Helen and daughters Marlene and Esther, along with a young archivist Ted Regehr. Under the MHSC, Marlene Epp became the impetus for seeing much of her father’s unfinished work emerge in an on-line encyclopedia (GAMEO).2 Ted Regehr would author a third volume which covered the years 1939 to 1970.3 Under the auspices of the MHSC, later Marlene Epp would author Mennonite Women in Canada4 and Esther Epp-Tiessen would write Mennonite Central Committee Canada: A History, in celebration of that organization’s first fifty years.5

The story of the MHSC is much more than that of a single family, however. Over its fifty years, it has become a community of historians. While the MHSC was supporting the writing and dissemination of history books, it also had come to embrace provincial societies based in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. In 2007 a Quebec society brought the number of provincial societies to six. A Divergent Voices of Mennonites in Canada committee also brought conferences on a range of topics including indigenous-Mennonite relations, family and sexuality, Mennonites and mental health, Mennonites and money, Mennonites and agriculture, and a range of other issues. Over the decades of the society’s existence, annual meetings have brought representatives from the provincial organizations, as well as institutions including various departments of Mennonite Studies, Mennonite archives and even Mennonite museums together to share and vision the future of Mennonite history in Canada.

  The fiftieth-anniversary celebration was like a family reunion bringing Mennonite history in Canada from the 1970s into the new millennium. Our three Quebec historians brought aspects of the history of the revival of the seventies and eighties that emerged in the wake of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution to take its place alongside more mainstream Mennonite history.6 The Quebec revival took its place alongside thirty other presentations that included colonialism and its impact on Canada’s indigenous peoples, political activism, anabaptist approaches to agriculture, changes in education, challenges ranging from those experienced by old order and conservative groups in education and farm technology, and more progressive Mennonites including questions around sexual diversity, and the integration of new immigrants to Canada. 

My particular interest emerged from a small green binder that had been donated to our Quebec archive. Carefully documenting the history of a women’s group that emerged in the context of the revival, detailed minutes of brainstorming and planning meetings, along with other documents chronicled the activities of Le Comité des femmes inter-églises.  

 This committee of inter-church women played a significant role in the Frères Mennonites (Mennonite Brethren)’s early years in Quebec as each year between April 1978, when women from l’Eglise chrétienne de St-Jérôme, put on an annual women’s day and April 1998, not one spring went by without a Journée des femmes inter-églises. Their work and the story of Mennonite mission in Quebec, forthcoming, deserves a significant place in Mennonites in Canada, Volume 4.7;

As we look towards our second half century as a growing community of Canadian Mennonite historians, the society plans to meet in Quebec for its 2020 annual meeting. The warm and collegial conference highlighting “A People of Diversity: Mennonites in Canada since 1970” and projections for the future are significant witness to the community of Mennonite historians that will continue its work of fifty years, to research, write and disseminate the history of Mennonites in Canada.

  1. Frank H. Epp, Mennonites in Canada, 1786-1920: the History of a Separate People (University of Toronto Press, 1974) and Mennonites in Canada, 1920-1940: a People’s Struggle for Survival (University of Toronto Press, 1982).
  2.  https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Global_Anabaptist_Mennonite_Encyclopedia_Online
  3.   Ted Regehr, Mennonites in Canada, 1939-1970: A People Transformed (University of Toronto, 1996)
  4.   Mennonite Women in Canada: A History (University of Manitoba Press, 2008).
  5.   Mennonite Central Committee in Canada: a History (University of Manitoba Press, 2013).
  6. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/quiet-revolution
  7.   Richard Lougheed, Menno au Québec: A History of French Mission by Four Anabaptist Groups, 1956-2018, forthcoming from Pandora Press.

History as Relationship

“We need all the women’s stories we can get.”1 Sofia Samatar’s challenge in her plenary talk at the Crossing the Line conference echoes the words of Gerda Lerner, the American Jewish historian credited as the founder of women’s studies. In Lerner’s words, even though “women have been denied the power to define, to share in creating the mental constructs that explain and order the world, history shows that women have always, as have men, been agents and actors in history.”2 The challenge in doing women’s history is not just accessing the stories; it is also in navigating the relationship between historian and actor. I have found Palmer Parker’s concept of “knowing” to be helpful in thinking about my relationship with those I study: “Knowing of any sort is relational, animated by a desire to come into deeper community with what we know.”3

My interest in the history of Brethren in Christ women emerged as I was completing my undergraduate degree forty years ago. Although my historical journey would take me to a variety of avenues of exploration in church history, mostly Canadian, much of it exploring women’s actions and agency, Crossing the Line brought me back to my Brethren in Christ roots. The panel Devin Manzullo-Thomas organized gave me the opportunity to fulfill my youthful desire to come into deeper relationship with my ancestor Frances Davidson, whose diaries and unusual accomplishments for a nineteenth-century woman had long inspired me.

Over the years I have read and re-read Frances Davidson’s missionary travelogue, her journals, and Morris Sider’s biography.4 Crossing the Line opened the way for a deeper knowing, as I explored Frances’s longing for higher education, and the dramatic call that led her to leave college teaching for pioneer missionary work. Sitting with her early diaries deepened my knowing from the distant image of a brilliant, bold, courageous woman, to one who was passionately spiritual, with a deep mysticism that opened her heart to transformation; my relationship with my ancestor Frances Davidson grew as I pondered her journals where she expressed her experience of God’s call.5

I am grateful to her great-nephew Earl Brechbill for saving Frances’s journals penned in little brown notebooks from extinction by protective family members.6 I am grateful to Morris Sider for taking the risk of publishing them in Brethren in Christ History & Life. Knowledge about this woman had long validated my own deep desire to study. Crossing the Line provided an opportunity to go further into relationship, to follow my own inner push to write about her, something deeper than history.  Her story is part of my story.  We need women’s stories, but it can take years of gestation as we come into relationship with the past. “Why does a historian study the dead past?” Parker Palmer asks: “To reveal how much of it lives in us today.”7 The push to come into closer relationship with this aspect of my history after years of contemplation, feels like a personal gift from Crossing the Line.


  1. “In Search of Women’s History: Crossing Space, Crossing Communities, Crossing Time,” https://anabaptisthistorians.org/tag/crossing-the-line/page/1/ 
  2. Gerda Lerner, Why History Matters: Life and Thought (NY: Oxford University Press, 1997), 207. 
  3. Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 54. 
  4.  South and South Central Africa: A Record of Fifteen Years’ Missionary Labors among Primitive Peoples (Elgin, ILL: Brethren Publishing House, 1915); “The Journals of Frances Davidson,” Part 1: The Early Years (1861 – 1895), Brethren in Christ History and Life (August 1985): 103-23; Part II: The Call to Africa (1895-1898) Brethren in Christ History and Life (December 1985), 181-204; Part III: The First Years in Africa (1898-1904) Brethren in Christ History and Life (April 1986), 23-64; Part IV: The Founding and Early Years of Macha Mission (1904-1908) Brethren in Christ History and Life (August 1986), 125-49; Part V: The Later Years (1908-1931), Brethren in Christ History and Life (December 1986), 284-309; see also Hannah Frances Davidson Diaries Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives, Messiah College, Grantham, PA. http://messiaharchives.pastperfectonline.com/archive/D7FCD1A1-ABA4-4088-94C8-059638202176 ; E. Morris Sider, “Hannah Frances Davidson,” Nine Portraits: Brethren in Christ Biographical Sketches (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1978), 159-214. 
  5. “Conflict, Confession, and Conversion: H. Frances Davidson’s Call to Brethren in Christ Mission,” Brethren in Christ History & Life XL, no. 3 (December 2017), 335-52. 
  6. Interview with Earl and Ellen Brechbill by the author and Phyllis Marr Harrison, 18 July 2000, Mechanicsburg, PA. 
  7.  Courage to Teach, 54.