The Insurance Problem

September’s issue of The Mennonite focuses on Mennonites and healthcare costs. In a moment of synchronicity, my own family has recently been facing unexpected healthcare costs after a member of my family had a routine medical procedure to screen for cancer. We were relieved to hear the positive news of a clean bill of health, but soon became stressed as the medical bills began to arrive. The EOBs rolled in to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, with seemingly arbitrary “adjustments,” allowed amounts, and finally, the absurdly high bottom line that we are responsible for.  I was yet again reminded of how broken our American medical system is and grew curious about the historical origins of our current insurance system. It’s hard to remember a time before co-pays and deductibles, HMOs and PPOs, but I quickly learned that the system, as well as American Mennonites’ embrace of it, is relatively new. So I wanted to know: what changed in the last sixty years that led to our compliance with such a system? 

What I found when I began to investigate this issue is that many American Mennonites in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were vehemently opposed to most forms of insurance, specifically life insurance. Some conferences were lenient on members holding property or fire insurance, but other conferences, like Virginia Mennonite Conference, went so far as to make the holding of insurance a test of membership. Harry Brunk writes in History of Mennonites in Virginia 1900-1960 that, “In 1900 Virginia Conference was asked—”Why do we oppose life insurance? Scripture references were given as the answer and members were told to make “Christ our Life Insurance.”1

The practice of buying insurance, especially life insurance, was seen as placing one’s trust in the world and rejecting faith in God’s providence. The church also called upon its members to practice mutual aid, assisting one another financially in times of loss or hardship. This idea had strong historic roots—many Anabaptist groups since their beginnings had practiced poor relief and sharing of goods.2 This barn-raising mentality continues today in many conservative Mennonite and Amish communities, with members providing tangible and financial relief for coverage of healthcare costs, property loss, and in other times of need.3

But for some church members, especially those whose livelihood was dependent on farms or property, insurance was still tempting. In order to help their members avoid an unequal yoke with insurance companies, some conferences responded by creating “Aid Plans” for property and automobiles.4 Others established mutual aid societies, to cover many possible pitfalls of life like storm damage, fire, or to help with burial costs.5 These were highly successful for a time, providing mutual aid to members in need, but began to hit snags as the US government tightened up regulations surrounding insurance coverage.6  After the Great Depression and during the onset of the Second World War there was agitation by some in the Mennonite Church for a more formalized, church-wide form of mutual aid to coordinate aid for church members in times of need.7

Mennonite Mutual Aid (MMA) came about at a time of upheaval and transition in the Mennonite church and the world. It came on the heels of World War II after many years of negotiation and work by emerging leaders in the church including H.S. Bender, Chris Graber, Guy Hershberger, and Orie O. Miller. Al Keim writes in his essay “My Brother’s Keeper: Origins of Mennonite Mutual Aid” that the fact that MMA “so long in gestation, should be born at this pivotal moment of leadership change was no accident. Both the war and the new generation of leaders made it happen.”8 It also came at a time where Mennonite nonconformity was being tested, and many feared that worldliness and assimilation were taking hold. 

At the same moment, in 1945, an Insurance Study Committee was created by Virginia Mennonite Conference, comprised of George R. Brunk II, Aldine Brenneman, and Clarence Huber. It appears to have been created in response to some members acquiring automobile and property insurance and an overall relaxation of opposition to insurance in the laity. After thorough scriptural examination, the committee delivered a report on May 24 that doubled down on the belief that forms of insurance such as automobile and property, “though generally thought to be less objectionable” than life insurance, “are, in fact, we believe, opening wedges that may bring us finally to the point of recognizing and tolerating insurance of life itself.” They called for the church to better educate members about the perils of insurance, create aid plans for hospitalization and burial costs, and “continue to make Life Insurance a test of membership.”9

But the wedges had already been opening in Mennonite communities in other areas of the country, and just a week after this VMC group delivered their report, on May 31, 1945, a church wide mutual aid agency was born.10 Although the idea garnered support from many, the more conservative conferences were not easily convinced. Keim writes that “Graber presented the plan to both the Virginia and Pacific Coast conferences” and was “dismayed when both conferences failed to endorse the plan.” When he complained to Guy Hershberger, Hershberger replied that “Virginia…and Oregon…are afraid of everything new as being something worldly.”11 Keim notes that to many of those conservative conferences, “the organizational good sense of the new generation of leaders looked to some . . . like a worldly trend” and “the insurance features of the aid plan seemed to have more to do with clever means of risk reduction than with New Testament mutual aid.”12 Ultimately, through the strong leadership of a few and the slow acquiescence of many, the roots of MMA took hold. It quickly added a number of aid policies, including those for “property loss, sickness, or death.”13

As the insurance industry grew in the United States, so did Mennonite church members’ desire for insurance and so did MMA’s offering of more traditional insurance plans. This shift toward acceptance was likely driven by urbanization, education, and overall assimilation of the constituency, increasing government regulations for insurance, and a loss of tight-knit communities based in rural areas. In the realm of health care specifically, the introduction of Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) and Preferred Provider Organizations (PPOs) along with healthcare reform in the 1990s limited the options MMA (now Everence) could provide its members. Keith Graber Miller writes in his 1995 essay “Mennonite Mutual Aid: a Margin of Difference?” that “the result is that Mennonite Mutual Aid’s HMO and PPO health products become increasingly like those sold through other commercial companies.”14

Nearly twenty-five years after Graber Miller wrote that, it appears that the Mennonite Church has fully embraced, or at least complied with, the insurance industry it once actively worked to avoid. Those of us who work at Mennonite institutions are offered plans by our employers that include health insurance, dental and vision insurance, life insurance, accidental death and dismemberment insurance, short term disability, and on and on. Most of these plans are brokered by Everence (formerly MMA), but come through large providers such as Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield. There is no longer a conversation about whether or not insurance is worldly or scripturally sound, it is simply a benefit we all expect with our employment. 

Yet I find myself wishing we as a church could do better than this status quo. It is naive to hope that a denomination like MCUSA could return to the forms of mutual aid encouraged by early Mennonite leaders or practiced by the tight-knit communities of the Amish and Conservative Mennonites. But our complicity in these systems that cause pain and financial ruin to so many in our country troubles me. 

With an understanding of the historical perspectives within the church on insurance and its pitfalls, I wonder if there is a place for Mennonites to speak into these issues and imagine a system whose first priority is caring for the sick, not making a profit. I doubt the conservative Mennonite leaders in Virginia and Oregon could have foreseen our convoluted dealings with insurance companies issues 80 years ago, but I can’t help but feel that their caution should have been heeded rather than being dismissed as the cries of fearful sectarians unwilling to embrace change. They saw a different way forward, rejecting capitalist impulses, and tried to put their faith in God and the church.  How can we do the same today?


  1. Harry A. Brunk. History of Mennonites in Virginia, 1900-1960. (Verona, Va: McClure Printing Company, Inc., 1972.), 447. 
  2. Albert N. Keim, “My Brother’s Keeper: Origins of Mennonite Mutual Aid,” in Building Communities of Compassion, ed. Willard M. Swartley and Donald B. Kraybill (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1998), 193. 
  3. Kristyn Rohrer and Lauren Dundes. 2016. “Sharing the Load: Amish Healthcare Financing.” Healthcare, No. 4: 92. doi:10.3390/healthcare4040092. 
  4. Brunk. History of Mennonites in Virginia, 1900-1960, 467-477. 
  5. Steven M. Nolt, “Fifty Year Partners: Mennonite Mutual Aid and the Church,” in Building Communities of Compassion, ed. Willard M. Swartley and Donald B. Kraybill (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1998), 214. 
  6. Brunk. History of Mennonites in Virginia, 1900-1960, 467-477. 
  7. Keim, “My Brother’s Keeper: Origins of Mennonite Mutual Aid,” 194. 
  8. Keim, “My Brother’s Keeper: Origins of Mennonite Mutual Aid,” 204. 
  9. Report of the Insurance Study Committee, May 24, 1945. Insurance. Vertical File. Menno Simons Historical Library. 
  10. Keim, “My Brother’s Keeper: Origins of Mennonite Mutual Aid,” 207. 
  11. Keim, “My Brother’s Keeper: Origins of Mennonite Mutual Aid,” 206. 
  12. Keim, “My Brother’s Keeper: Origins of Mennonite Mutual Aid,” 208. 
  13.  Nolt, “Fifty Year Partners: Mennonite Mutual Aid and the Church,” 216. 
  14. Keith Graber Miller, “Mennonite Mutual Aid: a Margin of Difference?” Building Communities of Compassion, ed. Willard M. Swartley and Donald B. Kraybill (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1998), 270. 

The Musical Million for the millions

mm1881xii12.jpg

It is always exciting for librarians and archivists when we are able to share our collections in new and accessible ways. For this reason we were thrilled when the Library of Virginia’s Virginia Newspaper Project approached us proposing a collaboration to digitize and make available the Musical Million1. With the help of those at the Library of Virginia, specifically Errol Somay, and the dedication and swift scanning ability of our summer work-study student Finn Wengerd, we were able to complete this project in a few short months and are pleased to make it freely available.

Some very thorough and informative pieces been written about the Musical Million in conjunction with this digital launch, so I encourage you to read the blog post written by Gregg D. Kimball from the Library of Virginia as well as a post written by EMU’s Lauren Jefferson to get a good sense of the importance of this periodical and its place in both Shenandoah Valley and Southern Gospel music History.

EMU is one of the few institutions in the country to have a nearly complete run of the Musical Million, and it has been top on our wish-list of things to digitize and make available for many years now. We are very proud of this collection and this collaboration, and hope researchers and other interested folk can make good use of it! If you find yourself wanting to know more about Joseph Funk or the Ruebush-Kieffer company, come visit us in the Menno Simons Historical Library, where you can see an outstanding collection of songbooks and other publications from Funk and Ruebush-Kieffer, as well as interesting artifacts such as Joseph Funk’s writing chair, original printing plates for the 16th edition of the Harmonia Sacra, and Aldine Kieffer’s pump organ.


  1. As of this writing, there are 315 issues of the Musical Million available beginning in 1879. We hope to be able make accessible the first decade of the periodical as soon as we are able to digitize the fragile issues. It is also our hope that the precursor to the Musical Million, the Southern Music Advocate and Singer’s Friend, will soon be available. 

Voices of Conscience

IMG_6853

It has been forty-five years since the elimination of the draft in the United States. More than two generations of Mennonite men and women have grown up without the threat of having their convictions put through the test through conscription and conscientious objection. Lloy Kniss, a WWI-era CO, stated in his 1971 pamphlet “I Couldn’t Fight: the Story of a CO in World War I” that he “believe[s] our church needs to learn again to suffer for the faith when it becomes necessary.”1 

Though written in 1971, these are timely words for those of us in the Mennonite church today who have grown accustomed to the comfort and privilege gained through assimilation and prosperity these past forty years. Remembering the sacrifice of those in the past, as well as critically examining our complicity in our country’s glorification of war and the military industrial complex, is important to deepen the understanding of Anabaptist pacifism, its roots, and its implications today.

For this reason I was pleased that the “Voices of Conscience” exhibit came to Eastern Mennonite University this October. This exhibit, from the Kauffman Museum in Bethel, Kansas, has been travelling throughout the country for the past year.

IMG_6850

The exhibit is thoroughly researched and well-presented. It expertly captures the zeitgeist of the time period through photos, maps, posters, and cartoons that illustrate the patriotism and war fever sweeping the nation.  The exhibit conveys how the nonresistance and pacifism of Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups was not favorably received by a public keen to support the United States and its allies. Some pacifists were harassed, endured property damage, and, in extreme cases, were nearly killed for their refusal to take up arms or support the war effort. 

The scope of the exhibit is broad, providing visitors an insight into the peace work and war resistance done by other faith groups in the United States as well as political organizations like Socialists, Anarchists, and the Woman’s Peace Party. The global nature of World War I also inspired conscientious objection in other countries, and the stories of COs in countries such as Great Britain, France, Russia, and Japan are also highlighted.

The exhibit also hits close to home for those of us in the Shenandoah Valley, as it mentions the trial of Rhine Benner and L.J. Heatwole. In the summer of 1918 Benner, a Mennonite mission worker in Job, WV, wrote to his bishop, Heatwole, for advice about what to advise his congregation to do in regards to the purchase of war bonds. Heatwole advised him to “contribute nothing to a fund used to run the war machine.”2 The letter found its way to officials in D.C. and subsequently Benner was briefly jailed, Heatwole was indicted, and both were put on trial for violating the Sedition Act of 1918 by instructing their parishoners to not buy U.S. bonds and War Savings Stamps. They pled guilty and we each fined $1,000 (roughly $16,000 in today’s money).3

IMG_6851

The Eastern Mennonite University Archives also has a small collection of papers from conscientious objectors in World War I. We created a display to highlight these stories and compliment the material covered in the Voices of Conscience exhibit.

IMG_6854

scan_54871.1       scan_54861.1.jpg

C.O. Cooks Camp Lee 1918

CO cooks at Camp Lee, Virginia

 

Camp Lee COs 1918

COs at Camp Lee, Virginia 1918

The Voices of Conscience exhibit is on display at Eastern Mennonite University through November 17. I encourage all who are in the area to come see it, or visit the exhibit’s website to learn where it will go next.


  1. Kniss, Lloy A. 1971. I Couldn’t Fight : The Story of a CO in World War I. Scottdale, Pa. : Herald Press, [1971], 23. 
  2.  Letter from Heatwole to Benner, I-MS-1, Box 22.1, “World War I” folder. Virginia Mennonite Conference Archives.  
  3.  Homan, Gerlof D. 1994. American Mennonites and the Great War, 1914-1918. Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite History: No. 34. Waterloo, Ont. ; Scottdale, Pa. : Herald Press, c1994, 97-98. 

A Reader’s Reward

IMG_20180601_130550089_HDRA sampling of prize books housed in the Menno Simons Historical Library at EMU

 

The beauty of old and rare books is that through studying some of them we can learn not just about the ideas of the writer, but also the life of their reader.

We are fortunate in the Menno Simons Historical Library to have some rare books that give us an insight into the work of Dutch Mennonites in the eighteenth century. These books were given as prizes to children who did well in their catechism classes. The prize encouraged children to learn scripture and the books that were given taught them about the faith of the Mennonite church. Topics ranged from martyr books to histories of the Bible and Mennonite doctrine. We have at least eight examples of prize books in our collection, and I will highlight a few here.

The first is a book of Mennonite history and doctrine by Galenus Abrahamsz de Haan given to Jacob Beukenberg, an orphan living in the Weehuis in Amsterdam, on April 23, 1710.

IMG_20180601_130743832

Another is an emblem book of poems, scripture, and illustrations given to Gerardus de Wind on the 22nd of April 1753.

IMG_20180601_130729839

The third is and final one I will highlight is a small book of martyr stories by Thielman van Braght (best known as compiler and author of the Martyrs Mirror) presented to Pieter Corver on the 26th of February 1774.
IMG_20180601_130632141_HDR

Keith Sprunger, emeritus professor of history at Bethel College, studied these books twenty years ago during a research trip to the Menno Simons Historical Library. He notes that “the provider of the books was usually a church member who was a printer or ran a book store”1. Many Dutch Mennonites had warmly embraced this new printing technology, with some becoming quite rich from the enterprise. Sprunger writes that “This era was . . . the heroic age of Dutch Mennonite printing” and that “the Mennonite churches made great use of the printed word for advancing their religion”2.

Is the printed word still valued by Mennonites? The existence of Herald Press, MennoMedia, and the various Mennonite libraries and archives scattered around North America are hopeful indicators to me that as Mennonites we still make great use of the printed word to transmit our faith, heritage, and the good news of Jesus to the next generation. Many congregations today maintain traditions of giving their young people Bibles or books when they are baptized or reach other milestones.

But the news is full of stories of traditional forms of media struggling to maintain viability in the face of a population becoming ever-more reliant on instant access via the internet, social media, and smartphones. And while I believe technology is a fantastic tool to meet many communication and learning needs, it is clear that when it comes to leaving a long-term record it is not as enduring or reliable as print media. The prize books I mentioned above have been preserved in their original form for nearly three hundred years; computers from twenty years ago have long been relegated to the trash heap. Just as technology has enabled us to preserve through digitization and increase access through web content, it also presents major problems of preservation and access of records based in formats that are now obsolete. 

While it is tempting to continue chasing the new and best technology trends, I think it is wise to take a step back and consider how we can also continue to support and use print resources to leave a record and transmit our traditions to future generations of believers. There is value in possessing tangible resources that we can peruse and return to years later without worrying about data migration, file format compatibility, and URL stability. The young people who received these books appreciated them as the prize they were and we would do well to remember in our ever-changing and fast-paced world that there are still many rewards to be found between the covers of a good book.

Sources:
Sprunger, Keith L. 1999. Mennonitism in print : EMU and the history of Dutch Mennonite printing. n.p.: [1999]., 1999. Menno Simons Historical Library Vertical File.


  1. Sprunger, 17. 
  2. Sprunger, 13. 

Centennial Histories Symposium at Eastern Mennonite University March 24, 2018

20180324-centennial histories conference-001-1000pxPhoto credit: Macson McGuigan/EMU

In celebration of Eastern Mennonite University’s centennial year, history professors Mary Sprunger and Mark Sawin planned a symposium centered around the centennial histories of the five MCUSA colleges: Bethel1, Goshen, Bluffton, Hesston, and EMU. They brought together the five authors of centennial histories as well as past presidents to share their reflections on the histories of the schools. The symposium offered an opportunity for consideration of how the past of these schools plays into their present and future.

The first session was a panel discussion where each author gave a brief overview of the histories of their institution. The authors shared in order of school age; Keith Sprunger from Bethel first, then Susan Fisher Miller from Goshen, Perry Bush from Bluffton, John Sharp from Hesston, and finally Donald Kraybill from EMU. It was interesting to hear parallels in the motives for some of the schools’ foundings. There was a common thread of these schools starting in order to save Mennonite students–both to save them from the evils of the world and to save them from leaving so that their talents could be used in the church. All of the authors recognized that loyal faculty and staff have seen the schools through very difficult times. They also echoed a theme of change and adaptation across the five schools stories. But some differences were apparent as well–Midwest vs. East coast, “liberal” vs. “conservative”, and an openness to the world vs. a fortress mentality. Past presidents Loren Swartzendruber and Victor Stoltzfus and outgoing Bluffton president James Harder also shared their reflections.

In the second session the authors shared about challenges throughout the schools’ history. Keith Sprunger shared about Bethel first, mentioning issues like financial struggles, low enrollment, difficulty in finding quality faculty, and diversity. These topics would be echoed by many of the authors on the panel. Susan Fisher Miller discussed declining Mennonite enrollment and pondered whether the Mennonite institutions have become victims of their own success–did they nurture strong minds early on who then moved on to “greener pastures” of more prestigious education and subsequently encouraged their children to do the same? Perry Bush spoke about how Mennonite institutions are now a part of the national marketplace of higher ed and have to contend with issues like being competitive cost-wise, offering good value for money, and finding support outside of traditional church and parachurch organizations. John Sharp mentioned the historic lack of cooperation between Hesston and Bethel even though they are located just a few miles apart. Don Kraybill spoke of the particular issue of encouraging diversity at EMC while contending with the Jim Crow-era South. The authors all acknowledged ongoing “sibling rivalry” between the institutions, but noted that early attitudes of isolation and competition have since been replaced with an attitude of cooperation.

The third session was a time where groups of faculty, students, staff, administrators and authors gathered around tables for conversation. Participants discussed the morning’s sessions as well as questions from a prepared handout that asked:

  • What should the guiding mission and purpose of Mennonite schools be in coming years given the changes in both the church and the student bodies?
  • Is being distinctively ‘Mennonite’ important?
  • Institutions by necessity grow and change. How will Mennonite institutions need to change to remain relevant in the future? What are the ‘givens’ that must remain? What are the traditions that may need to change?

There was a second handout highlighting enrollment trends at the Mennonite institutions over the past fifteen years. It broke down enrollment by MCUSA conference, trends of Mennonite student attendance, and overall full-time Mennonite traditional undergraduate enrollment at the schools. These graphs can be found here: http://bit.ly/MennoHS & http://bit.ly/MennoSystem

These questions and the data sparked fascinating conversations surrounding Mennonite identity and population at the institutions, what it means to be a Mennonite institution in the face of dwindling Mennonite attendance, and what impact larger societal trends are having on these institutions.

In the final session the authors gave their final thoughts on how the first centuries of these institutions will inform the next. Many reiterated the distinctiveness of these five institutions in maintaining their Mennonite identity over their histories and the importance of loyal faculty and alumni. Susan Fisher Miller highlighted the benefits of diversity and an international focus. Perry Bush reminded the group of how radical and attractive the Anabaptist perspective can be to students, both Mennonite and non-Mennonite, and said he believes remaining distinctly Anabaptist and following a Third Way is the best path forward for our schools. John Sharp posed the question: who are we serving if the church that we serve is scattering? Don Kraybill had to leave early but left remarks that were read reflecting on the difficulties of maintaining Mennonite institutions of higher education without a critical mass of Mennonite students and strong church support. Finally, students responded to what they had discussed in the afternoon. They spoke of their appreciation for the opportunity to learn more about the history of their institutions and called for more cooperation and conversation between the student bodies of the schools.

Many in the Q&A sessions voiced a wish that these conversations had taken place long ago and a desire to see them continue in the future. It was a hopeful time for me to see such cooperation and engagement across a variety of sectors in our Mennonite institutions and I, too, hope that these conversations continue as we all work toward our common goal of providing distinctive, faith-based, Anabaptist education. As I reflect on the symposium, I feel that it is clear that the Mennonite institutions of higher ed are entering a new era. The old models are unreliable and in order to survive and thrive there must be an openness to new ways of being. This brings uncertainty, grappling with questions of identity, and, at times, pain. But it feels necessary to ensure the survival of these beloved institutions in their second centuries. As someone who was shaped by Mennonite education and feels privileged to work at EMU, I hope that the challenges facing the institutions will spark creativity, cooperation, and positive change and allow for the continued flourishing of our Mennonite institutions.

Special thanks to Mark Sawin, Mary Sprunger, Barbara Byer, Scott Barge and all others who contributed to facilitate this fantastic symposium.


  1. Bethel’s history was written to commemorate its 125th anniversary. 

A School By Any Other Name?

Names are funny things. Once they’re assigned to people, places, or things it can be hard to imagine anything else fitting. Though 100 years on it seems almost inconceivable for Eastern Mennonite University to be anything other than Eastern Mennonite, it took the founders a few tries to find a name that stuck. Many of the early suggestions were informed by the locations they would inhabit. Warwick Mennonite Institute, Warwick Mennonite Academy, and Alexandria Mennonite Institute clearly didn’t fit anymore once Harrisonburg became the settled upon location. But what about another suggestion: The Mennonite Student’s Safeguard and Industrial School? Certainly this conveyed in plain language the goals of the school, but it was a bit wordy and perhaps a bit too on the nose.  

scan_58011.1

In the end, they settled on Eastern Mennonite School. Not as conspicuous as The Mennonite Student’s Safeguard and Industrial School, but it was decidedly less of a mouthful and still contained a key indication of their core identity: Mennonite. In Eastern Mennonite University: A Century of Countercultural Education Don Kraybill writes that “The records do not say how the final name was determined” but that “even in the twenty-first century, Eastern Mennonite University remains the only Mennonite-related college or university of eight in the United States that carries the denominational name”1

It must be stated that having the word Mennonite in the name certainly doesn’t make EMU more Mennonite than other colleges. Some of the founders even made the case for leaving Mennonite out. Kraybill writes of a letter that chair of the local board C.H. Brunk wrote to the General Board stating “it is not customary to give a school a denominational name…some people are more or less prejudiced against denominational institutions . . . [the school] can be just as truly denominational without the name” A small group including Brunk agreed “unanimously” that it should be named simply “Eastern Institute and Bible School.”2

There are some even today who think that the inclusion of Mennonite in EMU’s name is off-putting to prospective students or has the potential to be polarizing. In recent times other Anabaptist groups have made or proposed changes to their names that remove words like Brethren and Mennonite in order to be more inclusive and broaden their appeal.3 And it’s possible that Goshen, Bluffton, Bethel, and Hesston don’t have to field pesky questions about the availability of electricity on their campuses.4 But some on campus argue that we should lean into, rather than downplay, the Mennonite characteristics. Kraybill touches on this argument, noting that:

In a campus forum, enrollment managers proposed striking Mennonite from the marketing materials and reducing “other odd things about EMU to make it look less ‘weird’ and easier to recruit local Virginia students and mainstream evangelical Christian ones.” History professor Mark Sawin argued the reverse: “If EMU stops being distinctively Mennonite, we have no reason to exist. There are plenty of better-funded, better-situated Christian colleges and liberal arts colleges. If we try to be like them—to be just another mainstream, vanilla, Christian liberal arts school, I think we would, and perhaps should, fail. We aren’t vanilla; we’re pistachio. Most people prefer vanilla and chocolate, it’s true, but those who prefer pistachio love it and will seek it out. To thrive we need to not lessen but increase our distinctiveness—we need to be more, not less, pistachio.” 5

So Eastern Mennonite University it is. We have spent the last 100 years committing to our pistachio-ness and will continue to do so.  Though some may see the label as a hindrance, it can also be seen as an opportunity to invite conversation and share the unique ideals of Anabaptism.  In this way EMU really is a Christian—and more specifically an Anabaptist Mennonite—University like no other.

For more information about the history of Eastern Mennonite University, check out Don Kraybill’s 100-year history: Eastern Mennonite University: a Century of Countercultural Education. Available from EMU, Amazon, and Penn State University Press.


  1. Donald Kraybill, Eastern Mennonite University: A Century of Countercultural Education (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2017), 54. 
  2. Kraybill, 54. 
  3. Rich Preheim, Still BIC but no longer Brethren,” Mennonite World Review, Oct. 30, 2017.; Rachel Stella, “Switch to ‘Rosedale Network’ narrowly fails,” Mennonite World Review, Aug. 14, 2017. 
  4. As a student tour guide I once was asked this very question. Other people I’ve spoken with have reported being asked where we keep our horses and buggies. 
  5. Kraybill, 294. 

A peek into the past at EMU

Eastern Mennonite University is celebrating their Centennial this year with year-long celebrations that kicked off at Convocation, will continue with Homecoming celebrations including artwork, theater, live music, reunions, and the release of a new history book, and will culminate in the 100th commencement in May 2018.

As we launch into our next hundred years, it is worthwhile to go back to the beginning and take a look at where the school began. In the EMU Archives’ digital collection we are fortunate to have correspondence from Mary Nafzinger, a charter student at EMS from Pigeon, Michigan, to her pen pal to Evan Miller, who was a C.O. in Camp Mead at the time.  Evan Miller was also the grandfather of former EMU archivist Nathan E. Yoder, who graciously shared this material with the collection.

First EMS graduating class, 1919

First graduating class of EMS; Mary Nafzinger, front left

Mary’s letters to Evan give us a sense of day-to-day life in the early years of the school and also an understanding of how world events–like the Spanish Flu and World War I–impacted the small campus:

September 19, 1918

“Things are going on in their usual quiet way here at school. Much like last year only I am taking a heavier course, and taking seven subjects. Six of them being solid. I also put in my application to do the ironing so I am quite busy. The spiritual side of the school is growing dearer to me every day. We girls have prayer circle every evening then we have a devotional service before breakfast every morning. We also have a S.S. [Sunday School] organized, and a Young People’s Meeting . . . Elizabeth Horsch [later wife of H.S. Bender] from Scottdale is my roommate.”

 

September 26, 1918

“I am sitting out on our porch writing on the bannisters. . . .”

White house002
The porch Mary Nafzinger is referencing here was on the “White House”, a mansion on the property in Park Woods that the EMS founders purchased in 1917. This building housed all school activities and students.

In this letter Mary also discusses the impact of WWI on enrollment numbers:

“We have about 22 students registered. Four of them are Maryland and Pa. Some more are expected soon. This last draft law cut down so many that wanted to come but of course girls could come, but some have to stay at home on account of their brothers leaving.”

In one of her next letters Mary tells Evan how they spend their leisure time at the school:

October 7, 1918:

“Two girls from here at the Park and I were out on a rocky hill all afternoon, too, writing letters, reading etc. I think that is one way of spending an ideal Sunday afternoon. The greatness and grandness of nature impresses me so much and makes me conscious of His greatness and also as nothing else can makes me feel the nearness of Him who never leaves or forsakes us.”

In the fall of 1918, the second wave of an influenza pandemic, nicknamed the “Spanish Flu” hit Harrisonburg and the surrounding areas. EMS was not immune from the pandemic, with many students and faculty taking ill. Mary writes:

Oct. 22, 1918

“I am just convalescent after having the Spanish Influenza. We have not been having school for the last two weeks but expect to open up again tomorrow. Quite a number of students went home, but all we folks that stayed got it. In fact we were all in bed with it except the cook. She took care of us and good care at that . . . I was in bed nine days and was quite sick as one day they decided to send for my parents then I happened to get better right off.

Quite a few people died around here, but only one Mennonite that I know of.

P.S. You need not be afraid of getting the flue thru this letter as everything has been disinfected.”

Hen-Flew-Enza

The influenza continued to affect the school after Mary’s recovery, and she was pressed into service as a caregiver:

November 7, 1918

“Just after writing to you three more students and the cook took sick with the “Hen-flew-enza.” The students from Pa and Md immediately went home, leaving only three of us in charge and two men to cook for, J.L. Stauffer and Mr. Matz. Miss Charlton and Miss Horsch were installed as cooks and I your humble servant as nurse. None of us were very strong yet, and we had some time. They were not used to cooking and in fact had never cooked much so they as well as the rest of us were in a misery ha.

I cooked soft-diet food for my patients and you can imagine they were in a perfect misery with me as a nurse. But I got along famously and like nursing fine. It was almost as much of a lesson to me to wait on patients as to have the ‘flue’ myself.”

Mary spent the Thanksgiving holiday at the school and enjoyed some special entertainment:

November 30, 1918

“Then Thanksgiving evening we had a taffy pulling in the kitchen. It was fine but the taffy and the sport of pulling it. Also to see some four little freshman smearing in the sticky stuff that were not accustomed to handling it.”

Lest we think that EMS in the early 20th century was all excitement and occupation, here is what Mary and her roommate were doing to entertain themselves in the winter of 1918:

December 8, 1918

“At present my roommate and I are engaging our spare moments and also others in watching a hyacinth bulb grow that I purchased in the ten-cent store. It seems almost miraculous how fast it grows. We have no idea what color it is going to be.”

Hyacinth

The EMS of 1918 was certainly a different place to the EMU of today. It was smaller, more tight-knit, and moved at a slower pace. I think it’s safe to say that students of today, with numerous campus activities, extracurriculars, WiFi, and Netflix could find many ways to occupy themselves other than watching plants grow. But there are also similarities–a focus on spiritual life, challenging academics, and enjoyment of the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley.

1919

Mary’s final missive to Evan contained her graduation announcement and the commencement program inscribed with her class’s motto ‘Each May Serve’. Likewise, the class of 2018 are prepared by EMU to ‘serve and lead in a global context’. As we appreciate the growth and changes the past 100 years have brought to EMU, it is also reassuring to notice the similarities and qualities that have made the school a unique place throughout its history.