Making Meaning when the Historical Record is Silent

In August 2018, Brethren in Christ History & Life published “Henry R. and Frances Rice Davidson: Life and Vision.” In that article I explore the contributions of my ancestor who became the first editor of the denominational publication that came into Brethren in Christ homes for one hundred and thirty-one years, from its launch in August 1887 until it was replaced in in 2007 by a periodical called In Part.1 Publication is a milestone, not necessarily the end of the research process; and so I continue to puzzle over these ancestors lives. One question for me, still unanswered,2 is how did the Reverend Henry Davidson, of Scots-Irish Presbyterian descent, come to be ordained in 1846 as a minister in the tiny community of River Brethren, virtually unknown until 1860 when they identified as Brethren in Christ? How did his nearly seventy years of leadership, that I have argued was significant in bringing the denomination into nineteenth century evangelicalism, begin?3 In this post I explore that question and offer suggestions as to why knowing this matters.

As I have been researching and writing on Henry Davidson how I have wished that he had preserved his experience of having “moved into the church,” as his friend and colleague William Baker put it.4 The only record we have, as far as I can find, is in family historian Earl Brechbill’s geneological history.5 I have long puzzled over this short acknowledgement: “Henry was ordained a minister in the Brethren in Christ church at the age of twenty-three.”6 His father Jacob, a farmer and millwright, was a minister of the United Brethren in Christ, and his grandfather Robert Davidson had been a Presbyterian minister. Not even Henry Davidson’s obituaries agree on his denominational history, with the Evangelical Visitor putting Henry’s father in the Brethren in Christ church, and the Wooster Weekly Republican saying he was a Presbyterian minister.7

The confusion is hardly surprising, with the influence of the German Pietist movement that reflected Enlightenment values of subjectification and emotion, and the variety of expressions of personal faith that arose, as individuals studied the Bible for themselves.8 In the immediate post Revolutionary era, the evangelical preaching of Reformed leader William Otterbein and Mennonite Martin Boehm gave rise to a number of denominations in the United States including Presbyterians, German Reformed, and Mennonites uniting into a body “vague and undefined” until they organized in 1815. This conglomeration, which identified as United Brethren in Christ, illustrates the freedom fostered by democracy and populism that Mark Noll has noted caused “the churches [to be] strongly identified with the common people.”9 Adhering to no church doctrine beyond the New Testament, accepting all modes of baptism including sprinkling, pouring and immersion, the movement quickly spread, including to Western Pennsylvania’s Westmoreland County where the Davidsons lived.10

Henry Davidson’s silence about his experience and motives for moving from the United Brethren in Christ to the small enclave of German speaking “thrifty tillers of the soil” with their fear of “popularity of any kind,” reflects the practice of the River Brethren, thus named by outsiders because they baptized new members in the closest creek or river.11 When Henry joined their numbers in the 1840s, sixty years had passed since Jacob Engle and others had been baptized in the Susquehanna River, keeping who was first in their hearts to the grave.12 Evidently Davidson was attracted to this humble group, at that time virtually unknown, judging by John Winebrenner’s History of All the Religious Denominations in the United States, first published in 1844. When Davidson “moved into the church,” to use Baker’s words, Winebrenner’s recently published history had missed them altogether. They were unique in the 1848 edition of the six hundred page compendium, with anonymous authorship by “A Familiar Friend,” whose six page article remains, in Brethren in Christ historian Carleton Wittlinger’s words, “the most reliable secondary source for early Brethren in Christ history.”13 No other group, including the Mennonites and the Amish, avoided identifying the author describing the polity, practice and history of their particular group.

Fast forwarding to August 1887 with the launch of the Evangelical Visitor, we can glean insight into the experience of early converts into the River Brethren. Davidson’s friend and colleague W.O. Baker, a medical doctor who practised medicine in Ashland, Ohio and preached for the congregation in Stark County, recounted his conversion and baptism three decades earlier in Sugar Creek, where it meandered by Wayne County’s Paradise, Ohio. Baker’s note that Henry Davidson, editor of the new paper, had been among those present in late February [1854] at his baptism, confirms Davidson’s long history with the denomination.14

In my mind’s eye I see the senior minister Jacob Hoffman standing with red topped boots reaching his knees standing in the cold creek, possibly supported by an overhanging branch, baptizing the most recent convert to the small community of River Brethren. I see Henry Davidson, a young minister in the group, standing among others, uniform grey overcoats overlapping red topped rubber boots, large capes draping each man’s shoulders, broad brimmed hats in hand, witnessing this powerful moment when a new member submitted to the triune immersion that confirmed his conversion experience, a ritual done in a way that separated the River Brethren from other groups. Baptism in cold waters, the first time in the name of the Father, then in the name of the Son, and finally in the name of the Holy Spirit, confirmed Baker’s commitment to living out his faith in this particular community of believers.15

It remains unclear exactly where Henry Davidson encountered the German community of River Brethren; perhaps it was in German township, located just south of Redstone township where the Davidson’s lived.16 Whatever the case, we must assume that as a young man Henry Davidson, similar to his friend William Baker, was attracted to the warmth of these people and the way that they lived out the particular convictions that set the River Brethren apart from other groups.17 The similarity of emphasis on a new birth before baptism must have felt familiar to the young Henry. Somehow the clarity of conviction that church order must insist on a single mode of baptism, triune immersion, appealed to him, as it had to his friend William Baker.18 Davidson’s attraction to the clarity of conviction that allowed for the warmth of testimonials where members told of their conversion experiences, their “sorrows, joys and future hope,” yet insisted on ordinances such as river baptism and foot washing rituals would have a far reaching impact on the denomination; fifteen years later in the 1860s it would claim the name Brethren in Christ, remaining distinct from the United Brethren in Christ of Henry Davidson’s origin.19

Although River Brethren pietism distinguished them from their Mennonite relatives with the insistence of the former, as Wittlinger has put it, on “a personal, heartfelt experience of the new birth as normative for the beginning of the Christian life,” their evangelism was practised in a quiet, relational way.20 It was the way they lived their faith that attracted others. Some, similar to William Baker and Henry Davidson, expressed the desire to become a part of a particular congregation, joining in the “full fellowship” that meant choosing to be baptized by triune immersion and to adopt the practices of those particular Brethren.21

It is impossible to fully understand the motives of another, but history does provide a way to know ourselves as individuals, as families, as churches, as societies, a way into becoming more deeply rooted as we are intentional about understanding faith in the context from which we came. In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer has wisely suggested that Knowing of any sort is relational, animated by a desire to come into deeper community with what we know.”22 The formative role that Henry Davidson and his friend William Baker took in introducing to the Brethren in Christ changes that had marked the pietist movement from the eighteenth century, including communication through print culture, missions, and opportunities for women to serve in public ways, had far reaching effects on the denomination.23 As the Brethren in Christ (in Canada Be in Christ) continue to develop during these fast-changing and tumultuous times, with secularism and evangelicalism in head to head combat, both shaped by the pietist impulse with their privileging experience over authority, it is essential that we know our history.24

On a personal note as I have explained in the occasional series “Growing up Brethren in Christ,” published in Brethren in Christ History & Life, it is in the on-going attempt to come to deeper understanding of my own spiritual journey and the denomination in which I grew up that I continue to explore the lives and spirituality of my ancestors Henry Davidson and his daughter Frances Davidson.25 Indeed, my journey has taken me in the opposite direction to Henry Davidson with my journey away from my Brethren in Christ roots to eventually be ordained in the Mennonite Church, while serving as chaplain and professor in a Presbyterian theological school. As I reflect on how my spiritual journey has taken me out of the Brethren in Christ to the Mennonites and Presbyterian communities, I am curious about my ancestor’s journey. Henry Davidson’s spiritual quest took him away from his Presbyterian and United Brethren in Christ roots to a group founded by Jacob Engel, another seeker whose journey brought from his Mennonite roots, to establish a tiny group convicted of the efficacy of triune baptism. The curiousity of the detective continues to motivate me as I continue to explore, as Palmer has put it, “how much of the past lives in us today,” and to seek community among the great cloud of witnesses.26

1“Henry B and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson: Life and Vision,” Brethren in Christ History & Life, Volume XLI, no. 2 (August 2018), 115-54; See also Micah B. Brickner, “One of God’s Avenues of Progress: Exploring the Outcomes of the Evangelical Visitor, Brethren in Christ History & Life, Volume XLI, no. 2 (August 2018), 323.

2Nancy Theriot has explored the potential in reading texts in ways that the historian can attempt to understand something of how people from the past were making meaning from their lives. See her Mothers & Daughters in Nineteenth-Century America: The Biosocial Construction of Femininity (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1996).

3Paul Hoffman, compiler, “History of the Davidson descendants,” printed in Earl Brechbill, “The Ancestry of John and Henrietta Davidson Brechbill: A Historical Narrative,” Robert K. Brechbill, printer (July 1973), 55.

4Earlier publications developing the story of Henry Davidson and his family include “Searching for Mary Mathilda Yoder,” https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2020/07/02/searching-for-mary-mathilda-davidson-yoder/; “Mysticism and Evangelicalism in the Writings of a Spiritual ‘Mother” https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2020/01/28/mysticism-and-evangelicalism-in-the-writings-of-a-spiritual-mother/ “In Pursuit of the Missing Portrait https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2019/06/27/in-pursuit-of-the-missing-portrait/ “History as Relationship” https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2018/10/16/history-as-relationship/ “Henry B and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson: Life and Vision;” “Conflict, Confession and Conversion: H. Frances Davidson’s Call to Brethren in Christ Mission.” Brethren in Christ History & Life XI, No. 3 (December 2017): 335-52; “Reverend Henry Davidson,” (1823 – 1903): Maintaining and Creating Boundaries, Historical Papers, Canadian Society of Church History (2014), 5-16.

5Paul Hoffman, “The Davidsons,” in Earl Brechbill, “The Ancestry of John and Henrietta Davidson Brechbill: A Historical Narrative” (Independence, KS: Robert K. Brechbill, printer, 1973), 49 – 59.

6Hoffman, “The Davidsons,” 55.

7Hoffman, “The Davidsons,” 53, 55; “Henry B. and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson,” 127, n 41.

8Douglas Shantz, An Introduction to German Pietism: Protestant Renewal at the Dawn of Modern Europe (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press, 2013), 205, 277, 278-79.

9Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 68.

10Paul A. Graham, “The Beginnings,” 45-46 and Raymond Waldfogel, 130, in Paul R. Fetters, TrialsandTriumphs:HistoryoftheChurchoftheUnitedBrethreninChrist (Huntington, IND: Church of the United Brethren in Christ Department of Church Services, 1984); See also William Hanby, “The United Brethren in Christ, in John Winebrenner, History of All the Religious Denominations in the United States (Harrisburg, PA: John Winebrenner, 1848), 550, 561; Carlton Wittlinger, QuestforPietyandObedience:TheStoryoftheBrethreninChrist (Nappanee, Indiana: Evangel Press, 1978), 129-33.

11Climenhaga, History, 53.

12Wittlinger, Quest, 19-23.

13Wittlinger, Quest, 14, n. 41; see “A Familiar Friend,” in Winebrenner, History, 550-56.

14Evangelical Visitor I, 1 (1 August 1887), 9; In his biography, D. Ray Heisey, Healing Body and Soul: The Life and Times of Dr. W. O. Baker, 1827-1916 Grantham, PA: The Brethren in Christ Historical Society, 2004), 22, places 1854 as the year that Baker was baptized.

15A. W. Climenhaga, History of the Brethren in Christ Church (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1952), 55-56, 69.

16Homer Rosenberger, “Migrations of the Pennsylvania Germans to Western Pennsylvania,” Part II, 61 file:///C:/Users/lucille.marr/Downloads/3099-Article%20Text-2944-1-10-20121002%20(2).pdf Accessed August 2020.

17In her diaries, Davidson’s daughter Frances noted how she missed “our own meeting,” when she was studying at Ashland College. “It does me so much good to get to our own meeting. It warms me up.” Hannah Frances Davidson, Diary 1 (11 Feb 1881) Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives, Messiah College, Grantham, PA. https://messiaharchives.pastperfectonline.com/archive?utf8=%E2%9C%93&search_criteria=HFD+Diary&searchButton=Search accessed 22 June 2020.

18Wittlinger, Quest, 23-24; see also Laban Brechbill, History of the Old Order River Brethren, edited by Myron S. Dietz (N.P: Brechbill & Strickler, 1972), 27-28, 33.

19Climenhaga, History, 70; Wittlinger, Quest, 24, 136.

20Wittlinger, Quest, 23.

21Climenhaga, History, 58.

22Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 54.

23Shantz, Introduction to German Pietism, 238, 275, 278-79, 285.

24Shantz, Introduction to German Pietism, 275-76; Indeed, in the view of McGill Emeritus professor philosopher Charles Taylor, both modern secularism and modern evangelicalism with their privileging experience and action are rooted in the seventeenth-century Pietist impulse. See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 26-27.

25“Growing up Brethren in Christ,” Brethren in Christ History & Life, Vol. XLI, no. II, no 1 (April 2020), 118-25.

26Palmer, Courage to Teach, 54. See, for example, Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers: sayings, lives, and stories of early Christian women, (New York: Paulist Press, 2001), 4.

Searching for Mary Mathilda (Davidson) Yoder

Recently a post on the Brethren in Christ historical website caught my attention: “’I am about to go abroad as a Missionary’: H. Frances Davidson’s Passport Application and what it tells us about Brethren in Christ Life.”1 I was captured by the fine pensmanship of the witness: Mrs. Mary M. Yoder. Denominational historian Morris Sider has characterized Davidson as “one of the most extraordinary and striking persons to have held membership in the denomination.”2 Who was the witness that attested Davidson’s bold declaration of life-long commitment to mission, underscored by the striking of the “entire section of the form dealing with returning to the States!”3 Are there clues that suggest why Frances chose Mary to accompany her to the notary’s office on that October day in 1897? In the bigger picture, will discovering more about Mary provide further insights into the Brethren in Christ of the time?

I knew Mary Yoder to be Frances’s half sister, the eldest of their father Henry Davidson’s thirteen children. Geneological research has revealed that she was among his numerous offspring who exited the Brethren in Christ denomination.4 It also suggests that she was the namesake of her paternal grandmother Mary (Young) Davidson. Mary Mathilda Davidson was fifteen when Frances was born; by the end of her step-mother Fannie (Rice) Davidson’s child-bearing years, Mary had become the eldest of thirteen. Married at age twenty-two to Christian B. Yoder, she gave birth to Effa when Frances was eight years old; by the time Fannie birthed her last child, Ida, Mary was mother to three.5 The birth of LeRoy Isaiah would complete the family. Edwin’s death as a small child must have torn at Mary’s heart; her decision to name her two younger sons for her full brothers William and Isaiah, likely brought her comfort and suggests the closeness of the larger family circle which had been wrenched with the death of their biological mother Hannah (Craft) Davidson when Mary and her siblings were still children.6

Mary would continue to suffer and navigate significant losses. In 1893, four years before she signed her sister’s passport, she had been widowed; she was not yet fifty. Mary’s married name suggests that her husband Christian B. Yoder had Amish roots. They were both raised on farms close to Smithville, Ohio, where they had met and married. Christian had practiced a variety of trades including building, contracting, and grocering, ultimately becoming a hotel manager. The purchase of Eastern House in the nearby city of Wooster brought him to the pinnacle of his career. Only a year before his death he had become “proprietor of the hotel bearing his name,” Hotel Yoder, described in Caldwell’s Atlas in 1897 as “the Oldest Reliable Hotel in the city.”7

Although it remains unclear what role Mary played in Christian’s business enterprise, her identity as entrepreneur is underscored by her decision to hold Christian’s funeral at Yoder House, rather than the Methodist Episcopal Church where they were members. Shortly, Mary M. Yoder herself became the proprietor of Yoder House where,,with the assistance of her sons William and Roy, she continued to run the hotel renovated and branded by her husband Christian only a year before his untimely death.8

Eighteen months later tragedy again devastated Mary and her family. Twenty year old Roy succumbed to typhoid; Mary lost her son to the same disease that had taken her mother Hannah forty years earlier. Demonstrating a strength of character reminiscent of that for which her sister Frances is known, Mary continued to run Yoder Hotel with her remaining son William as manager.9 Census records reveal that Mary employed eleven live-in servants and employees – a laundress, cooks, chambermaids, waitresses, a porter and a solicitor – to keep the establishment running.10

Why did Frances Davidson, the renowned Brethren in Christ pioneer missionary, have her sister, the Methodist Episcopal owner of a prestigious downtown hotel, witness her first passport? Why did Frances choose Mary to attest to subsequent passports? A brief exploration of the Methodist Episcopal Church where Mary and Christian Yoder held their membership gives a clue. The denomination was a strong proponant of missions overseas and at home, working in “some of the most deprived urban areas of the nation.”11 Was Mary an active supporter of the local missionary societies in the Wooster Methodist Episcopal Church? Confirmation would require further research.

The 1914 Brechbill Reunion in Garrett, Indiana, while Frances was on furlough writing South and South Central Africa

What is becoming clear is Mary’s unflagging support of her younger sister’s mission. Not only was Mary Davidson Yoder recorded as witness on each one of Frances’s passports through the latter’s twenty-four years in the Rhodesias (now Zambia and Zimbabwe), it is quite likely that we have Mary to thank for Frances’s travelogue.12 As Frances noted in her journal on 26 December 1908, “Sister Mary writes that she wants me to be sure and keep up my diary. Well, I have never kept a diary only these few jottings in a journal which are so few that they give only a general outline of our life and scarcely that.”13 A few months later, she confided to her journal: “I have not told any one of my resignation except I wrote it to Sister Mary, as also some of the particulars. She is away from the rest.”14

Does this sideline into family history have anything to tell us about the history of the Brethren in Christ? Brethren in Christ history has been assessed and written, for the most part, by insiders, to build a denominational identity.15 The excerpts from Frances Davidson’s journal published in Brethren in Christ History & Life some decades back were edited for just this purpose. Missing excerpts, which can now be found on the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives website, if read closely, reveal just how important Frances Davidson’s family relationships were, including the many siblings and nieces and nephews outside of the denomination.16

Elsewhere I have argued that Mary’s and Frances’s father Henry Davidson used his influence as editor of The Evangelical Visitor to bring the denomination into the burgeoning nineteenth-century mainstream evangelical movement with its promotion of education and mission.17 While family history suggests that their father was disappointed that so few of his children remained in the Brethren in Christ denomination, Mary M. Yoder’s signature on Hannah Frances Davidson’s passport confirms a closeness and common vision for mission between the two sisters.18

This brief glimpse into the life of the witness to a late nineteeth-century passport that symbolizes dramatic changes in the Brethren in Christ, leaves significant questions. What influence did Mary Mathilda (Davidson) Yoder have on her father Henry Davidson? Did her immersion in mainstream culture by virtue of membership in a prominent evangelical church ultimately influence the direction of the Brethren in Christ? Although history is still silent on this count, the Davidson family’s decision to lay their father to rest next to his first wife and Mary’s mother Hannah (Craft) Davidson, in the circle that included her husband Christian and sons LeRoy and Edwin Yoder hints at the relationship of father and daughter. Mary’s unflagging support of her sister Frances Davidson during the latter’s twenty-four years in the Rhodesias suggests a heretofore undiscovered cheerleader and supporter for her sister held up by the Brethren in Christ for her role as pioneer missionary.


1. Devin C. Thomas, “’I am about to go abroad as a Missionary’: H. Frances Davidson’s Passport Application and what it tells ua about Brethren in Christ Life.” Brethren in Christ Historical Society https://bic-history.org/i-am-about-to-go-abroad-as-a-missionary-h-frances-davidsons-passport-application-and-what-it-tells-us-about-brethren-in-christ-life-2/ ; National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; Roll #.496 – 01 October 1897-31 October 1897, Ancestry.com ,U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2007; Accessed 14 May 2020. Thomas has made several insightful observations about what the passport can tell us about the mindset of the Brethren in Christ of the late nineteenth century, especially as he put it, Davidson’s “unwavering commitment to her church’s foreign mission endeavor.”

2. Nine Portraits: Brethren in Christ Biographical Sketches (Nappanee, Indiana: Evangel Press, 1978), 159.

3. Thomas declares this to be his favourite part of the document.

4. Earl Brechbill, “The Ancestry of John and Henrietta Davidson Brechbill: A Historical Narrative” (Greencastle, PA: printed by author, 1972), 26, 34.

5. “Henry R. and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson: Life and Vision, Brethren in Christ History & Life XLI, no. 2 (August 2018), 115-117, n. 2, 3 4, 10, 11; Brechbill, “Ancestry,” 52, 55-57.

6. “Our Dead, Christian B. Yoder,” Evangelical Visitor, Vol. II, no. 6 (1 March 1893), 80; reprinted from The Wayne County (Wooster, Ohio) Herald (9 February 1893); Year: 1870, Census Place: Orrville, Wayne, Ohio; Roll 14593_1280; page 242B, 1870 U.S. Federal Census [data base-on-line], Provost, USA, Ancestry.com operations, Inc. Accessed 13 June 2020.

7. “Peace to His Ashes,” Wooster Daily Republican (6 February 1893); Caldwell’s Atlas (1897), Wooster, Ohio https://wiki.wcpl.info/w/index.php?title=Caldwell%27s_Atlas_(1897)/Wooster,_Ohio Accessed 27 May 2020.

8. Although “Peace to his Ashes,” ibid., gives no inkling of church affiliation, it does tell us that “’Christ’ Yoder was a quiet, unassuming Christian gentleman who enjoyed the confidence of all with whom he did business, a father who loved his family and lived for them.” The obituary in the Wayne County Herald gives a brief nod to his membership in “the M.E. Church;” reprinted in “Our Dead, Christian B. Yoder,” Evangelical Visitor (1 March 1893), 80; “Our Dead,” LeRoy Yoder, Evangelical Visitor (1 November 1894), reprinted from Wayne County Herald.

9. Brechbill, “Ancestry,” 56; LeRoy Yoder obituary, Wayne County Herald, cited in “Our Dead,” Evangelical Visitor (1 November 1894).

10. “Our Dead, Christian B. Yoder,” Evangelical Visitor, Vol. II, no. 6 (1 March 1893), 80; Wm. W. Yoder, 1900 US Federal Census, Census Place: Mansfield Ward 6, Richland, Ohio, 13, Ancestry.com, 1900 US Federal Census database on line], Provo, UT, USA, Ancestry.com Operations, Inc. 2014, Accessed 18 May 2020.

11. Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianitiy: Vol. II The Reformation to the Present Day, revised and updated (NY: Harper and Collins, 2010), 339; see also Diarmaid McCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (London: Penguin Books, 2009), 903; “Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woman%27s_Foreign_Missionary_Society_of_the_Methodist_Episcopal_Church Accessed 11 June 2020.

12. The photo, labeled Brechbill Reunion 1914, took place in Garrett, Indiana, while Frances was on furlough writing South and South Central Africa (Elgin, Ill: Brethren Publishing House, 1915). The photo is scanned from “The Journal of Frances Davidson. Part V: The Later Years (1908-1931), Brethren in Christ History and Life IX, no. 3 (December 1986), 286. Images of Davidson’s passports appear in Ancestry.com. U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925 [database on-line] (Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2007); Original data: Selected Passports, National Archives, Washington, D.C. Accessed 15 May 2020.

13. H. Frances Davidson Diaries 6 (December 26, 1908) http://bicarchives.messiah.edu/files/Documents4/Hfd_diary_vol_6_aug_19,1906_to_dec_31,1909.pdf Accessed 22 June 2020.

14. Ibid. HFD Diaries 6 (April 21, 1909). Their father Henry Davidson’s obituary reveals that the Brethren in Christ contingent of the family lived in Abilene, Kansas and Garrett, Indiana. Mary had remained in Ohio. Wooster Weekly Republican, (25 March 1903), p. 4, col. 3, p. 5, col. 1.

15. Wendy Urban-Meade’s perspective on the Brethren in Christ mission in the Rhodesias (Zimbabwe and Zambia) as an outsider to the denomination has illustrated the inward focus of most history of the Brethren in Christ. Please see “An Unwomanly Woman and Her Sons in Christ: Faith, Empire, and Gender in Colonial Rhodesia, 1899-1906,” 94-116, in Competing Kingdoms: Women, Mission, Nation, and the American Protestant Empire, 1812-1960, edited by Barbara Reeves-Ellington, Kathryn Kish Sklar, and Connie A. Shemo (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2010); and The Gender of Piety: Family, Faith, and Colonial Rule in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2015); Morris Sider’s recently published retrospective “Finding Vocation and Mission: Reflections on Writing Brethren in Christ History,” Brethren in Christ History & Life Vol. XLIII, no. 1 (April 2020) gives helpful insight into his motivation for dedicating his professional career to advancing the history of the Brethren in Christ.

16. H. Frances Davidson Diaries http://bicarchives.messiah.edu/files/Documents4/Hfd_diary_vol_2_sept_17,1893_to_may_17,1898.pdf Accessed 28 May 2020.

17. “Henry R. And Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson,” 148; Mark A. Noll, David W. Bebbington and George A. Rawlyk, Evangelicalism:ComparativeStudiesofPopularProtestantisminNorthAmerica,TheBritishIsles,andBeyond,1700-1990 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 6, 9.

18. Brechbill, “Ancestry,” 142; I have told of my search for Henry Davidson’s burial site in “Life and Vision,” 117, n. 9.

Mysticism and Evangelicalism in the writings of a “Spiritual Mother”

“She should have been a bishop!” Barbara Nkala pounded the table emphatically.1 An historian and long standing member of the Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe, Nkala’s voice echoes that of many in that community, who continue to hold up the memory of pioneer missionary H. Frances Davidson.2 Davidson is remembered for having travelled from the Kansas prairie to the Matopo Hills in 1898 to help establish a mission there; well over a century later, members of the Zimbabwean Brethren in Christ church still regard her as their “spiritual mother.”3

My current research is taking further my previous observations on the spiritual awakening that inspired Davidson’s conversion from college teacher to missionary.4 Following in the wake of other Protestants who have retained a reverence for Mary, for Davidson, an encounter with what she called “that great work Murillo’s Immaculate Conception” proved to be a moment of transformation and awakening.5 Coming face to face with that masterpiece on a class trip to the Chicago Fine Arts Museum immediately followed what she recorded in her journal as a moving and productive session of writing on the Faery Queen for a literature class she was taking at University of Chicago.6 These encounters in March 1895 coincided with Davidson’s thirty-fifth birthday, and seem to have kindled a passion which had previously lain dormant.7 As she recorded in her journal that evening, “Beauty, in its supreme development, invariable (sic) excites the sensitive soul to tears. There seemed to be in me a longing and restlessness, a desire for something higher and beyond.”8

As these recollections suggest, Davidson’s journals appear to have provided her with a confidante, a safe place where she could express joy and process inner turmoil. In her missionary career, for instance, she wrote of her struggles as she denied the urge to step out in leadership in ways that she, as the social mores of the time, deemed inappropriate for a woman. Scholars have investigated the pioneer leadership emphasizing her vision, and unique strength as an “unwomanly woman.”9 Through her writings, we can decipher ways that she dealt with the conflict of the external and internal pressures pressing her to take on spiritual leadership normally reserved for men.

In my quest to explore the writings of H. Frances Davidson, I anticipate becoming better acquainted with this “spiritual mother” of Brethren in Christ women. Expressing her spiritual struggles in language familiar to the piety of her evangelical tradition, her desire to surrender self, and to know God’s will echo the Sophia mysticism of Jacob Boehme and medieval mystics.10 What do the mystical moments, which she articulated in ways reminiscent of the deeper conversion and transformation of gelassenheit or surrender to God’s will familiar in Anabaptist piety as well as colonial pietism, reveal about the faith, and the strong leadership of this spiritual mother who remains to this day an iconic figure for her denomination the Brethren in Christ in Zimbabwe, Zambia, the United States and Canada?


  1. Conversation with Barbara Nkala, 23 June 2017, at “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries,” a conference held at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia. She has authored and co-authored several books on the denomination’s history including Celebrating the Vision: A Century of Sowing and Reaping (Bulawayo: Brethren in Christ Church, 1998); see also Nkala and Doris Dube, Growing and Branching Out: Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa (Harare, Zimbabwe: Radiant Press, 2014) and Bekithemba Dube, Doris Dube and Barbra Nkala. “Brethren in Christ Churches in Southern Africa,” edited by John A. Lapp and C. Arnold Snyder, 97-191, in Anabaptist Songs in African Hearts: a Global Mennonite History, vol. I, Africa, (Intercourse, PA: Good Books and Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2003). Nkala is a member of the Zimbabwean Brethren in Christ Church.
  2. The photo is of Davidson and Adda Engel, that appears as the frontispiece in H. Frances Davidson, South and South Central Africa: A Record of Fifteen Years’ Missionary Labors among Primitive Peoples (Elgin, ILL: Brethren Publishing House, 1915).
  3. Dube, Dube and Nkala, Anabaptist Songs, 150-55; Wendy Urban Mead, The Gender of Piety: Family, Faith, and Colonial Rule in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2015), 38, 42, 49-50, 60, 76.
  4. “Conflict, Confession, and Conversion: H. Frances Davidson’s Call to Brethren in Christ Missions,” Brethren in Christ History & Life Vol. XI no. 3 (December 2017), 335-52; “History as Relationship,” https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2018/10/16/history-as-relationship/
  5. Immaculate Conception of El Escorial (Bartolome Estaban Murillo, 1650), Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Immaculate_Conception_of_El_Escorial Accessed 16 December 2019.
  6. Queen Elizabeth I: The Rainbow Portrait c. 1600–02 attrib. Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, Portraiture of Elizabeth I of England, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portraiture_of_Elizabeth_I_of_England Accessed December 16, 2019; “for a contemporary convert to The Faery Queen, see Brenton Dickieson, “On Reading the Faerie Queene for the First Time,” A Pilgrim in Narnia, June 3, 2015, https://apilgriminnarnia.com/2015/06/03/fq/.
  7. Earl D. Brechbill, “The Ancestry of John and Henrietta Davidson Brechbill: A Historical Narrative” (Greencastle, PA: printed by author, 1972), 56-57.
  8. Hannah Frances Davidson, Diaries, 13 March 1895; her journals have been edited by E. Morris Sider and published in Brethren in Christ History and Life. See “The Journal of Frances Davidson.” “Part 1: The Early Years (1861-1895)” 8, no. 2 (August 1985): 103-23; “Part II: The Call to Africa (1895-1898)” 8, no. 3 (December 1985): 181-204; “Part III: The First Years in Africa (1898-1904)” 9, no. 1 (April 1986): 23-64; “Part IV: The Founding and Early Years of Macha Mission (1904-1908)” 9, no. 2 (August 1986):125-49; “Part V: The Later Years (1908-1931)” 9, no. 3 (December 1986): 284-309.
  9. See, for instance, E. Morris Sider, “Hannah Frances Davidson,” in Nine Portraits: Brethren in Christ Biographical Sketches (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1978), 159-214; Wendy Urban-Mead, “Religion, Women and Gender in the Brethren in Christ Church, Matabeleland, Zimbabwe, 1898-1978,” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2004); and “An Unwomanly Woman and Her Sons in Christ: Faith, Empire, and Gender in Colonial Rhodesia, 1899/1906,” in Competing Kingdoms: Women, Mission, Nation, and the American Protestant Empire, 1812–1960, ed.Barbara Reeves-Ellington, Kathryn Kish Sklar, and Connie Shemo (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 94-116.
  10. Ruether, Goddesses, 230-31. Beulah Hostettler links Jacob Boehme with Martin Boehme who influenced colonial Pietism. American Mennonites and Protestant Movements: A Community Paradigm (Wipf & Stock, 2002). https://books.google.ca/books?id=3MJKAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA34&lpg=PA34&dq=were+Jacob+Boehme+and+Martin+Boehme+related?&source=bl&ots=sku2sdDZwP&sig=ACfU3U0Nu13toTVrewpzsr701-prjqV1QA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjAg6uep7vmAhUB01kKHctMCmUQ6AEwCHoECAgQAQ#v=onepage&q=were%20Jacob%20Boehme%20and%20Martin%20Boehme%20related%3F&f=false Accessed December 16, 2019.

Celebrating “MCC at 100” from the perspective of Quebec

Mennonite Central Committee is poised to celebrate its centennial.1 The planning committee of an upcoming conference, scheduled for October 23-24, 2020 at Manitoba’s University of Winnipeg, is designed to celebrate “MCC at 100.” Former and current MCC workers, students, and all those with a heart for MCC and the service and humanitarian work for which it has become known over the century, are urged to submit proposals. MCC at 100: Call for Proposals | Intersections I serve on the conference planning committee as a voice from Quebec, but my ruminations here emerge largely from my thoughts as I prepare my own proposal.

MCC Summer service workers Nathan Bonneville, Armella Mpinga, Elizabeth Lougheed and Victoria Pelletier, taken by Mattieu Lambert, MCC Quebec

My thoughts go back to the beginning of the nearly seventy-five year history of Mennonites in Quebec. MCC’s presence comes fifteen years after two young ‘Old Mennonite’ couples, Tilman and Janet Martin, and Harold and Pauline Reesor, responded to their respective sense of call, establishing a Mennonite mission north of Montreal in 1956. Four years later, the Mennonite Brethren turned their attention to Quebec when civil strife in the Congo closed down their mission in that country; by 1961 Ernest Dyck had established a congregation in St. Jerome.2

It was a decade later, with the radical Front de libération du Québec’s kidnapping of two government leaders that MCC Canada, like Canadians across the country, turned its attention to the discontent that the “October Crisis” signalled.3 Quickly discerning that the issues were too complicated to have a direct role in promoting reconciliation in Quebec, MCC established a voluntary service program. By 1973 MCC programming was run mostly through the House of Friendship, or La Maison de l’Amitié, established by MCC Canada and the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and Quebec.4

MCC, by the very nature of the organization, is known for the possibilities that it has provided throughout its history for Mennonite and Brethren in Christ women to take on positions of leadership.5 My history of MCC Ontario, and Esther Epp’s Tiessen’s telling and analysis of the story of MCC Canada’s first 50 years, abundantly illustrate this.6 The photo that appears on the back cover of Mennonite Central Committee in Canada, and at the beginning of this post, taken at the 2009 Montreal peace festival, suggests the opportunities for young women. This, and the four other references in the book to MCC’s presence in Quebec, tantalize those readers who may wish to learn more about the voluntary service programs that began in the province in 1973.7

Annie Brosseau, co-director of Quebec’s MCC office from 1996-2008, speaking, MAID CA CMBS NP149-1-909.

Women’s leadership, as it was formed through their involvement in MCC, was evident in the Mennonite church congregation Mennonite Fellowship of Montreal, from 1980 with the hiring of Robert and Deborah Martin Koop as pastoral couple.8 My recent research on le Comité des femmes inter-églises, the inter-congregational women’s committee established among the Mennonite Brethren two years earlier, although not directly connected with MCC, revealed the strong female leadership in this Mennonite Brethren para-church organization, from its establishment in 1978 until its demise in 1998.9 A question that I have been left with is this: Did the women who sustained the organization for those two decades ultimately benefit MCC’s Quebec ministry?

The placement of two Mennonite Brethren couples in succession as directors of the Quebec office – Jean-Victor and Annie Brosseau (1996-2008) and Muriel and Claude Queval (2008-2017) – with both women having been previously involved in the MB women’s committee, would suggest the affirmative.10 A close look at these women and MCC’s Quebec programming during these years, along with Debbie Martin Koop’s management of the office in the previous decade, provides the opportunity to fill in the gaps in previous studies which have overlooked Quebec.11 For example, the void in Douglas Heidebrecht’s newly published and excellent analysis of Mennonite Brethren women and their journey to leadership ministry, when it comes both to MCC, and to Quebec, is suggestive. Indeed, it makes inquiry into women’s strong presence in MCC leadership in Quebec all the more intriguing.12 My goal will be to explore significant questions around Women in Ministry Leadership as it unfolded in Quebec’s MCC office from its founding in the mid-seventies, through the demise of Le Comité des femmes inter-églises. It is these and other significant questions that will be subject to enquiry at the MCC at 100 conference and I hope that you will consider submitting your own proposal proposal to what promises to be a wonderful time of celebration.ion. MCC’s centennial milestone.


  1. Photo credits: MCC Summer service workers Nathan Bonneville, Armella Mpinga, Elizabeth Lougheed and Victoria Pelletier, taken by Mattieu Lambert, MCC Quebec; Annie Brosseau, co-director of Quebec’s MCC office from 1996-2008, speaking, MAID CA CMBS NP149-1-909.
  2. Richard Lougheed tells these stories in Menno au Quebec: A History of French Mission by Four Anabaptist Groups, forthcoming from Pandora Press.
  3. Epp Tiessen, Mennonite Central Committee in Canada: A History (Winnipeg, MB, 2013), 102.
  4. For a brief history of the organization see my article, “A Lonely Outpost: The Mennonite Maison de l’Amitie of Montreal, 1973-2006,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 24 (2006), 149-67.
  5. Nancy Heisey has noted this in “Getting the Steps Right,” 100, in Telling our Stories: Personal Accounts of Engagement with Scripture, edited by Ray Gingerich and Earl Zimmerman (Telford, Pa.: Cascadia Publishing House and Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2006).
  6. Marr, the transforming power of a century: Mennonite Central Committee and its Evolution in Ontario (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, and Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2003); Epp Tiessen, Mennonite Central Committee in Canada: A History (Winnipeg, MB, 2013). My review of the latter highlights this facet of Epp Tiessen’s storytelling and historical analysis. Please see Mennonite Historian 40, no. 1 (March 2014, 9-10.
  7. Epp Tiessen, Mennonite Central Committee, 101.
  8. Richard Lougheed, Dory Reimer, Lucille Marr and Dora-Marie Goulet, “Mennonite Fellowship of Montreal: 1978-2003” (unpublished essay, 2003).
  9. Le Comité des femmes inter-églises, 1978-1998: a compass for the women of l’église des frères mennonites du Québec, Journal of Mennonite Studies Vol. 37 (2019), 105-18.
  10. Lougheed, Menno au Quebec.
  11. For instance, Epp Tiessen, Mennonite Central Committee in Canada; Marlene Epp, Mennonite Women in Canada: A History (Winnipeg, MB: University of Manitoba Press, 2008); Gloria Neufeld Redekop, The Work of their Hands: Mennonite Women’s Societies in Canada (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996).
  12. Heidebrecht, Women in Ministry Leadership: The Journey of the Mennonite Brethren, 1954-2010 (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred Publications, 2019).

In Pursuit of the Missing Portrait

Prominently displayed on the main wall of the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives are portraits, in the words of historian Carlton O. Wittlinger, of “three nineteenth-century Brethren in Christ.” 1

Jacob Brechbill (1832-1902), Sarah Ober Brechbill (1839-1908), and Henry Davidson (1823-1903) happen to be ancestors of mine; for several years I’ve been in pursuit of more information than was necessary for Wittlinger’s, or even archival, purposes. Whose is the missing portrait? Did Davidson have a wife who shared his life and ministry? Who was she?

As family historian Earl Brechbill has noted, the Brechbills and the Davidsons were members of the River Brethren (Brethren in Christ) community. The former lived out their lives in DeKalb County, Indiana, where Jacob and Sarah met, married and raised their family. Memorialized by their descendants for having donated the large block of land on which the Christian Union Church in Garrett was built, with its expanse of cemetery all around, the portraits of Jacob and Sarah Ober Brechbill depicted above were donated to the archives in their memory.2

Henry B. Davidson was another significant figure among the nineteenth-century River Brethren. He is remembered in Brethren in Christ circles as the founding editor of the church periodical, The Evangelical Visitor; his is also known as a driving force behind denominational mission.3 It is not known where Davidson’s portrait originated; nor is there a companion at his side, memorialized as his partner during his lifetime of ministry.

Davidson’s portrait, depicting intense eyes lined with passion and pain, peering out from under dark eyebrows, and the bow-tie that distinguishes him from Jacob Brechbill, raises questions in this viewer’s mind.4 Who was this man with the Scottish surname living and providing leadership among the nineteenth-century Brethren in Christ?5 My years of research have shown that Davidson lived adventurously and passionately, with a deep faith, as his calling took him from his natal Pennsylvania west to Ohio, north to Michigan, and south and west to Kansas before circling back to the state of his birth. With the tragedy that stalked him and his family, over his eighty years Henry wed not once, not twice, but three times. In the process, he was blessed with thirteen children.6

The researcher might ask, if there was a portrait hanging next to Henry Davidson’s, which one of Henry’s three wives would it feature? Would it be Hannah Craft Davidson, whom he married as a young man in his mid-twenties, and with whom he fathered five children? Would it be Fannie Rice Davidson, who after Hannah’s untimely death from typhoid fever when she and Henry were in their early thirties, agreed to marry him and come out to Ohio to raise his young family? Or would it be Kate Brenneman, whom Henry married toward the end of his life, and who served with him in his late life ministry?

If there were one portrait, it would seem fitting to honor his second wife Fannie Rice Davidson. Fannie raised Hannah’s five, and bore eight more children. During their many years in Ohio while nurturing their brood of thirteen, she managed their large home and farm, freeing Henry for ministry. In her latter years, she followed him as he moved from Ohio to Michigan, and from Michigan to Kansas, pursuing the dream of capturing support for a church periodical. This is particularly impressive when we learn in her obituary that she had suffered from cancer for the thirty years preceding her death in 1894.7

If a portrait of Fannie Rice Davidson should surface, it would help to make sense of Henry’s portrait, placed at is in proximity to those of Jacob and Sarah Ober Brechbill. It was Fannie who bore Henry’s namesake twins – Henry and Henrietta, who married, respectively, the Brechbill’s daughter Elizabeth and son John. Fannie shared in the family bond that these liaisons created.

If such a portrait would grace the archives’s wall, Fannie Rice Davidson would finally be re-united with her husband and father of their children. In sharp contrast to Jacob and Sarah Brechbill, whose graves lay side by side, and who have been memorialized by their family as donors of the land for the expansive cemetery surrounding Christian Union Church, Fannie and Henry Davidson were put to their final rest respectively in Abilene, Kansas, and Wooster, Ohio, with no less than 900 miles separating them.

At her father’s death, Fannie’s namesake daughter H. Frances Davidson, the pioneer missionary well known in denominational circles as Henry’s daughter, insisted on remembering her mother with white cosmos seeds sent from her post at Matopo Mission in Southern Rhodesia.8 I have suggested elsewhere that Frances’s wish was a way of remembering her mother on Henry’s death, for he was buried in Ohio next to his first wife Hannah Craft Davidson, in close proximity to his first family most of whom had settled in that state.9

Perhaps one day the ancestral trio on the Brethren in Christ archive wall will be squared off with a fourth – that of Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson. If such a portrait would surface, the distance between Fannie’s burial site in Abilene, Kansas and Henry’s in Wooster, Ohio finally would be bridged, as the wish of their daughter Frances’s gift of cosmos seeds sent so long ago implied.


  1. Carlton O. Wittlinger, Quest for Piety and Obedience: The Story of the Brethren in Christ (Nappanee, Indiana: Evangel Press, 1978), 47; photos of the three portraits are courtesy of Brethren in Christ Archives, Mechanicsburg, PA.
  2. Early D. Brechbill, “The ancestry of John and Henrietta Davidson Brechbill: A Historical Narrative,” (Independence, KS: Robert K. Brechbill printer, 1973), 26; photo by William Stoner. https//www.findagrave.com/cemetery/466301/Christian-unon-cemetery Accessed 17 June 2019. Granddaughters Viola Martin and Mary Olinger and great—granddaughters Joanna Hoke an dEsther Hoover donated them to the Archives. Glen Pierce to Lucille Marr, electronic mail, 12 June 2019.
  3. See, for instance, Micah B. Brickner, “One of God’s Avenues of Progress: Exploring the Outcomes of the Evangelical Visitor,” Brethren in Christ History and Life, Vol. XL, no. 3 (December 2017), 323-34.
  4. “Reverend Henry Davidson (1823-1903): Maintaining and Creating Boundaries,” Historical Papers, Canada: Society of Church History (2014), 5.
  5. I have researched and written aspects of his story published as “Henry B and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson: Life and Vision,” Brethren in Christ History & Life, XLI, no. 2 (August 2018), 115-54.
  6. For brief biographical sketches of Henry’s children, please see “Henry B and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson,” nn 2-4, 10-11; family tree, 119.
  7. Photo courtesy of the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives, Mechanicsburg, PA.
  8. Hannah Frances Davidson, personal diary, 2 March 1895, Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives, Messiah College, Grantham, Pennsylvania; “Henry B. and Frances (Fannie) Davidson,” 115. Fannie left her own legacy as mother of her namesake, H. Frances Davidson. The younger Frances carried her mother’s, and also her grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s name. I have developed this maternal line in the Stewart-Rice-Davidson genealogy in “’Conflict, Confession, and Conversion,” 18.
  9. “Henry B and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson,” 116.

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.