Women Doing

Kerry Fast

The final post in our “Women Talking” series comes from Dr. Kerry Fast. She has a PhD from the Department of Religion, University of Toronto. She has published several articles about Old Colony and is currently working on a research project on Steinbach Pride.

I have been asked to write about the religious lives of Old Colony women in Bolivia.[1] But I want to do more than that. I want to rethink what religious lives are. I, therefore, focus not so much on what Old Colony women believe and the meaning of specific religious practices they engage in (e.g., kneeling in prayer) as what they do within the religious structure of their colony, which includes their beliefs. This is not to say that one or the other is more important, but by focussing on their doing, their active and integral role in shaping their world becomes evident.

I take seriously that Old Colony women know what their ideal world looks like and how best to strive for those ideals in their fragmented world. Lila Abu-Lughod calls on us in the west to let go of the “smug superiority” that imposes the priorities of western feminism on other cultures and take seriously the desires and priorities of women in those cultures—priorities about gender relations, safety, food security, oppression, families, communities, the self—that often look different than our priorities.[2] As Saba Mahmood writes, “the terms people use to organize their lives are not simply a gloss for universally shared assumptions about the world and one’s place in it, but are actually constitutive of different forms of personhood, knowledge, and experience.”[3] This is not, as Abu-Lughod insists, about “accepting the passivity implied for which anthropologists are justly famous—a relativism that says it’s their culture and it’s not my business to judge or interfere, only to try to understand….[T]he problem is it is much too late not to interfere.”[4] And “interfered” we have: journalists have investigated, missionaries have converted, development has been dispensed, movies have been made, anthropologists have studied. Because I see myself in this list, I have chosen to “interfere” (again) in the best way I know how: in what follows I present encounters I have had with Old Colony women in Bolivia (and observations I have made of those encounters) as they shape and re-shape their religious lives.

Robert Orsi describes religion as a “network of relationships between heaven and earth involving humans of all ages and many sacred figures together. These relationships have all the complexities—all the hopes, evasions, love, fear, denial, projections, misunderstandings, and so on—of relationships between humans.”[5] For Old Colonists, in addition to their relationships with “sacred figures” such as God and Jesus and their fellow colonists, they also relate integrally to tradition—we do as we have been taught by our parents, by the Jemeent.[6] Tradition is the bedrock of how they live in their colonies; it is the rule that guides their interactions. Old Colonists’ relationship with tradition is as complex as the other relationships they are a part of. There is an abiding confidence in tradition, but there is also a continuous engagement with newness that circles back to tradition and leaves that tradition changed. There is lament that their communities have “gone to the dogs” and that the colony has forsaken tradition, but simultaneously there is a never-ending tug-of-war with the Lehrdienst[7] to bring about change. They work on their world for the betterment of themselves and their families even as they are deeply obligated to attend to the wellness of their villages and colony. Their class divisions create resentment in the midst of a radical egalitarianism. Conflicts between neighbours erupt even as they have established a web of mutual aid in the colony. They kick against the goads of a conservative Lehrdienst, and they respect it because it grounds them in tradition. It is within such a complex of relationships that I situate the following encounters.

Maria Klassen has been tasked with preparing bodies for burial, and it is a job she would rather not do. Her husband has Parkinson’s and can no longer assist her in moving the body and handling the ice. But she is also frustrated by the expectations placed on her as an Aufwauscha.[8] When Maria first moved to Bolivia from Mexico, where she had been an Aufwauscha, she told no one because in Bolivia bodies are prepared differently than they were on her colony in Mexico, and she knew she wouldn’t do it to people’s satisfaction. In confirmation of this, she had been at a funeral recently (not one where she had prepared the body) and overheard comments about how the body wasn’t dressed correctly. This nitpicking frustrates her because she doesn’t see why it matters. But word got around of her previous experience, and families needing her services began coming to her. She couldn’t refuse.

Maria takes great care in dressing the body. While white sheets are used, they are pinned and sewed to look like clothing. At one time, women were dressed in black caps but now they wear white ones, which are sown by women in the village of the grieving family. Often her husband has helped with dressing the body. When the body is ready to be placed in the coffin, people from the village gather around it and sing hymns. Attending to the body of a person who has committed suicide is particularly difficult for Maria, especially so because she believes the person is damned. And yet she was as attentive to details for a young man who had hanged himself as she was for any other body. When the young man’s mother asked her to raise the sheet to cover his throat to hide the bruises, Maria accommodated the request. Maria has washed thirty bodies and keeps a careful list of everyone she has attended to.

* * *

Susanna Hiebert has no intention of heeding the admonition of ministers she has heard in sermons. Young women like her are supposed to comb their hair over their forehead a certain way, but she wears a net. In her opinion, whenever a fashion comes along that is more comfortable than the current fashion, the ministers oppose it. Her mother Anne is not particularly concerned about her daughter’s defiance.

Every Saturday night, Susanna and her three younger sisters, her mother, and a married sister wash and braid each other’s hair. Susanna’s two youngest sisters were born in Canada during the two years the Hiebert family worked on vegetable fields in Ontario to earn money. For several years after their return to Bolivia, Anne braided the hair of her youngest two daughters in the “Canadian” way, which meant braiding the front hair but leaving it open in the back. Her daughters complained that this was too hot, and eventually, she began braiding their hair in the same way her hair and the hair of almost all women on her colony are braided.

A few villages over, Susanna’s two cousins showed me a picture of their mother taken when she was a young woman. In their eyes, she is terribly old fashioned; the pleats on her dress are too narrow and the fabric is not pretty.

* * *

Aganetha Wall had recently had surgery when I first met her. During the week I spent in her house, noon and evening meals were provided by women from the village she lived in. Someone had initiated a Satal, a bill of sorts that is sent around to each house in the village so that women can sign up to provide a meal. The Satal is then left with the family receiving the meals so that they know who to expect. This organized way of assisting villagers was initiated after one woman had received eleven meals on one day, and much of the food went to waste. Aganetha’s daughters who live with her (aged fifteen to thirty-two), received each meal with thanks, but that didn’t stop them from commenting on whether the meal met their expectations of what a meal from the household in question should consist of. The portions were generous; enough to feed the eight of us in the house and guests, who were present most evenings—a married son or daughter and their family. According to Tina, the oldest of Aganetha’s daughters at home, some households in the village are opposed to the Satal because they see it as people demanding food. They have been known to crumple the Satal, but they don’t go as far as refusing to pass it along. The collective disgust of the Wall women was evident.

During my stay with the Walls, three women came to visit Aganetha in her sick room. The women were all daughters-in-law of the former Vorsteher, and one of them was the wife of the current Vorsteher.[9] Their mother-in-law, a close relative of Aganetha’s, had been ill for quite some time, and previously Aganetha had sent around a Satal for her. The former Vorsteher had immediately put a stop to it because he didn’t want the village taking care of him and he thought it would reflect poorly on his children (read daughters-in-law) who would be seen as not providing adequate care for his wife. (Many on the colony are indebted to him.) Aganetha wanted to send another Satal around and so discussed it with her guests. They were in favour of it, which Aganetha credited to them being worn out caring for their mother-in-law. With this blessing, Tina wrote out the Satal and sent her youngest sister to deliver it to the nearest neighbours. But this time, they sent the Satal in the opposite direction down the village street so that it would reach the former Vorsteher’s house last and then he wouldn’t be able to stop it. Aganetha instructed her daughter to mention that the current Vorsteher’s wife, one of her guests, supported the Satal.

On Sunday of the week that the Walls sent around the Satal, I overhead a conversation in church between a woman of the village and her two daughters discussing what in the world they would make for the former Vorsteher’s wife.

* * *

Katherine Klassen loves to embroider, and women hire her to embroider their kerchiefs, which they wear to church and when they go out. She was working on one when I met her. It was fancier than most, with extra flowers in the corners, and worked on thinner fabric. The woman who had hired her was stolt (proud), which explained the extra details. But this embroidery request also attested to Katherine’s skill, and she knew it.

* * *

Justina Peters is getting old and her lack of mobility hampers her. The benches in church don’t have backs, and the only way she can kneel to pray is if she sits at the end of the bench where she can use the side support to maneuver her body to face the bench. Because of her age and the deference she is entitled to, she knows she should be sitting on the front bench with other women her age, but then she wouldn’t be able to kneel.

* * *

Elizabeth Enns runs a store on her yard, and once a week she and her seventeen-year-old daughter take the taxi to Santa Cruz to buy inventory. The week I accompanied them, they bought fabric, candy, socks, stockings, snaps, buttons, and zippers and sold the butter and eggs they had collected from the colony during the week—a hundred pounds of butter and twenty-five dozen eggs. Her daughter is more fluent in Spanish than Elizabeth, and she does all the bargaining. Elizabeth is concerned that when her daughter gets married, she will have to close the store because she can’t do it on her own.

To undercut her competition, Elizabeth offered to supply the fabric for a woman who embroiders kerchiefs if she would would sell her kerchiefs in Elizabeth’s store rather than in the one she is supplying now.

* * *

Edith Bueckert has a developmentally disabled pre-teen daughter. Her daughter enjoys school, where she can interact with the other children in the village. But she also easily gets bored. She wants very much to join the teenagers and young adults on the village street on Sunday afternoon; Edith is afraid of that eventuality.[10] As a matter of principal, Edith does not allow her children to join their peers on the street until they are fifteen. For now, she can mostly keep her daughter at home, but on a few occasions, she has had to send one of her sons to bring her home. Edith was not explicit about what her fear for her daughter was—and for this daughter only—but it was obvious. Her other daughters have certain protections, so the risk is manageable. They have common sense and social skills that can help them determine who is good company to keep and who is not; they will take seriously their brothers’ assessment of which boys to avoid. But Wilhelmina doesn’t have these skills, and given her disability, Edith fears she will be a target for assault.

* * *

Aganetha Wall was unable to attend church for several weeks because of her surgery. Tears welled up in her eyes when she told me how much she missed the singing.

During the two years Anne Hiebert and her family were in Ontario, she longed for the familiar lange Wiese singing in church. Now back in Bolivia, she misses the korte Wiese of the Old Colony church in Ontario.[11] Recently a group of Mennonites from Canada visited Riva Palacios, and she relished their singing.

Anne Wieler and her three daughters often sing hymns in the evening from a book of Low German translations of American gospel songs, published by evangelical Mennonite missionaries.

* * *

Jehovah’s Witnesses regularly come to Riva Palacios to proselytize. They have met with some success, but the converts are expected to move off the colony. When Witnesses arrived on the yard of Judith Harms, she was conflicted between going out to greet them as would be expected and wanting nothing to do with them. Instead, she sent two of her children, aged ten and twelve, to tell them that they had other visitors (me) and couldn’t invite them in. On a previous visit, she had told the Witnesses that the pictures in their publications scared her children, which she didn’t like.

* * *

These everyday encounters illustrate how Old Colony women shape their religious lives within the religious structure of their colony. Every time Elizabeth Ens and her daughter go to Santa Cruz to purchase inventory, they negotiate the boundary around the colony that is meant to keep them separate from the world around them. How Judith Harms interacts or doesn’t interact with Jehovah’s Witnesses brings new meaning to the metaphoric boundary that separates Old Colonists from the world around them. Whether it is the satisfaction of creating beauty that Katherine Klassen receives from embroidering a new kerchief design on a new kind of fabric, the defiance of Susanna Hiebert when she wears a net over her hair, or Elizabeth Ens’ entrepreneurial skills, they are adjusting the sense of style that exists on their colony and thereby “tampering” with the Jemeent’s expectation of women’s distinct dress. When Edith Bueckert worries about her daughter’s safety, she is adding her voice to the parental push on the colony for the Lehrdienst to allow substantive reform of teenage socializing. When Justina Peters stubbornly refuses to sit in the front bench, she is honouring her parents and foreparents who knelt in submission to God as she does, even as she resists aging. The tentacles of transnationalism are felt when Anne Hiebert braids her daughters’ hair in the “Canadian” way and when Anne Wieler sings Low German gospel songs imported by Canadian missionaries. When Aganetha Wall subtlety manipulates the demarcations of class by ensuring the former Vorsteher will receive the same kind of neighbourly care that she, a widow with little economic power receives, she is adjusting what mutual aid means for her village. When women long for hymn singing or embrace newer, evangelical hymns, they are reaffirming emotion as an integral part of their relationship with God and their community. When Maria Klassen spends hours washing, chilling, and dressing bodies to be buried, she is making it possible for families and her community to grieve even as she is reaffirming the Jemeent and tradition as the only means of salvation for the colony. In all of this, Old Colony women shape their religious lives within the web of relationships that exist in their world. Relationships with God, with their families, their neighbours, their leaders, with their tradition, with the world beyond their colony. They make and do and talk religion in a world that is ever changing, even as they are.

I wish to thank Luann Good Gingrich, York University, whose comments about this piece led to substantial improvements.

[1] For this post, I draw on two research trips I made to Bolivia and Mexico as part of SSHRC-funded research projects of Royden Loewen. Most of my accounts are of women on Riva Palacios colony. However, I also include accounts of women on Swift colony in Bolivia and Sabinal colony in Mexico. All names are pseudonyms.

[2] Lila Abu-Lughod, “Lila Abu-Lughod on Colonial Feminism and Muslim Women. REDUX #ANTHROISLAM.” Allegra Lab. October 2014. https://allegralaboratory.net/lila-abu-lughod-on-colonial-feminism-and-muslim-women/

[3] Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012 [2005]), p. 16.

[4] Lila Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” American Anthropologist 104, no. 3, 2002: 786. Abu-Lughod’s point is part of an extensive argument about the representation of Muslim women in the west and how, ultimately, by portraying them as oppressed by militant, patriarchal Islam, the violence perpetuated against them is exacerbated, and for her, violence also includes the poverty many live in because of colonialism, western militarism, and an unjust distribution of resources. She advocates for “interfering” by working to make the world a more just place. “The reason respect for difference should not be confused for cultural relativism is that it does not preclude asking how we, living in this privileged and powerful part of the world, might examine our own responsibilities for the situation in which others in distant places have found themselves” (789).

[5] Robert A. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 2.

[6] The Christian community comprising all baptized individuals of the colony.

[7] The elected ministers and Ältester (bishop) of a colony.

[8] One who washes off. A woman who prepares bodies for burial.

[9] The elected civic head of the colony, usually a prominent, wealthy businessman.

[10] On Sunday afternoons, teenagers and single young adults congregate on village streets to socialize. This is the primary way in which Old Colonists find their spouse. Not surprisingly, there is drinking and drug use, and parents worry about their children.

[11] Lange Wiese is a form of highly ornamented singing where one syllable has many notes used on many colonies in Latin America. It takes about fifteen minutes to sing three stanzas of a hymn. Korte Wiese is the typical singing done in Protestant churches in North America. Several Old Colony churches in Canada and the United States, including the Ontarian church, have adopted it to retain members even though they continue to use the same eighteenth-century Gesangbuch used on Riva Palacios, Sabinal and Swift colonies.

Women Talking:  An Anabaptist Fable for our Times?

This week Anabaptist Historians welcomes Dr. Kimberly D. Schmidt. She divides her research interests between Amish and Mennonite women’s social history and women’s histories of the Southern Cheyenne. For over twenty years, Dr. Schmidt worked as a history professor and Director of Eastern Mennonite University’s Washington Community Scholars’ Center.

Women Talking:  An Anabaptist Fable for our Times?

Kimberly D. Schmidt

Miriam Toews’s novel that became an academy-award winning movie (Best Adapted Screenplay) has generated much debate among the Mennorati on websites and in social media. Toews presents a story drawn from real-life events that transpired between 2005-2009. In a remote Bolivian Old Colony Mennonite community women were drugged and violently raped. For years they woke in semi-stupor to injury and pain. Some women were impregnated. After a perpetrator was caught, he confessed and identified seven more perpetrators. A number of women came forward, eight men were convicted and are serving twenty-five year prison sentences–the longest sentence allowed under Bolivian law. These real-life events form the backdrop for Toews’ story. The “Ghost Rapes,” as they came to be called, have justifiably horrified the world and Toews’ novel struck a powerful chord. On Facebook and other social media sites some have argued that the book and movie are, as the novelist claims in an introductory note, “an act of female imagination.” While based on recent, real events, proponents argue that Women Talking is not a documentary but a fable for our times. Is Women Talking a powerful fable? If it can be argued that it is a fable, perhaps it is an Anabaptist fable. Could Women Talking have been written by someone unfamiliar with Mennonite culture and history? There are several aspects of Women Talking that seem to be taken straight out of Anabaptist theology and history.  

The Mennonite emphasis on the congregation as the discerning body provided the narrative arch. The women worked through their choices and differences in a group setting. Women confronting violent abuse addressed their anger, confusion, and heartbreak not from positions of weakness but from the strength that comes from collective discernment. It was a priesthood of believers that met, in this case a group of women, who talked, listened, reflected, argued, comforted, guided, prayed and sang together. No one woman had the leading voice. There was no one leader (priest?). There was no one protagonist or heroine and no one villain. It was a community where all were heard and no one’s voice was dismissed.

The women met in a hayloft. That’s not the first time women of Anabaptist traditions have met in secret. In early Anabaptist history, Mennoists and other early Anabaptists met in haylofts, caves, boats, and “around the distaff,” that is, craft production or what might be considered sixteenth-century corollaries to modern-day sewing or quilting circles.1 The women in Women Talking, like sixteenth-century Anabaptist women, used a women’s craft meeting to disguise their secret meetings. However, Elisabeth Harder Schrock, who worked extensively with women in the Bolivian colonies during the time of the Ghost Rapes noted that women’s gatherings and craft circles in Bolivia are not regulated by men. It’s not unusual for Old Colony women to visit and share work and meals with no males present. There is not necessarily a need for secrecy when women meet together in contemporary Old Colony society.”2 Meeting in secret seems particularly drawn from Anabaptist history and not contemporary practice.   

The women were closely related by kinship networks and relationships interwoven by years of living in close community with one another and through the generations. These identities are still often used to place Mennonite individuals within a matrix of family, extended family, church, and community, even by those who live on the margins or who have rejected much of Mennonite belief. These closely woven connections informed the women’s actions. When the women in Women Talking fled they left not as individuals or small family units but as a large collective–reminiscent of the numbers of extended Russian Mennonite families that came to the United States and Canada during the 1870s. Entire churches packed up and left southern Russia for the Great Plains of North America. The last, powerfully visual scene in the movie is of women leaving together in a long line of horses and buggies. They packed up their bundles of clothing, blankets, cookware, bibles, and canned goods (zwieback?), hitched their horses to buggies and one following the next left in a long solemn line. Flight or immigration in large family groups is a time-honored Anabaptist tradition and the end of Women Talking should not come as a surprise to those familiar with Anabaptist and Mennonite history. 

The women’s final decision, to leave the colony, was informed by their deeply felt religious beliefs in forgiveness and healing. They had to leave so that they could heal and learn to forgive. The choice to flee is particularly emblematic of Anabaptist and Mennonite decisions. As I’ve written elsewhere, Helena von Freyberg, a woman who chose flight, should be as celebrated as the martyr Dirk Willems.3  Willems turned back over a frozen pond to save his jailer who had fallen through the ice. He was recaptured and burned at the stake. In contrast, von Freyberg kept running. She was a prominent noblewomen from Kitzbühel, a town in Tirol, Austria. Her family castle is still extant and Mennonite heritage tourists can visit the homeplace of a woman who not once but three times outwitted local Catholic authorities and fled to Augsburg via Constance. She escaped from certain persecution to relative safety and died peacefully in Augsburg in 1545. In all three locations: Kitzbühel, Constance, and Augsburg, von Freyberg harbored Anabaptist refugees, hosted meetings in her home, and strengthened her community.

The book and movie were in many ways authentic to an Anabaptist ethos of community discernment and community action and both media (book and movie) portrayed the confusion, heartbreak and anger of forging a healing path away from abuse. There were several moments in the movie so authentic, so real, that I broke down. For example, the conversation between Mariche and her frail, elderly mother who offered to accompany her home to protect her from a violent husband could have been a word-by-word rendition of several conversations between my own elderly, frail mother and myself. Several scenes in the movie were closely and powerfully felt. 

In spite of heart-rending identification, there are areas in which Toews’ narrative and public pronouncements so blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction that I have started to question her intentions and ethics. And here is where the argument as a Anabaptist fable for our times breaks down.

The novel’s setting is very specific to time, place, and recent memory. Places are named. There were news reports. Toews presents not a fable but a dystopian novel based on real-life, not that long ago, violence against women. This is no Margaret Atwood tale set in some distant future with characters we don’t know. There are a few places where Toews’ blurs her novel’s telling with the truth. She gave a 2018 interview with the Canadian Broadcast Corporation in which she made several claims, as if they were true, as if they were facts. 

For example, Toews asserted in her novel that Mennonite women in the Bolivian colonies are illiterate. Toews repeated this claim as if it’s fact during the CBC interview. Actually, many Bolivian Mennonite women are avid readers. Their favorite books are about the Titanic and Ben Hur.5 Harder Schrock noted to this author that many women are their community’s scribes, recording weddings, births, funerals and keeping their families in touch through lengthy letters.6

In Women Talking, women can’t travel; they are forced to stay on their farms. Toews claimed in the interview that women were “prisoners in their colonies.” Actually, Mennonite women in the Bolivian colonies love to travel. Harder Schrock noted how she often passed buggies filled with women and children traveling without men.7 In the book and movie they are so isolated that they don’t know how to read a map. In fact, globes were provided to most Bolivian schoolrooms by Mennonite Central Committee.8 Travel is a central aspect of life and it’s not unusual for families to carry passports from two-three different nations. The repeated references both in the book and movie and in Toews’ CBC interview to how Mennonite women don’t know anything about history and cultures other than their own are, quite simply, completely false.

If this is a fable what do we learn from it? That all men almost without exception are evil? The book/movie paints all men in the colony as evil, except for August, who is demasculinized both in the book and in the movie. As a teacher he occupies the lowest rung in Old Colony society. He can’t farm, so he must teach.9 In Toews’ interviews and in the book, all the other men were monsters who ignored and downplayed women’s pleas for help and discounted women’s experiences. In fact, the chemical concoction used on the women was also used on the men. Entire families were drugged so that the women could be raped. The rapes resulted in widespread fear. Men put up bars on windows, razor wire around homes, locks on doors, and installed alarm systems. They did their best to protect women in the colonies. The colonies raised $400,000 to keep the perpetrators in jail–not to bail them out, as read and seen in Women Talking.10 However, during the CBC interview Toews asserts that males completely dismissed the women as making things up. 

This kind of narrative is not only too easy–women good, men bad–but it fails to truly help women who are being victimized. Only rarely are abusers simply and purely evil. Many abusers have some redeeming qualities. This is what makes it so hard for some women to leave (I speak from experience). Empowering to me, and I’m sure to other women, would be narratives that delve into complex, nuanced characters for not just the women, but also the men.

In interviews and in the book, Toews hid behind fiction, behind “an act of female imagination” to vilify an entire group of people. She simplified, as she amplified, the very real events. What is the human cost to this kind of writing? What are the ethics of writing a supposed fiction about recent non-fiction trauma? I am concerned that her telling, as provocative as it is, could actually harm the women involved and result in even more trauma. The women involved will likely never see the movie though they might read the book. We will likely never hear their voices nor their responses to the book and the movie.

If Toews had refrained from making erroneous claims in her interview, it would be easier for me to accept the book as an act of female imagination, of female empowerment, and as a fable about surviving abuse. However, she crossed the line when she misrepresented colony women and men in these key ways during the interview. As an abuse survivor I look for the day when our stories embrace the complexity and subtlety of abuse dynamics.

In the end and at the end, Toews offers healing to the women in the novel, if not redemption to the community. Through collective action and in a spirit of forgiveness the women chose to protect themselves and their children and in a time-honored Anabaptist tradition, they fled and perhaps that is the moral of the story. Perhaps this is where I can accept the story as a provocative myth, as a powerful Anabaptist fable. 

[1] Jeni Hiett Umble,  “Meeting Around the Distaff: Anabaptist Women in Augsburg” in Schmidt, Umble and Reschly, eds., Strangers at Home: Amish and Mennonite Women in History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2002),121-135

[2] Email correspondence with Elisabeth Harder Schrock, March 17, 2023.

[3] “Run, Dirk, Run! Wrestling with the Willemas Story,” in Cameron Altaras and Carol Penner, eds. Resistance” Confronting Violence, Power, and Abuse within Peace Churches (Elkhart, IN: Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, 2022), 238-249

[4] “Helena von Fregberg of Münichau,” in C. Arnold Snyder and Linda A. Huebert Hecht, eds. Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers (Kingston, ONT: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996), 124-135.

[5] Presentation by Willmar Harder, Dorothy Nikkel Friesen, moderator. Bethel College Mennonite Church, North Newton, Kansas, (Feb. 24, 2023). Harder is a former Mennonite Central Committee worker who worked and lived in the Bolivian colonies during the time of the Ghost Rapes. He presented material prepared by himself, his wife, Hannah Neufeld, and his sister, Elisabeth Harder Schrock.

[6] Email correspondence with Elisabeth Harder Schrock, March 17, 2023.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Willmar Harder presentation.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

Breaking the silence catharsis through art

This week’s post comes from Dr. Patricia Islas Salinas. She is a research professor at the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, México. Her books include: Mennonites of Northeastern Chihuahua: History, Education and Health and The Mennonite Colony in Chihuahua: Case Studies for Social Well-Being.

Since the beginning of times, different human groups have developed the patriarchal culture as the basis of interaction between genders, the role of women on different societies has been a reason of for vulnerability and discrimination.

In endogamic communities such as the Mennonites, the worldview is centered on a main axis: The religion. Since its formation, these communities took the Bible as their guide for behavior, beliefs, customs, and gender roles. Due to this, Mennonite women have been the target of gender violence within their own community, however, lately we can see that an interesting phenomenon of sorority and catharsis is occurring due to the amazing art creations in the kitchen between conservative and liberal women.

The Mennonite population in Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, Mexico are divided in two groups: 80% are traditionalist or conservative and the 20% are liberalist or progressist, both factions share the territory on two main colonies: ‘Manitoba’ and ‘Swift Curret’, the first one is characterized by the fact members that lives there and by the traditional type fields they have, both with different ways and lifestyle very different, while in the second the original houses and lifestyle originally inherited through the different countries are preserved.

The members of the liberal community even when they constitute the lowest percentage, have great economic power. They’re owners of enterprises located all long through Commercial Corridor ‘Alvaro Obregon’ (the biggest of Latin America). Additionallytheir schools are incorporated to the Mexican Educational System. The liberal community share some characteristics with the American System and the lifestyle of the families is similar to the American or Canadian with modern houses, modern cars and avant-grade electronic devices, use of internet and social network.

In the other way, families of the conservative or traditional faction posses austere houses, some work with Mennonite businessmen and another keep doing planting and cultivation work as a main economical activity. They have a country lifestyle even when they had added trucks, new technologies on their labor and they try to not interfere in the daily family life.

Traditional women follow the role imposed and inherited by their ancestors. Raising their offspring, the house, the kitchen, seam, the farm, the care of birds, cows and pigs, in addition to the cultivation of vegetables and fruit trees for family consumption, they conserve the traditional clothing, as well as the customs inherited from grandmothers and mothers.

On the other side, liberal women probably do not spend most of their time on the farm, but they’ll do on taking care of the family, a lot of them still have their vegetables and pretty gardens. Their kitchens are modern and well equipped, their dressing are not traditional, most of them drives a car and buy the products that they used to produce.

Despite this, the gender roles on both factions are very similar. The men can work outside the house, make commercial transactions, travel and speak Spanish, while the gender role of the Mennonite women has reminded static for almost six centuries. The conservative lifestyle and their behavior remains, even when the lifestyle of both liberal and traditional women are different both are deeply attached to the teachings of their mothers and grandmothers that indicate that the women has to be quiet, obedient and resigned.

Many churchmen condition women to believe that their prime duty is motherhood and household care. Headship for a husband, silence for women in the church, and primacy or normativeness of male experience characterize most Mennonite gender role teaching and practice. Based in androcentric (male-centered) interpretation of Scripture.  Nyce, (1989, párr. 6).

This role imposed from its formation as a religious group is patriarchal in nature, and affects them in the most important aspects of their daily life such as health and communication. In this sense, both traditional and liberal are represented by their husbands, fathers or brothers, since most of them cannot go on their own to receive medical care, they must be accompanied by a man from their family so that he can speak to the doctor or nurse on their behalf.

The social vulnerability of the majority of Mexican Mennonites also has its origin in the decision to maintain an endogamous community, they live the most isolated as possible from the mongrel community. Despite that the Mennonite colonies are very close to the urban sprawl and all people can transit through the settlements, there’s a cultural barrier imposed to women, children and seniors since for generations they have been instilled that they should not associate with the “mexas” because they become contaminated.

Implicit gender violence in the social sphere of Mennonite women can be observed when, despite being Mexican by birth, they don’t have the right to learn the Spanish language. Most of the traditional women don’t know how to speak it, while the liberals, even when they understand it, they consider it unnecessary because their relationship with the members of the dominant community is very scarce; in daily life, the traditional ones communicate in Plautdietsch and the liberals in Plautdietsch or English. Their vulnerability is evident in a Mexican context in which they are considered foreigners due to their worldview and imposition.

Gender violence occurs in the community, however, often these acts towards grandmothers, mothers and daughters aren’t considered that way because they have been normalized and there is a state of conformism that has caused mental and emotional disorders to appear among women.

According wit Islas (2016), between the Mennonite community there is a disease known as Narfenkrankheit (word in Plautdietsch that means Nerve Disease), individual phenomenon brought from the social, that is, it has to do with a state of anguish that involves feelings and emotions […] it is also related to a sense of discontent with social relations in situations of inequality of power and gender. (p.94)

It is common to see women go to pharmacies located in the commercial corridor buying anxiolytic and antidepressant drugs without a prescription that are consumed indiscriminately, these actions reflect the silent suffering and perhaps resignation to situations for which they do not fight.

When the problem is too strong, the council of the minister of the church is consulted, who determines if the woman should be admitted to a community rehabilitation center, meanwhile, their children are taking care by the family, neighbors or in a support center. Often this is not enough and the women relapse into their addiction.

The soroary catharsis

In the community of Cuauhtemoc, the members of the Mennonite community are recognized according to the church to which they belong (currently there is a great diversity of them). However, in recent years liberal women have taken up community artistic initiatives that involve “the others” regardless of what church they belong to or their customs and lifestyle.

The vast majority of Mennonite women have learned sewing, cooking, and growing plants, flowers and vegetables by collective inheritance since they were little girls.These capabilities have begun to be used to generate projects for artistic creations and for gastronomy.

Art and creativity are manifested in different ways in the elaboration of homemade articles and art such as soaps, patchwork quilts, dolls, drawing, paintings, bags, kitchen utensils such as tablecloths, thermal gloves, tortilla holders, and have turned the kitchen and the vegetable garden in cathartic spaces. This activity is not frowned upon by the male gender since it has to do with the gender role of women in the family.

Sorority is a concept that is unknown among Mennonite women but that is observed in actions that indicate otherness and solidarity with each other, based on communication and support networks that generate empowerment.

Some liberal women have managed to convince traditional housewives to participate in artistic and gastronomic shows and seasonal markets (Christmas festival, pumpkin festival). Thanks to these initiatives, a resilience process can be perceived when they verify that their items and meals are valued and bought by the Mennonite and mixed-race community, and they also feel useful because they contribute to the family livelihood.

According to the research of Islas and Trevizo (2016) “some women look at art as an opportunity to express […] what is light and what is dark, protest, modern trends, the evolution of thought […]”. (p. 163)

On the other hand, the love of gardening, growing vegetables and harvesting for cooking has been preserver for generations. These spaces in the home are totally significant, it is there where women identify themselves, feel useful and valued, they also practice reflection and self-discovery to reach catharsis. “Cooking gives me an outlet for creative expression that is inspired by God’s creativity. As I move through adulthood, I find freedom in the inspiration I take with my kitchen and garden”. (Thiessen, 2017)

Gender violence is a deeply rooted social phenomenon in different societies with a patriarchal system, among Mennonite women there are still more who are violated and vulnerable, however, society is evolving, traditional women talk to each other and communicate more with liberal ones, they seek to learn their rights from each other and act accordingly.

Liberal artist and cooks say catharsis through art and sorority can lift their community out of the isolation and vulnerability of women without losing a sense of their worldview and cultural identity.


Islas, P. y Trevizo, O. (2016). La salud: una perspectiva desde el rol de la mujer menonita. En Mujeres menonitas, miradas y expresiones. Ed. ICHICULT, ISBN 978-607-8321-53-7

Nyce, Dorothy Yoder. (1989). Gender RolesGlobal Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 1 March 2023, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Gender_Roles&oldid=143578

Thiessen, D. (2017). Food and Spirituality. Preservings N° 37. P.30-32. Plett Historical Research Foundation Inc.

Women Talking: A Displaced Act of Female Imagination

This week’s post comes from Anabaptist Historians’ contributor Rebecca Janzen. She is Associate Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Dr. Janzen is a scholar of gender, disability and religious studies in Mexican literature and culture whose research focuses on excluded populations in Mexico.


This blog post will contextualize Women Talking by examining the events on which it is based and alluding to the history of the portrayals of Old Colony Mennonites across the Americas. Women Talking (dir. Sarah Polley, 2022) is based on Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel of the same name.

Both the film and the book bring events from 2005 to 2011 to life. Between 2005 and 2009, women in the Manitoba Colony of Old Colony Mennonites in Bolivia reported waking up after experiencing various forms of sexualized violence, including rape, and not having any memory of what had happened. Others in their community accused them of fabricating the events from what was called a “wild female imagination.”

This is a common accusation levied against victims of sexualized violence and rape, and, as experts in trauma have demonstrated, survivors typically do not have memories of the events that can be shared in a logical, narrative order, that would satisfy the demands of any legal system. In 2009, the Bolivian authorities arrested nine men, and in 2011, it convicted seven of them for the crimes of rendering women unconscious via horse tranquilizer and raping them. These events reached international attention.

The events were covered by international news media in English, as well as national and international news in Spanish, and I believe it was so well reported because Mennonites (like Amish people) often attract attention when the community deviates from the idealized portrayals that I believe are rooted in problematic white supremacist ideas. Films like Silent Light have reached international acclaim for similar reasons (see my discussion of this on the Just Plain Wrong podcast). As I have shown in my previous academic work, when Old Colony Mennonites (and related groups) in Mexico and in Bolivia, are portrayed either as too perfect, or prone to crime or other questionable behavior, this says more about the surrounding culture and how it conceives of nationhood than of the particular group in question (listen to a brief summary of the book here).

The film, I think, tries to use these events to comment on the universal experience of sexualized violence and rape – the many positive reviews of the film focus on how this rings true, and I would emphasize that the film’s comments on the criminal legal system are true in Bolivia and  anywhere else. Unfortunately, much like the novel, and most reporting, it is not based on women’s versions of events. Indeed, as I noted in a 2016 article that I wrote about Bolivian reporting on the events, I could not find recordings or statements of or by women affected by the events. I hope that Kerry Fast’s post in this series will give us more of that perspective.

The problem with this is that it has stopped being a story about these Old Colony Women. The maps in the film were based either on allusions to place in the book (rather than the well-known street village pattern of settlement) or to an otherworldly place that is no place, a Foucauldian heterotopia of horrors. And yet there are some very Bolivia elements to the story. First of all, the community was isolated on purpose. Mennonites migrated from Mexico to Bolivia between 1967 and 1969 in order to preserve the most traditional elements of their way of life, away from encroaching ideas of progress and larger urban centers. They joined a smaller group of Paraguayan Mennonites who had already established themselves there. The Bolivian government wanted to populate a strategically important region of the country with people who would be loyal to them, and who would, in their estimation, improve its economy. As Ben Nobbs-Thiessen’s analysis of the press from that time shows, the group was welcomed because of their perceived expertise in farming, although there were some concerns regarding language, dress, and religious beliefs.

The film removes this group of people from this place and this makes its discussion of the issues that face women who would like to leave a high demand religious community after experiences of violence general, rather than specifically focusing on issues that Old Colony Mennonite women in Bolivia would face, and extrapolating from there. The discussion of the issue of forgiveness, for instance, relies more on prevailing evangelical ideas of forgiveness and of the Kingdom of God than on the Old Colony Mennonite understanding of salvation as a communal enterprise that is never assured. This would undoubtedly make anyone’s decision to leave the community more difficult. The film also focuses on the colony’s purported pacifism. In my opinion it is extremely unlikely that an Old Colony Mennonite would use that word – while Mennonites in Bolivia have continually negotiated with the Bolivian government to ensure that men are exempted from military service (see Nobbs Thiessen), it is in order to preserve a separation from the broader world rather than articulated  pacifism – the way Mennonites in my own background would discuss our aversion or resistance to military service.

I would add that the issues of education and language are also not addressed in the film. The film portrays what appears to be much like the inside of Old Colony Mennonite schools that I visited during my research in Mexico, it fails to mention that girls are educated. While they may receive fewer years of schooling than boys, in both cases, this is an education designed to prepare people to participate in the religious life of the community. Moreover, there are efforts in several Old Colony Mennonite communities to improve education while allowing people to stay in their own communities (see for example Abe Wall’s work in the Thames Valley District School Board in Ontario in Low German, summary of project here, or Amish teachers in Mexico, which I wrote about in the Journal of Mennonite Studies).

This education, moreover, is in German, and the community’s language is Low German. I suspect that the women I spoke with during my research knew more Spanish or English than they claimed, but they thought that because my father is fluent in Low German I should be able to speak it as well, and, according to my casual observations, they seemed to be able to conduct business with non-Mennonite people. I would emphasize that it is different to be able to conduct business than to establish oneself in a new community in a new culture and a new language. The line of buggies leaving the community at the end is a beautiful act of sorority, but, when we think about the women in Bolivia, and people everywhere who have survived sexualized violence, how can you leave when you have no education, no language to speak to anyone outside of your community? How could you leave everything behind?

“Women Talking: The Dilemma of Fight or Flight for Historic Female Anabaptists”: An Introduction

Starting tomorrow, March 9, and running weekly through April 13, Anabaptist Historians will feature a series of posts around the theme of “Women Talking: The Dilemma of Fight or Flight for Historic Female Anabaptists.” Using as its starting point the critically acclaimed film, Women Talking, this series features the work of female contributors as they explore the stories of women throughout Anabaptist history who faced the decision—to varying degrees—of challenging or leaving the religious communities of which they were a part. Its intent is to highlight the work of female scholars and the historic individuals, moments, or sources where Anabaptist women made their voices heard.

Image: Internet Movie Database (Fair Use)

What medieval historian Katherine French observes about her subjects in The Good Women of the Parish also holds true for the historic Anabaptist women covered in this series:

Religious practice was an important source of self-expression, creativity, and agency for women of every social status. The Church promoted submission, modesty, and motherhood as traditional Christian values for women. . . . Yet the Church also provided religious significance to women’s everyday lives and tasks . . . the universal Church, offered women opportunities for leadership, visibility, and even occasional authority, all in the name of religious devotion and in seeming contradiction to the goals of submission and silence.[1]

Growing up in the Mennonite tradition, my own study of female Anabaptists didn’t occur until graduate school, and in the same course where I first read French’s book. Beth Allison Barr’s class “Medieval Sermons” provided me an opportunity to examine the intersection of agency and religion in the life and ministry of Mennonite preacher Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus.[2] The questions engendered by this class alongside misperceptions about religion in Women Talking prompted the creation of this series.

The contributors, several of whom study Latin America, come from various disciplines. Some stories contain dramatic resistance, others much more ordinary. The series opens with Rebecca Janzen’s contextualization of the film. She notes how the particularity and voice of the women in the Bolivian Old Mennonite Colony gets lost in telling a broader story about sexualized violence. Patricia Islas follows by sharing how Mexican Mennonite victims of gender violence experience healing and hope by the kitchen art they create. Other scholars will narrate the stories of Mennonite women from various times and places, before Kerry Fast closes with her ethnographic description of the religious lives of the Old Colony Mennonite women in Bolivia.

To learn more about the history and lives of female Anabaptist/Mennonites during this Women’s History Month, see the following—non-exhaustive—list of recommendations:

[1] Katherine L. French, The Good Women of the Parish: Gender and Religion After the Black Death (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 4-5.

[2] An earlier version of this Anabaptist Historians post appeared on the Anxious Bench blog at Dr. Barr’s invitation. It compares Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus’ life and ministry with that of her evangelist brother, George R. Brunk II. See: A Tale of Two Mennonite Pastors: Siblings, Gender, and How to Disagree | Beth Allison Barr (patheos.com).

Southern Anabaptist Colleges and Civil War Memory: Eastern Mennonite

Regina Wenger

This is my second post exploring the relationship between southern Anabaptist colleges and Civil War memory. In my first post, I summarized the experiences of Anabaptists during the Civil War before discussing how Bridgewater College—founded in 1880—recalled the Civil War. I suggest reviewing that piece before reading the one that follows. Below I examine Civil War memory at Eastern Mennonite and offer some conclusions that compare it to how memory operated at Bridgewater.

As an adolescent, Peter S. Hartman witnessed the tribulations the Civil War unleashed on the Shenandoah Valley. Years later, the Mennonite recalled Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign and the Battles of Good’s Farm (Harrisonburg), Cross Keys, Port Republic, and New Market. Though, he stated, none of those conflicts compared to General Philip Sheridan’s “never-to-be-forgotten raid” in 1864:

We just began to realize what war was when Sheridan made his raid. They came [to Harrisonburg] Sunday noon . . . . There was no preaching anywhere that Sunday, so I went over to visit one of our neighbors right at Weaver’s Church. We could see from there Sheridan’s army coming up the [Valley] Pike and spreading all over the country, and I concluded I would better go home. When I got home the whole farm was overrun with soldiers shooting the stock…. Everything was taken, horses, hogs, sheep, except some chickens and four milk cows.1

Sixty-four years after Sheridan’s Union troops charred the Shenandoah Valley, Hartman told the tale of his experiences to students at Eastern Mennonite School.2 Founded in 1917, the Mennonite educational institution did not endure the war, but through the stories of Hartman and others, there developed a collective memory of the Civil War.

Early in the twentieth century, a group of Virginia Mennonite leaders wished to create a school for Mennonites in the eastern part of the United States. There already existed schools such Goshen College, which served Mennonites in the Midwest; however, no such institution existed for the 75 percent of Mennonites in the East.3 Bishops Lewis James (L.J.) Heatwole and George R. Brunk, as well as other leaders, advocated for higher education opportunities for Mennonites that simultaneously built up the church.4 Evan Knappenberger characterizes most of these men as “religious moderates willing to push the church in new directions while still remain­ing committed to the ideals of nonresistance and plain dress.”5 The school they envisioned shared those goals. In 1912, George R. Brunk developed a plan for a school located in Warwick, Virginia, and asked fellow church leaders for help. However, in mid-1913, Brunk proposed moving the institution to the Hayfield mansion near Alexandria, Virginia. The Alexandria Mennonite Institute and later the Hayfield Bible School floundered amongst personality, ecclesial, and financial conflicts.6 Through the efforts of Bishop L.J. Heatwole and Peter S. Hartman, Virginia Mennonites acquired land in Assembly Park, north of Harrisonburg, Virginia. From that site Eastern Mennonite emerged.

Eastern Mennonite—officially chartered in 1917—ran as a Bible school independent of broader Mennonite Church control until 1923. These Virginia Mennonites, including Bishop Heatwole, selected John B. (J.B.) Smith of Ohio as president (principal) of the school and developed a Bible school curriculum that operated on four tracks: academy, Bible, preparatory, and correspondence.7 However, within a few years, Smith ran afoul of the Board and departed back to Ohio. They then appointed noted evangelist and Virginian Amos Daniel (A.D.) Wenger to the presidency. He served from 1922 until his death in 1935, and it is during his administration that Civil War remembrances at Eastern Mennonite first come into view.

The activities of student literary societies and the periodical the Eastern Mennonite School Journal show an institution that idealized the South, and while condemning slavery, embraced derogatory stereotypes about African Americans. In April 1927, John D. Burkholder wrote a piece called “Family Life: As Seen by Jim Owen, Indentured Servant.” It detailed how an English indentured servant fell in love with southern culture and told of interactions with “mammies” and “darkies.” The piece concluded by saying, “As [he and his master] drove up the shady, inviting drive to the old mansion, Jim felt that he had indeed reached the Utopia of his dreams.”8 Though Eastern Mennonite included students from elsewhere in the United States, the early years of the Journal contains rhapsodic accounts of the “Sunny Southland,” the endearing peculiarity of African Americans, and the high quality of postbellum southern literature.9 In 1928 and 1929, respectively, the Philomathian and Smithsonian literary societies held programs on “The Negro” and “Southern Literature” that both featured “Negro spirituals” as musical selections.10 Through featuring an idealistic portrait of the South, southern culture, and African Americans, the Journal showed sympathy for the South and minimized the affect of slavery on African Americans. In addition, student Grace Showalter observed, that “Southern conventionality,” formed an important aspect of Virginia Mennonites’ spirituality.11 However, more important than the Journal’s contents was the role played by Peter S. Hartman on Civil War memory at Eastern Mennonite.

Beginning at least in 1920, Hartman delivered an annual lecture featuring his Civil War memories to Eastern Mennonite students and faculty.12 As noted in the opening story, Hartman was a young man when the war started in 1861. He later served as a lay leader in Virginia Mennonite Conference, was instrumental in purchasing the former plantation land on which the school was built, and acted as an informal development officer for Eastern Mennonite.13 Each of the written versions of his oral account followed the same narrative structure: (1) reiteration of the Mennonite Church’s nonresistance and stance against slavery, (2) the foreshadowing of the Civil War in John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and Lincoln’s election to the presidency, (3) the imprisonment of Anabaptists in Richmond for nonresistance, (4) the passage of conscription laws accounting for members of Anabaptist churches, (5) war’s material hardships, (6) the local battles of Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign, as well as the Burning, (7) Hartman’s interactions with General Sheridan and journey North with his Union caravan, (8) work experience in the North, and finally (9) viewing Lincoln’s body in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, before returning home to a decimated Virginia.14 He summarized the primary theme in his lecture’s concluding line: “All this time the Church stood for non-resistance.”15 In addition to his annual lecture, Hartman also shared with students his recollections of Reconstruction.16 Other narrations of the Civil War by Virginia Mennonites Emmanuel Suter and Bishop L.J. Heatwole echoed Hartman’s emphasis on hardship and nonresistance.17 Students at Eastern Mennonite thus heard about the Civil War as a conflict Mennonites were in, but not a part of.

Historical memory of the Civil War at Eastern Mennonite consisted of a singular stream of nonresistance, muddied by a romanticized view of the pastoral South and its culture. Explicit valorization of the Confederacy does not appear in any Eastern Mennonite sources. Rather, despite their occasional harshness and destruction, the Union is discussed more frequently and favorably in Eastern Mennonite memories of the war. Though a “savage looking man,” Hartman described how General Sheridan ensured his safe passage North.18 The Mennonite Church’s distain for slavery, even while simultaneously resisting and engaging with Confederate Virginia, also comes through in Hartman’s telling. As previously noted, Anabaptist participation in the Confederate economy made it difficult for them to receive financial compensation for the destruction of the war, despite sympathies for the Union. Additionally, American Mennonite identity as a nonresistant people partially lies in the centrality of suffering for the faith, as told in the stories of sixteenth-century European Anabaptist martyrs recorded in Thieleman J. van Braght’s Martyrs Mirror. Though born two years after the Civil War, Eastern Mennonite President A.D. Wenger found the text instrumental to his conversion.19 As Julia Spicher Kasdorf contends, “the publication history of Martyrs Mirror doesn’t precisely coincide with the nation’s wars, and yet American Mennonites tend to rally around the big book whenever the rest of the nation rallies around the flag.”20 Primed with tales from the Martyrs Mirror, Eastern Mennonite students likely heard a similar message of suffering and nonresistance in Peter Hartman’s Civil War recollections that he regularly delivered after the hardships of World War I. While Eastern Mennonite’s southern context shaped the imagination of many of its students and administrators, the dominant narrative surrounding Civil War recollections remained nonresistance amidst suffering.


Mennonites, Brethren, and their respective educational institutions possessed common religious memories of the Civil War grounded in the nonresistant theology of Anabaptism, but diverged by degree of emphasis. Ritual sites of memory appeared at both Bridgewater and Eastern Mennonite. Literary societies perpetuated nostalgic narratives about the South and African Americans. John Wayland and Bridgewater recalled the war through annually commemorating Lee’s birthday, while Eastern Mennonite’s Hartman lecture narrated another tale of heroic suffering for a cause. The nonresistant perspective also allowed John Wayland to describe Elder John Kline as a faithful Christian martyr. Likewise, Peter Hartman described himself and the Mennonite Church as the innocent suffering amidst the tribulations of the Civil War. Both Bridgewater and Eastern Mennonite also shared a history as institutions started by white southerners. As James Lehman and Steve Nolt observe, Anabaptists, like many of their neighbors in the reconstructing South, chose to value the repair of national and local relationships over advocating for the rights of African Americans. Thus their historical memory coincides with the reconcilationist narrative that historian David Blight chronicled in Race and Reunion.21

While both institutions held nonresistance as a wartime memory, only Bridgewater College explicitly endorsed the religion of the Lost Cause. The Lost Cause existed with nonresistance for the Brethren school as intermingling religious memories.22 On the other hand, Eastern Mennonite’s religious remembrances favored the Union, though they appear to not have competed with its nonresistant memories but, rather, reinforced them. Mennonites narrated themselves as distinct from their southern neighbors in their opposition to slavery and the Confederacy, as well as their pacifism. However, the presence of southern influence at both institutions raises the question as to what extent its culture served as a defining characteristic of the schools. Perhaps nonresistance defined demographics and marketing rather the schools’ cultures.23 After Eastern Mennonite graduated its first African American student in 1954, a local Mennonite schoolteacher explained reluctance around desegregation stating, “A bit of the Southern attitude rubs off on us, perhaps as a result of our public school experience. One tends to feel sympathetic to one’s state and its part in the Civil War.”24 Thus a fuller understanding of Civil War memory at southern Anabaptist colleges requires attention to the presence, in varying degrees, of the religious recollections of the Lost Cause and nonresistance.

1. Peter S. Hartman, “Civil War Reminiscences,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, February 1928, 17.

2. Originally started as Eastern Mennonite School, it later became Eastern Mennonite College, and is today known as Eastern Mennonite University. In this paper, the school will be referred to as Eastern Mennonite.

3. Donald B. Kraybill, Eastern Mennonite University: A Century of Countercultural Education (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017), 24. The relationship between the foundings of Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite remain a matter of historiographical debate. The longstanding narrative reproduced in Eastern Mennonite’s institutional histories describe the school as a conservative reaction to Goshen which resulted in hostility between the schools for decades. Kraybill, Eastern Mennonite University: A Century of Countercultural Education; Hubert R. Pellman, Eastern Mennonite College, 1917-1967: A History (Harrisonburg, VA: Eastern Mennonite College, 1967); Nathan Emerson Yoder, “Mennonite Fundamentalism: Shaping an Identity for an American Context” (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Notre Dame, 1999). Recently, Evan Knappenberger pushed back against that interpretation with a compelling argument that Eastern Mennonite shared an educational vision with Goshen and was started not as “an ideological alternative to Goshen but a geographical extension of it.” Evan K. Knappenberger, “To Shake The Whole World From Error’s Chain: An Alternative History Of The Founding Of Eastern Mennonite” (M.A. Thesis, Eastern Mennonite Seminary, 2016), 68, emphasis original.

4. Knappenberger, 88-98.

5. Evan K. Knappenberger, “New Take on an Old War: Valley Mennonites and the Lingering Consequences of the Civil War,” Shenandoah Mennonite Historian, Summer 2016, 16.

6. For a more detailed treatment of the earlier iterations of Eastern Mennonite see: Kraybill, Chapters 1 & 2, Knappenberger, “To Shake The Whole World,” 88-98.

7. Kraybill, 55-57.

8. John D. Burkholder, “Family Life: As Seen by Jim Owen, Indentured Servant,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, April 1927, 3-6. It’s unclear whether Burkholder created this piece as a work of fiction or recorded the oral account of Mr. Owen.

9. Mary M. Wenger, “Vacation on Vineland Farm,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, January 1923, 2-4; A.D Wenger, Jr., “Southern Literature,” April 1923, The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, 2-3; “Personal News Notes,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, April 1926, 19.

10. “Philomathean,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, June 1928, 17; “With Our Literaries: Smithsonian,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, July 1929, 21.

11. Kraybill, 112. Showalter went on to serve as director of Eastern Mennonite’s Historical Library from 1955-1990.

12. “Editorials,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, February 1928, 1; Harry A. Brunk, “The Gist of the Short Term Lectures,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, March 1930, 5-6. Hartman likely delivered the lecture regularly until his death in 1934.

13. Brunk, Harry A., Life of Peter S. Hartman: Including His Lecture Reminiscences of the Civil War and Articles by the Hartman Family (Harrisonburg, VA: The Hartman Family, 1937), 31-40; Hartman, “Civil War Reminiscences,” 7.

14. Hartman, “Civil War Reminiscences,” 7-21, Brunk, Life of Peter S. Hartman, 1937; Peter S. Hartman and Harry A. Brunk, Reminiscences of the Civil War (Lancaster, PA: Eastern Mennonite Associated Libraries and Archives, 1964). Though Hartman does not name Bishop Kline, the imprisonment of Anabaptists and development of conscription laws favoring those traditions that he mentions were incidents in which the clergyman was personally involved. Additionally, Hartman needed to go north with General Sheridan because Hartman joined the Mennonite Church during the war and thus was not protected by the draft exemption that only covered members of Anabaptist churches who joined before the legislation passed in 1862.

15. Hartman, “Civil War Reminiscences,” 21.

16. “Personal Mention,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, January 1923, 12.

17. See: Virginia Mennonite Conference Archives at Eastern Mennonite University Historical Library, L.J. Heatwole Papers (I-MS-1, mostly Boxes 3, 5.1; LJH Miscellany) and Emmanuel Suter Diaries Collection; Virginia Grove, “Grandfather,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, January 1939, 27-28.

18. Hartman, “Civil War Reminiscences,” 18.

19. John C. Wenger and Mary W. Kratz, A.D. Wenger (Harrisonburg, VA: Park View Press, 1961), 4–5, 7. Van Braght, Thieleman J., The Bloody Theatre, or Martyrs’ Mirror, of the Defenceless Christians: who suffered and were put to death for the testimony of Jesus, their Savior, from the time of Christ until the year A. D. 1660. Lampeter Square, Lancaster Co., PA: David Miller, 1837.

20. Julia Spicher Kasdorf, “Mightier than the Sword: Martyrs Mirror in the New World,” The Conrad Grebel Review 31, no. 1 (Winter 2013), https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/publications/conrad-grebel-review/issues/winter-2013/mightier-sword-martyrs-mirror-new-world

21. Lehman and Nolt, 222-23. Though they make this claim only about Mennonites, the similarities shared between Mennonites and Brethren make the claim likely to pertain to both groups. David A. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2001).

22. Based on feedback I received from Dr. R. Eric Platt, I have revised my conclusions about historical memory at Bridgewater. I think he’s correct in observing they likely informed one another. I hope to continue to explore the extent of that connection as I continue working on this project.

23. I am grateful to Dr. Elesha Coffman for raising this question after I presented my paper at the American Society of Church History. I intend to pursue this question further.

24. Kraybill, 173.

Southern Anabaptist Colleges and Civil War Memory: Bridgewater College

Regina Wenger

Early next year, I’m presenting a paper at the American Society of Church History on a panel titled “Competing Identities: Denominational Higher Education in the American South.” In the literature on American higher education, the examination of denominational schools, particularly those in the South, remains understudied. My co-panelists and I hope to explore the impact of geography and religious affiliation on single-sex and co-educational colleges in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. My paper, tentatively titled “Embers of the ‘Burning’: Shenandoah Valley Anabaptists, Higher Education, and Civil War Legacy,” will investigate the postbellum tensions between nonresistance and the memory of the Civil War at two Anabaptist colleges in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley: Bridgewater College and Eastern Mennonite University. The former a school started by the Church of the Brethren, the latter a Mennonite institution. Founded in 1880 and 1917, respectively, many of the schools’ founders carried personal or family memories related to the destruction caused by the war. While the conference paper will address both schools, in the post I’m going to take an initial dive into the sources and offer some preliminary conclusions about the interplay between nonresistance, Civil War memory, and institutional life at Bridgewater College.

Elder John Kline and the Virginia Brethren’s interest in higher education emerged on the eve of the Civil War. Their early efforts indicate they possessed an increasing openness to the value of education for the benefit of the church. In 1857, the Yearly Meeting of the Brethren took action to allow members to advocate for higher education in accordance with “gospel principles.”1 Two years later, Brethren leadership spearheaded the creation of Cedar Grove Academy in the northern Rockingham County town of Broadway. It was the first Brethren institution for higher education. The Academy persisted through the Civil War, but closed soon after the conclusion of the conflict. Elder John Kline proved instrumental to its founding, gathering supporters, and providing the land for the school.2

As a local leader, Kline also played an important role in the Virginia Brethren’s response to the looming Civil War. Acknowledging the precarity of the nonresistant position, he and other church leaders worked diligently for provisions for Anabaptists in Virginia and Confederate conscription legislation. Though succeeding in that aim rather quickly with Virginia law, Confederate legislation threatened to nullify their efforts. Only after a brief imprisonment for noncompliance and the advocacy of Virginia political and military officials did Kline and other Anabaptist leaders obtain allowances from the Confederate governmen in October 1862 for Anabaptists to opt out of military service.3 Kline’s leadership in the Brethren community persisted, but hostility toward dissenting Anabaptists amped up as the war leeched empathy from their Shenandoah Valley neighbors.4 Unlike Anabaptists in neighboring Augusta County, Brethren and Mennonites in Rockingham County largely opposed secession, while many Anabaptists in both counties also supported the Confederacy through agricultural commerce.5 Elder Kline’s prominence, as well as his anti-slavery position and Union sympathies, made him a target for violence as the war escalated community tensions. Confederate loyalists murdered Kline near his home in Broadway on June 15, 1864, for his positions, but also in response to his frequent trips north on church business and alleged engagement in smuggling Anabaptists evading conscription into Union territory.6 Fifty years after his death, a Brethren historian described Kline as a “martyr” assassinated as part of a “deeply laid scheme” by those that despised his goodness and faithfulness to God.7 Only a few months after Kline’s murder, a second tragedy swept through the Anabaptist community in Rockingham County.

Union General Phillip Sheridan’s scorched earth campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley during the fall of 1864 indiscriminately scarred its residents, regardless of religious affiliation. The Valley served as a prime agricultural region for the Confederacy, so cutting off supplies to the South proved essential to Union victory. “The Burning,” as Sheridan’s autumn inferno came to be called, reduced the barns, mills, and homes of Anabaptists and their neighbors to ashes, with no regard for professed loyalty.8 The effects of the destruction continued to smolder in the Valley long after the fires ended. James Lehman and Steve Nolt conclude, “Never before—or since—had Mennonites [and other Anabaptists] in the United States experienced such collective property destruction.”9 The trauma caused by the Burning lingered after the war as the Union denied the claims of most Anabaptists who tried to recover assets lost in the conflagration due to their commercial support of the Confederacy.10 Such destruction also delayed any efforts to re-establish Brethren higher education in the Shenandoah Valley.

Fifteen years after the war’s end, the school that would be Bridgewater College started in southern Rockingham County. The years following the war necessitated rebuilding and a reorientation of collective identity. Lehman and Nolt note that, like many of their neighbors, Anabaptists in the reconstructing South chose to value the repair of national and local relationships over advocating for the rights of African Americans, which historian David Blight chronicled in his book Race and Reunion.11 Bridgewater College started as a joint effort between Daniel C. Flory, educated at the Brethren Juniata College, and Virginia Brethren leaders in 1880. Originally called Spring Creek Normal School, Flory’s co-educational institution maintained its ties to earlier Brethren education while also charting a new path. The first board included John J. Bowman, a Brethren layman who helped found the Cedar Grove Academy, as well as Walter B. Yount, who would become Bridgewater’s first president in 1895.12 Known as the Virginia Normal School in 1882, the institution settled in Bridgewater seven years later and took its eponymous name. Literary societies flourished at the normal school and later the college, as did sports.13 The institution experienced hardships in its early years, but it matured under the leadership of President Yount (1895-1910).14 Records produced in the years of his administration provide the first clear picture of the legacy of the Civil War at Bridgewater College.

The first printed Bridgewater College history owes its origins to a student society memorializing the Confederacy. A December 1902 program of Bridgewater’s Virginia Lee literary society produced pieces for the student periodical, the Philomathean Monthly, and eventually became a1905 alumni-produced institutional history titled Bridgewater College: Its Past and Present.15 One of the two societies formed in 1897 when the Philomathean Society grew too large, the Virginia Lee Society influenced student life and periodicals into the 1930s.16 The organization embedded remembrances of the southern cause into its activities. Selecting Confederate gray as their color, the Society celebrated Robert E. Lee’s birthday annually, adorned their space with his likeness, and hosted speakers who interacted or served with him.17 Examining the life and work of the Society’s founding president, John W. Wayland provides a glimpse into the endurance of Lost Cause memory and its connections to Bridgewater.

Born in Shenandoah County in 1872, John Walter Wayland started attending Bridgewater in the late 1890s, graduating in 1899. He presented the name “Virginia Lee” for the Society to honor the Lee family and the inaugural state that produced them. Wayland also composed the lyrics to the Society’s song.18 Upon his graduation from Bridgewater, Wayland served as Editor-In-Chief of Bridgewater College: Its Past and Present and its 1930 alumni-produced history: Fifty Years of Educational Endeavor. By the latter work’s publication, he had earned a PhD in History from the University of Virginia in 1907 and embarked on a prolific career as a professor, administrator, and author.19 He also spent a significant portion of his adult life ordained in the Brethren Church. He died in Harrisonburg, Virginia in 1962. A brief analysis of the Civil War/Reconstruction sections of one of Wayland’s histories illustrates how he viewed the conflict and rebuilding as a Virginia Brethren and historian.

In A History of Rockingham County (1912), Wayland couched his assessment of the conflict and rebuilding in a measured tone. While he did characterize Reconstruction as a failure, only once did he deploy the term “carpetbaggers” to describe northerners presence in the South.20 Wayland mentions that 418 African Americans registered for the 1867 election, and found their civic participation indicative of “why the process of reconstruction was accomplished [in Rockingham County] with so little disturbance.”21 The relatively small numbers of enslaved African Americans living in the County during the antebellum period, as well as the its proximity to the free state of West Virginia, likely contributed a smaller free Black population during Reconstruction. This context may have also influenced Wayland’s conclusion that reunification was an easy process.22 A History of Rockingham County contains a section titled: “Some Interesting Incidents.” Of the four events mentioned that occurred during the Civil War, the death of John Kline was one. Surrounding this account of “a martyr to duty and the work of peace,” Wayland placed reports of the death and memorial of Confederate General Turner Ashby, the ingenuity of General Stonewall Jackson, and the innocence of Confederate scouts in the murder of Union Lieutenant. John R. Meigs, an incident that helped spark General Sheridan’s burning of the Valley.23 The inclusion of Kline’s murder points to its importance in the mind of the book’s Virginia Brethren author, but its location points to a shift in how Bridgewater College through one of its notable alumni recalled the Civil War.

The trials of the Brethren during the Civil War and the civil religion of the Lost Cause formed two district streams of memory with no dissonance between them. The prevalence of the Lost Cause at the college and in Wayland’s writings is not altogether unsurprising given its pervasiveness in the South. Charles Reagan Wilson argues in Baptized in Blood that, as the civil religion of the South, the Lost Cause inextricably bound together southern culture and interpretations of history in ways that made it distinct from the northern civil religion. “Southerners interpreted the Civil War as demonstrating the height of Southern virtue, as a moral-religious crusade against the atheistic North…. The antebellum and wartime religious culture evolved into a Southern civil religion, based on Christianity and regional history.”24 Thus the religious life at Bridgewater, grounded in service to the nonresistant Brethren church and community, co-existed alongside a student organization memorializing the heroics of Robert E. Lee. Likewise, John W. Wayland remembered Elder John Kline for his nonresistance and faithfulness to God, rather than as an individual who opposed slavery and suffered death for his supposed actions for the Federal cause and Union sympathies. Couching an early supporter of Brethren education as a religious rather than political martyr allowed Wayland to place Kline alongside such venerated local Confederates as Turner Ashby and Stonewall Jackson. All these men could be celebrated for their faithfulness and dedication. The nonresistant convictions and wartime experiences of the Shenandoah Valley Brethren did not prevent the presence of the Lost Cause at Bridgewater College, but rather they dwelt alongside one another as influential, but mutually exclusive, historical memories.

As I develop this project, I’ll investigate further these initial conclusions about Bridgewater and put them into conversation with my exploration of Civil War memory at the slightly younger Mennonite school that became Eastern Mennonite University. What similarities and differences existed between Brethren and Mennonite historical narratives about the Civil War? How did those memories manifest in the institutional life of each school? It will be fascinating to continue to study the interplay between historical memory and Anabaptist theology, alongside attention to their roles in developing higher education in the South.

1. Paul Haynes Bowman, Brethren Education in the Southeast (Bridgewater, VA: Bridgewater College, 1955), https://digitalcommons.bridgewater.edu/brethren_education_southeast/1, 27. See also: Kenneth M. Shaffer, “Higher Education Institutions of the Church of the Brethren,” in Religious Higher Education in the United States: A Source Book, ed. Thomas Hunt and James Carper (New York: Routledge, 1996), 279–295, 279-281.

2. Shaffer, 282.

3. For a summary of this process see: Lehman, James O., and Steven M. Nolt. Mennonites, Amish, and the American Civil War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), ProQuest Ebook Central, 63-66. In his analysis of Confederate substitution in Rockingham County, John Sacher notes the statistically higher rates of substitution, which he primarily attributes it to the concentration of Anabaptists in the community. John Sacher, “The Loyal Draft Dodger?: A Reexamination of Confederate Substitution,” Civil War History 67, no. 2 (2011): 153–178, 161-165.

4. Lehman and Nolt. 56.

5. Lehman and Nolt, 58-60, 190-193, 199-200.

6. Lehman and Nolt, 189.

7. Daniel H. Zigler, History of the Brethren in Virginia (Elgin, IL: Brethren Publishing House, 1914).143-144.

8. For more detailed accounts of Sheridan’s campaigns see: Lehman and Nolt, Chapter 10; John L. Heatwole, The Burning: Sheridan’s Devastation of the Shenandoah Valley (New York: Rockbridge Publishing, 1998); and Jeannie Cummings Harding, “Retaliation with Restraint: Destruction of Private Property in the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign” (Masters Thesis, James Madison University, 2013), https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1241&context=master201019.

9. Lehman and Nolt, 199.

10. Lehman and Nolt. 226-227.

11. Lehman and Nolt, 222-223. Though they make this claim only about Mennonites, the similarities shared between Mennonites and Brethren make it claim likely to pertain to both groups. David A. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2001).

12. Bowman, 28; Francis Fry Wayland, Bridgewater College: The First Hundred Years 1880-1980 (Lawrenceville, VA: Brunswick Publishing Corporation, 1993). 11-12.

13. Francis Fry Wayland, 36-37.

14. He was named president in 1895, but held the leadership title “Chairman of the Faculty” beginning in 1892.

15. John W. Wayland, ed., Bridgewater College: Its Past and Present (Elgin, IL: Brethren Publishing House, 1905), 36.

16. Francis Fry Wayland, 91.

17. Francis Fry Wayland, 88-89.

18. Francis Fry Wayland, 87, 89.

19. In recognition of his educational influence, Rockingham County Schools opened a school named after Wayland in 1964. It still bears his name and is in operation today.

20. John W. Wayland, A History of Rockingham County, Virginia (Dayton, VA: Ruebush-Elkins Company, 1912), 172.

21. John W. Wayland, Rockingham County, 163.

22. Sacher, 160-161.

23. John W. Wayland, Rockingham County, 433-435.

24. Charles Regan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920 (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1980), 7-8.

Mementos from Around the World: New Sources from A.D Wenger’s Six Months in Bible Lands

Regina Wenger

I recently pulled from my bookshelf my great-grandfather A.D. Wenger’s account of his globe-trekking journey in 1899-1900: Six Months in Bible Lands and Around the World in Fourteen Months. It’d been a while since I read it, but I should have known that as a historian it was impossible for me to just read a primary source for fun. It sparked an interest to play with some digital history tools, but also to highlight some new material sources that I discovered in my extended family’s possession.

Amos Daniel (A.D) Wenger was born in 1867, just north of Harrisonburg, Virginia and under the shadow of the Civil War. After several terms of elementary school, he completed a teachers certificate at Bridgewater Normal School.1 However, rather than teaching, Wenger followed a call to preaching and farming which took the twenty-two year old out west. In addition to traveling around Mennonite communities, he trained at Moody Bible Institute, received ordination, and inaugurated an evangelistic ministry.2 Feeling a call to preach to young people, Wenger ended his western sojourn and headed to Lancaster, Pennsylvania.3 There he gained a reputation as an excellent preacher, despite his controversial tactic of holding protracted meetings.4 While in the Lancaster area, he wed Mary Hostetter of Millersville on July 1, 1897. She died suddenly of kidney disease a little over a year into their marriage. The money provided by her inheritance financed Wenger’s trip around the world.

Travelling abroad was a luxury afforded to very few at the turn of the twentieth century. In keeping a record of his travels, Wenger likely hoped to educate the Mennonite community still relatively isolated by theology and circumstance. Donald Kraybill observes that Wenger’s account of his travels carried the assumptions and perspectives of a rural American Mennonite. Each identifier—rural, American, and Mennonite—carried the power to shape his narrative.5 Race also shaped Wenger’s account as his voice vacillated between traveller, pastor, and professor. He felt the weight of “the white man’s burden.”6 Though there is a lot to unpack in his language and presuppositions, I want to spend the remainder of this post discussing new information that caught my attention in my re-reading of Six Months in Bible Lands.

The locations where Wenger traveled fascinated. So, I started to track them using Google Maps. You can view his journey here. Whenever possible, I included dates and modes of transportation. Some places—like the Holy Land—weren’t surprising stops on his journey. However, some omissions caught my attention. I wondered, why not visit Mennonite communities in the Russian Empire? In the narrative, Wenger explained that though he desired to travel there, restrictive visa practices and the threat of having papers and possessions taken stifled any appeal to travel into the realm of Tsar Nicholas II.7 Regardless of their denominational background, Wenger desired to draw his readers’ attention to missionaries and their activities around the globe.8 Not only was this interest an outgrowth of his premillennial theology, but he also sought to bring Mennonites into the missionary movement during its rapid expansion at the turn of the twentieth century. These gospel workers also served as Wenger’s most frequent companions during the various legs of his journey.9 He could continually count on them for hospitality and an assessment of a country’s conditions and indigenous peoples.10

The extent of Wenger’s travels meant that he constantly needed to exchange currencies. On a couple of occasions, he commented on money changers or the power of loose change in poor countries.11 While outside of Shanghai he and a travelling companion tried to be generous but also escape the people clamoring for money. He stated,

Just before leaving Shanghai I had gotten about ten cents worth of Chinese money called “cash” which I intended to bring home. It takes sixteen of those coins to make one cent of our money so I had about one hundred and sixty pieces of money in my pockets. Seeing no way of escape from our dilemma for a time I suddenly thought of a plan to draw them away. Running my hand into my pocket and grasping about a hundred of these cheap coins, I arose to my feet and threw them as far behind the carriage as I could.12

This passage and Wenger’s other discussions of money illustrate how he viewed foreign currencies during his travels: with a frugal nonchalance. He had the finances to respond to situations like this one with spontaneous generosity, but he liked a good price and did not appreciate attempts to extort travellers. The story from China also provides useful information about exchange rates and Wenger’s intensions for his remaining “cash.” Despite dispensing some of it, he indeed brought home coins from his travels. They are currently in my parents’ possession. I sorted them by country and marked the chronological range of the coinage.13 They provide another method of mapping Wenger’s journey around the globe. By far the greatest number of coins that returned home with him came from China. Also of note are the coins he acquired in the late Ottoman Empire. It presents a turn-of-the century geopolitical snapshot in the form of currency.

A.D. Wenger not only returned from his travels with money, but he also kept other artifacts to show Mennonite communities when he shared about his journey. Among the items are natural specimens such as whale baleen and pinecones from the cedars of Lebanon. They reveal not only his personality and interests, but practical considerations as well. Attention to flora and fauna meshed with Wenger’s farming background, but also those of his audience.14 He also kept an oil lamp from the Holy Land and scroll with either Chinese or Japanese characters. These items handled transport over long distances well. Traveling with both coins and interesting objects, however, once got him into trouble. On September 26, 1899 he attempted to depart Egypt for India. Customs officials discovered possible contraband. He recalled,

They found a piece of ore and a piece of lava that aroused their suspicion. The lava had a coin of money imbedded in it. The coin had been pressed into the molten lava when I was on Mount Vesuvius and when it cooled and hardened I carried it for a relic. They had been looking for makers of counterfeit money and now they thought they had one of them. The coin and ore pointed that way, they thought; so they held me prisoner and sent for a higher officer.15

Eventually his explanation satisfied the officer who released him and Wenger continued, though delayed, onto India. Wenger’s artifacts, supplemented by his stories, provided his audiences with tangible windows into foreign lands to which they were unlikely to travel.

His experiences abroad, plus his evangelistic ministry, provided Wenger with ample speaking opportunities upon his return to the United States in March 1900. However, contracting polio in October 1900 inhibited his mobility and left him unable to accept any preaching invitations for several months.16 Only a month before getting ill, he married Anna May Lehman after a brief courtship. The family moved to Fentress (Chesapeake), Virginia in 1907, where Wenger continued to farm while preaching and involving himself in building Mennonite education. He served as president of Eastern Mennonite School (University) beginning in 1922, a post he held until his sudden death in 1935.

The money and artifacts were in the possession of my grandfather, Chester, A.D.’s youngest son, until Grandpa’s death in 2020. The family intends to have some of the coins professionally appraised before donating them, and the other objects, to an archive. There other researchers, less close to the subject, may utilize them to examine an American Mennonite’s perspective of the peoples of the world at the turn of the twentieth century.

1. John C. Wenger and Mary W. Kratz, A.D. Wenger (Harrisonburg, VA: Park View Press, 1961), 7. Now known as Bridgewater College, the school is located in Bridgewater, Virginia.

2. Regina Wenger, “Illumination in the West: A.D. Wenger’s Theology of Revival, Dispensationalism, and Mission” (unpublished manuscript, November 7, 2013).

3. John Landis Ruth, The Earth is the Lord’s: A Narrative History of Lancaster Mennonite Conference (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 724–25.

4. Mark R. Wenger, “Ripe Harvest: A. D. Wenger and the Birth of the Revival Movement in Lancaster Conference,” Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage, April 1981.

5. Donald B. Kraybill, Eastern Mennonite University: A Century of Countercultural Education (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017), 3-6.

6. A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands and Around the World in Fourteen Months (Doylestown, PA: Joseph B. Steiner, 1901), 480, 494-495.

7. A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 53.

8. A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 155, 455-483.

9. A. D. Wenger, “Unfulfilled Prophecies,” in Outlines and Notes, ed. John S. Coffman. (Elkhart, IN: Mennonite Publishing Company, 1898), 52–59; Harold S. Bender, “The History of Millenial Theories,” Eastern Mennonite University Historical Library (Harrisonburg, VA), 10; George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 68; See: See for example, A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 135, 494.

10. A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 153, 442.

11. See for example, A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 341-342, 528.

12. A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 521.

13. A few of the coins in the image are chronological and geographic outliers Wenger’s trip. I suspect that they belonged to his daughter, Rhoda E. Wenger, who served as a missionary in East Africa during the mid-twentieth century.

14. Kraybill, 3-6.

15. A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 445. The lava, though now absent of the coin, may be seen in the center of the above photograph of the objects Wenger brought back from his journey.

16. Wenger and Kratz, 20.

History Against Hierarchy: Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus and Women’s Leadership in the Mennonite Church

Regina Wenger

In her new book The Making of Biblical Womanhood, historian Beth Allison Barr disassembles the concept of “biblical womanhood” popular in a portion of evangelicalism. Mixing memoir and scholarship, Barr’s text also chronicles her personal journey away from complementarian theology. Studying history, Barr states, convinced her of the fallacy of complementarianism and biblical womanhood.1 The publication of Barr’s book prompted me to return to a figure I examined for Barr’s class during my first semester of doctoral work: Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus.

A twentieth-century Mennonite broadcaster and pastor, Brunk Stoltzfus had a life and ministry that encompassed dramatic shifts in the Mennonite Church’s understandings of women’s roles and leadership. In Barr’s class and a subsequent blog post, I examined the function of gender, authority, and the Holy Spirit in a sermon preached by Brunk Stoltzfus as well as a message delivered by her brother, the notable evangelist George R. Brunk II. Inspired by Barr’s declaration about the power of historical argument, I wanted to revisit Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus to see how she utilized history in making her case for women’s leadership in the Mennonite Church. Of particular interest to me was how Brunk Stoltzfus’ used Anabaptist history. Since her papers have yet to be deposited into an archive, I relied on Brunk Stoltzfus’ contributions to the Gospel Herald from 1963 to 1995 as well as her memoir, A Way Was Opened. My preliminary findings show that Brunk Stoltzfus vocalized her support for women’s leadership most ardently during the 1970s and ’80s, when the topic proved a matter of intense discussion within the Mennonite Church. Additionally, I discovered that, while she preferred arguing from Scripture, Brunk Stoltzfus did occasionally rely on historical evidence.2 Before continuing into my examination of Brunk Stoltzfus’ use of history, I want to contextualize my findings with a brief sketch of her life and ministry.

Photo: Mennonite Publishing House

Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus’ family and talents primed her for ministry. The eighth child of George R. Brunk Sr. and Katie (Wenger) Brunk, she was born on March 15, 1915. A fundamentalist with inclinations toward the holiness movement, George R. Brunk Sr. built a career as a Mennonite pastor and bishop in southeastern Virginia.3 Believing that “women, including his daughters, should [not] strive for incompetence because they were female,” Brunk Sr. trained his daughter in oratory and composition.4 Ruth Brunk married Grant M. Stoltzfus on June 17, 1941. While her husband edited the Mennonite Community periodical and began graduate work, Brunk Stoltzfus started the radio ministry “Heart to Heart” in 1950. She was the first Mennonite woman with a regular program.5 Initially broadcast by WCVI in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, and later Mennonite Broadcasts, “Heart to Heart” addressed the topic of marriage and family. In 1958, Brunk Stoltzfus handed over control of her program, and she and Grant formed Concord Associates, a Family Service Ministry that produced literature and media on the topic.6 They crisscrossed the nation speaking about marriage and family until Grant’s sudden death in 1974. Then Brunk Stoltzfus continued to deliver workshops solo. This platform and reputation increasingly drew her into discussions around women in ministry in the Mennonite Church.7 After her stirring defense of women in ministry at the 1981 Mennonite General Assembly, Brunk Stolzfus started to receive invitations to serve as an interim pastor or on pastoral teams.8 In 1989, Virginia Mennonite Conference recognized Brunk Stoltzfus’ calling by ordaining her at age 74. As the first women to be credentialed in the conference, her ordination caused controversy in both the conference and her extended family.9 Upon her retirement in the early 1990s, Brunk Stoltzfus remained active in matters of church and family. The self-described “radical evangelical Anabaptist” died on December 2, 2008, age 93. 10

Brunk Stoltzfus used Anabaptist history to argue for women’s leadership in two distinct ways. First, she drew upon Anabaptist history to spur people toward active response in a present moment. Asked by Gospel Herald editor Daniel Hartzler in 1975 to encourage readers prior to that year’s Mennonite General Assembly, Brunk Stoltzfus appealed to readers – regardless of gender – to give their full allegiance to Christ in active discipleship.11 After urging support for conscientious objection and opposition to war, she highlighted the role of women in evangelism in Anabaptist history and the Bible:

We are little credit to our foremothers. In early Anabaptist days when men and women were baptized, it meant that they were also ordained to preach, teach, and baptize others. (It was more important to get the Gospel out than to fuss about which sex does it!) In Bible times women were wives, mothers, prophetesses, judges, managers, sheep tenders, employers, builders of cities, buyers of real estate, salespersons, teachers, deaconesses, co-laborers in the gospel [.] Jesus commended Mary, the meditative type, who put the kingdom before dishes. Isn’t it about time we stopped forcing all women into one mold?12

Brunk Stoltzfus read the baptism of early Anabaptist men and women as ordination for the work of the Christ and the Church. The commission compelled action, and she wanted her readers to feel that same urgency and allow all people to fulfill roles best suited to their gifts and callings regardless of gender.

Brunk Stoltzfus continued to find resonance between early Anabaptist baptism practices and women’s leadership. In her memoir, she recalled reflecting on a conversation she had on women in ministry with New Testament scholar Willard Swartley in the early 1980s: “[I told him] that we women leaders, like the early Anabaptists who baptized each other, should ordain each other. Willard had said, ‘But please let us men be present.’”13 For Brunk Stoltzfus, early Anabaptism’s defiance of political-ecclesial authority could provide a precedent for ordaining women in the Mennonite Church. By 1988, she faced the dilemma of whether she as an un-ordained women could baptize a college student in her congregation. Since neither were ordained, the agreement to baptize the young women with the congregation’s commissioned male pastor met with mixed reactions from Virginia Conference pastors and leaders. “Like the early Anabaptists, who baptized each other,” Brunk Stoltzfus recalled, “we served as representatives of the congregation [and thus could offer baptism].” Ultimately, she poured water in the male pastor’s hands as he performed the baptism.14 Within Anabaptist history Brunk Stoltzfus saw a freedom to follow the Spirit and encouraged others to respond to it as well.

Second, she found in twentieth-century Anabaptist history examples of women’s leadership. Brunk Stoltzfus spoke at the 1978 Women in Ministry symposium in Akron, Pennsylvania, on the topic of “Women in Ministry Among the Mennonites in my Lifetime.” Dutch Mennonites, she noted, started permitting female pastors at the beginning of the twentieth century.15 In addition, the title of her talk suggests she saw enough change and continuity in the Mennonite practice to make it a topic of interest to conference participants. Looking back in her memoir, Brunk Stoltzfus remembered, “I had an unusual audience response. It was like a good movie as we laughed and cried together…I received more affirmation than any other time in my life, and it felt good.”16 Her observations about contemporary Anabaptist history along with her personal experiences resonated with conference attendees. Brunk Stoltzfus showed that, in various eras of Anabaptist history, evidence existed to support women in ministry.

On occasion, she also relied on other religious history to make her case for women’s leadership. Rebutting some comments about the 1978 Women in Ministry conference, Brunk Stoltzfus quoted the nineteenth-century evangelist and educator Charles Finney. He stated, “No church that is acquainted with the Holy Ghost will object to the public ministry of women.”17 Such a statement meshed with Brunk Stoltzfus’ biblical and theological argument that the Holy Spirit equipped women and men to serve as church leaders or in other capacities that matched their gifts.18 Finney’s status as a revivalist lent credence to Brunk Stoltzfus’ claim that historically male leaders supported females exercising leadership in the Church.19 Precedent for women’s leadership existed outside the Mennonite Church.

My initial investigation into Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus’ use of history reveals that it influenced how she spoke and acted to advance women in ministry. In the future, I hope to further explore her conceptions of gender throughout all of her ministry to see how they shaped perceptions of family and gender in the Mennonite Church. A poem Brunk Stoltzfus’ wrote as part of her presentation at the 1978 Women in Ministry provides a fitting summary and a glimpse into how she understood gender, family, and ministry:

Who killed woman’s gift?
“I ,” said the man of terror
With his mix of truth and error.
“I’d rather not hear a word of truth
“Than to her it from a Jane or Ruth.
“I killed woman’s gift.”

Who saw her gift die?
“I,” said the woman who only knits.
“These ministering women give me fits.
Why can’t all women be of the same mold
“And just look out the window
“When they are old?
“I saw her gift die.”

Who’ll be the chief mourner?
“I,” said the freeing man
“I never favored the put-down or ban.
“Women should not wait till their 63
“To see if the church will set them free.
“I’ll be the chief mourner.”20

1. Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2021), 9-10.

2. An excellent encapsulation of Brunk Stoltzfus’ biblical case for women’s leadership is found in “Jesus and the Role of Women,” Gospel Herald, Vol. 79, May 20, 1986, 342-43.

3. Nathan Emerson Yoder, “Mennonite Fundamentalism: Shaping an Identity for an American Context” (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Notre Dame, 1999),125-43.

4. Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened: A Memoir, ed. Eve MacMaster (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2003), 41.

5. Mennonite Mission Network Staff, “Founder of Radio Ministry, Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus, Dies at 93,” Mennonite Mission Network, last modified December 3, 2008, https://www.mennonitemission.net/news/Founder%20of%20radio%20ministry,%20Ruth%20Brunk%20Stoltzfus, 20dies%20at%2093; Grant Stoltzfus earned an M.A. from the University of Pittsburgh and later a B.D. and Th.D. from Union Seminary (VA). From 1957-1974 he taught sociology and church history at Eastern Mennonite College, where he specialized in colonial Amish and Mennonite history. John A. Lapp, “Stoltzfus, Grant Moses,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, 1989, accessed May 4, 2021, https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Stoltzfus,_Grant_Moses_(1916-1974).

6. “Field Notes Continued: Grant and Ruth Stolzfus,” Gospel Herald, Vol. 51, April 8, 1958, 336. In her memoir, Brunk Stoltzfus said this media ministry included “radio, newspapers, conferences, and literature […such as] ‘Mother’s Pledge’ and ‘Pledge for Husband and Wife.’” Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 118.

7. Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 197-98, 209, 215, 277-78.

8. From January to June 1982, she served at Bancroft (Toledo, OH) Mennonite Church, and a few months later filled the interim role at Grace Mennonite Church in Pandora, OH, until June 1983. In 1985, First Mennonite Church in Richmond, VA, called Brunk Stoltzfus to be part of their pastoral team. She served for two years.

9. Notable protest to Brunk Stoltzfus’ ordination came from her older brother, George Brunk II. He built his reputation in the 1950s as “the Mennonite Billy Graham.” In 1989, George II expressed to Virginia Conference leadership that, if they went forward with his sister’s ordination, he would withdraw his membership and credentials in protest. When leadership chose to proceed, George II departed Virginia Conference and formed his own congregation, Calvary Mennonite Fellowship.

10. Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 352.

11. Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 193.

12. Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus, “Face Things Together,” Gospel Herald, Vol. 68, July 22, 1975, 513.

13. Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 278.

14. Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 320-21.

15. “Mennoscope: Women, Men, and Power,” Gospel Herald, Vol. 71, September 26, 1978, 744; “Women Call for Greater Involvement, Akron,” Gospel Herald, Vol. 71, November 14, 1978, 906. Other speakers at the conference included: Williard Swartely, who helped make the case for women in ministry using biblical studies in his 1983 book Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women; Emma Sommers Richards, the first woman ordained in the Mennonite Church (1973); and Dorothy Yoder Nyce, who in 1983 collected sermons by Mennonite women including Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus and published them in Weaving Wisdom: Sermons by Mennonite Women. Dutch Mennonite congregations began having female pastors in 1911. Harold S. Bender, Nanne van der Zijpp, Cornelius Krahn, Marilyn G. Peters, Anneke Welcker and M. M. Mattijssen-Berkman, “Women” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, 1989, accessed May 4, 2021, https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Women.

16. Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 209.

17. “Readers Say,” Gospel Herald, Vol. 71, December 19, 1978, 744. I have yet to determine where Brunk Stoltzfus read this quote, or from which source this statement originally appeared.

18. For example, see: Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus, “Gifts of the Spirit…to US,” in Weaving Wisdom: Sermons by Mennonite Women, ed. Dorothy Yoder Nyce (South Bend, IN: Womansage, 1983), 33-36.

19. As president of Oberlin College, Finney advocated for women’s public ministry and presence in theology classes, but did not support women as pastors. Andrea L. Turpin, A New Moral Vision: Gender, Religion, and the Changing Purposes of American Higher Education, 1837-1917 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016), 77, 79-80, 87.

20. Titled “Who Killed the Women’s Gift,” Brunk Stoltzfus modeled it on the nursery rhyme, Who Killed Cock Robin? Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 209.