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.

Unique etchings by Jan Luiken

Bowyer_Bible_Volume_1_Print_7._Portrait_of_Jan_Luyken._BronenPortrait of Jan Luiken File created by Phillip Medhurst – Photo by Harry Kossuth, FAL,
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8987881

When the name Jan Luiken is mentioned in Anabaptist circles, most think of his brilliant etchings in the Martyrs’ Mirror. His depiction of the martyr Dirk Willems may be the most famous, appearing on book covers, adapted artwork, and even secular psychology textbooks.

 

Dirk.willems.rescue.ncsDirk Willems rescues his captor. Public Domain,
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=544931

 

IMG_20160802_135903_119.jpgLuiken etching found in the textbook “Exploring Psychology“ used by my husband when he taught a General Psychology course at James Madison University last fall.

 

But Luiken’s oeuvre goes far beyond his martyr drawings. Born in April 16, 1649 in Amsterdam, he was a Mennonite who made his living during the Dutch Golden Age as an illustrator, taking on numerous projects that spanned genres and topics. 

The Menno Simons Historical Library at Eastern Mennonite University is fortunate to have a considerable collection of books containing Luiken’s artwork. The content of these books ranges from exotic topics like the Laplanders of northern Finland to pirates on the North African coast and to more domestic portraits of tradesman and interiors of Dutch homes. Here I will highlight just a few interesting books and etchings in our collection.

The first illustrations are from a 1684 book entitled “Historie van Barbaryen, en des zelfs Zee-Roovers”—which discusses the history of the Barbary (North African) coast and pirates.

IMG_6263Title page
IMG_6262The new king of Algeria
IMG_6264A battle at sea

The next illustrations are from a 1682 book about the history of the Lapland region of Finland. Luiken’s illustrations show the customs and activities of the Lapland or Sami people.

IMG_6266Baptisms
IMG_6265Skiing and sledding

His illustrations in 1711’s “Het leerzaam huisraad” depict objects in a typical Dutch household.

IMG_6257The bed
IMG_6258The dishes

Likewise, his illustrations in “Het Menselyk Bedryf” depict various occupations of his day.

IMG_6259The painter
IMG_6261The fisher

Lois Bowman, Librarian Emeritus at EMU and former librarian in the Menno Simons Historical Library, has done a great deal of work cataloging our rare book collection and worked closely with the Jan Luiken Collection. She notes that the detail in Luiken’s work distinguishes it from other contemporary etchings; in addition to the main subject there are often background goings-on in his pictures that add a depth and realness to the illustration. The next time you encounter Luiken’s works either in the Martyrs’ Mirror or in other books, take some time to examine the etchings and note his attention to detail and skill. You are likely find something new and unique to appreciate! 

Archives Power? The Role of Record-Keepers in Historical Preservation and Research

library-power

Simone D. Horst

I recently saw this picture when my graduate advisor, a longtime library science educator, shared it on her Facebook page. I can say that as a librarian, the comic mostly rings true–one generally does not enter the library profession seeking fame and fortune. But the last word, power, gives me pause. Librarians, archivists, and all others who are given stewardship of records do have power. They have influence over historical narratives that must be given attention by both the record-keepers themselves and the people they serve. It is only through recognition of this influence that they can be held accountable and that those with whose histories they are entrusted can ensure that the preservation and access of those stories is being handled in a professional, ethical manner.

There are a number of facets to this influence, three of which Randall Jimerson explores in the introduction to his book Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice.  He opens by saying that archives can be seen as temples, prisons, or restaurants. For Jimerson, “the temple reflects the power of authority and veneration. The prison wields the power of control. The restaurant holds the power of interpretation and mediation. These represent the trinity of archival functions: selection, preservation, and access. Archives at once protect and preserve records; legitimize and sanctify certain documents while negating and destroying others; and provide access to selected sources while controlling the researchers and conditions under which they may examine the archival record.”1

Jimerson’s first example, the temple, describes the power exerted by record-keepers in the selection process. He writes that “the very acts of selection and preservation set some records apart from others and give them heightened validity” and reminds his readers that “in the archival temple, archivists make value-laden decisions with momentous implications for the knowledge that the future will have of the past.”2  Jason Kauffman, Mennonite Church USA Archivist, touched on this in his blog post “Now You’re the Institution” when he talked about the importance of addressing ‘archival silences’ by cultivating institutional collections that represent groups that have been marginalized or left out of a group’s historical records.3 Archives cannot collect everything, but an intentionality in the formation of collection development policies and in the activities of acquisition can help ensure the preservation of an historic record that makes an attempt at balance and inclusion.

Jimerson’s second example, the prison, demonstrates how archives have historically handled the preservation of records. Preservation meant maintaining the records exactly as they were when they arrived. Physical materials were kept in tightly controlled, high security spaces, with acid-free storage, climate control, and strict rules on viewing and usage. But with the advent of technology archives, libraries are being forced to reassess their methods of preservation and make decisions about the application of technology: what gets scanned and stored electronically? What formats are digital items stored in and how will archives ensure that these formats remain available five or ten years down the road as technologies change? Why digitize one collection rather than another? How do institutions maintain copyright control and security when items are shared on a platform as vast and far-reaching as the Internet? Digitization has enhanced the ability for records managers to provide access, but it also brings up difficult questions of preservation. This new frontier does not follow the pattern of how archives have historically gone about preservation, nor does it fit neatly into Jimerson’s prison narrative. It is an entirely new aspect that is allowing archives to provide more unlimited access to their collections, but also challenges the historically held beliefs of how best to preserve historic resources.

The final facet of power is access. This is Jimerson’s restaurant, where record-keepers and information-seekers come together to use and interpret historical documents. Providing patrons with access to resources is at the heart of the ethics of both the archival and library professions. The Society of American Archivists Code of Ethics states that “Although access may be limited in some instances, archivists seek to promote open access and use when possible” and the first point in the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics is “We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.” This is where an archivist’s power can be most plainly seen; there are many unfortunate examples of record-keepers bucking ethical codes and using their own discretion to assess whether records are fit for public consumption and withholding those they deem inappropriate. And, unfortunately, the lofty goals of living up to ethical principles of providing access can sometimes clash with more benign limits like restricted open hours, processing backlogs, and privacy rights that hinder the amount of free access the public can have to archival and library materials. Of the three facets of discussed here, this is both the easiest place for outsiders to recognize a record-keeper’s power and also the easiest place to hold records-keepers accountable.

Jimerson goes on to discuss how archives, once regarded by historians and others who use their contents as an unbiased source of materials that contained stories just waiting to be told, are now being seen for the power they have in shaping the discourse even before historical research begins. For many of us who work in these places, this power can feel uncomfortable. But power in archives and records-keeping doesn’t have to been seen as a bad thing. Jimerson states, “[O]ne challenge for archivists is to embrace the power of archives and use it to make society more knowledgeable, more tolerant, more diverse, and more just…once archivists acknowledge their professional and personal viewpoints, they can avoid using this power indiscriminately or, even worse, accidentally.”4  He concludes by saying that “rather than hide from their power in the realm of history, memory, and the past, I hope that archivists will embrace the power of archives and use it for the good of mankind.”5 

Anabaptists and Mennonites are privileged to have a large number of institutions and groups dedicated to preserving their historical record. There have been many devoted historians, librarians, and archivists over the years who have shaped and grown the historical collections that today’s church inherits. To continue and improve upon this legacy, record-keepers, historians, church leaders, and anyone interested in the church as it was and as it can be must take an active interest in the preservation and maintenance of our shared heritage. Those who are entrusted with the stewardship of historical materials need to be aware of how all aspects of their work impacts the history being told. They must take seriously the responsibility to work ethically and morally to provide historians and researchers with the highest possible access and most complete historical record possible. Likewise, church leaders must take seriously the importance of historical records and dedicate energy and funds to their care and protection. Only then can record-keepers and historians tell the best and most complete versions of our history.

Works Cited:
Jimerson, Randall C. 2010. Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice. Chicago, Ill: Soc. of American Archivists.


  1. Randall C. Jimerson, Archives power. (Chicago, Ill: Soc. of American Archivists, 2010), 2. 
  2. Jimerson, 4. 
  3. Kauffman, Jason. “Now You’re the Institution,” Anabaptist Historians, Nov. 10, 2016, https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2016/11/10/now-youre-the-institution/ 
  4. Jimerson, 185-86. 
  5. Jimerson, 3. 

From the Shenandoah Valley to No Man’s Land at Christmas

img_6176-2

The most recent edition of the Harmonia Sacra (2008) next to some songbooks by the Ruebush-Kieffer company displayed on Aldine Kieffer’s organ. Menno Simons Historical Library

Simone D. Horst

Though I’ve lived in Harrisonburg and worked with the EMU Special Collections for nearly eight years now, it took a British Christmas advertisement for me to fully appreciate the musical heritage of the Mennonites in the Shenandoah Valley. Sainsbury’s is a supermarket chain in the UK and, like many other retailers in the UK, creates specific holiday-themed advertisements to entice Christmas shoppers to their stores. Two years ago I saw their 2014 Christmas advertisement online  and was intrigued to hear a familiar tune.  For this ad they had partnered with the Royal British Legion to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Christmas Truce of 1914. The beautifully shot commercial features British and German soldiers in the trenches singing “Silent Night/Stille Nacht” and then as they join together in no man’s land the viewer hears the strains of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” (starting at 2:09). When I Googled the hymn to figure out why it was so familiar, I discovered that it was written by an Anthony Showalter from Rockingham County, Virginia. Thus my curiosity about Mennonite hymnody in the Valley was piqued.

I knew that Mennonites have long been regarded for their unique tradition of acapella singing and talent for four-part harmony. But I didn’t realize how much influence a man who lived in a town ten miles northwest of where I live and work had in shaping the tradition.

The story begins with Joseph Funk. Funk was the son of Mennonite Bishop Henry Funk and moved to Rockingham County, Virginia from Pennsylvania with his family as a young boy. A bit of a jack-of-all-trades, he worked as a farmer, teacher, herbalist, and translator before settling in Mountain Valley (now Singers Glen), Virginia1 and beginning his work as a printer. He found success in the music business, doing a great deal of translation, compilation, and printing. He also ran singing schools, teaching individuals of all ages how to read music and sing. One of his greatest contributions is his development of shape-note music2; a musical notation that employs different shaped notes to denote pitch. He used this method in his singing schools and it quickly gained popularity as it was easy to learn and effective. Funk believed that all church members should be able to “take part in the ‘divine art’ of singing sacred songs” and went so far as to actively discourage the use of choirs in Mennonite and other denominations in order to encourage congregational singing3. Through his singing schools and shape notes he also introduced Virginia Mennonites to three- and four-part harmony and to singing in English, two practices that later spread throughout most Mennonite communities in North America.4

Funk printed numerous song-books, but his most famous work is the Harmonia Sacra, a collection of ‘genuine church music’ that is a beloved songbook still used in Harmonia Sacra ‘sings’ throughout the Valley.

Funk’s grandson, Aldine Kieffer, continued his musical tradition with his partnership with Ephraim Ruebush. They began their collaboration teaching singing schools together before the outbreak of the Civil War, then after the conflict finished (both served, neither having been raised Mennonite), they began the Ruebush-Kieffer publishing company. They started printing in Singers Glen then moved the operation to Dayton, Virginia, in 18785. Through their singing schools and their song books they taught many people in the Shenandoah Valley and beyond to sing the shape-notes and tunes devised by Funk.

One person so influenced by this legacy was Anthony Johnson (A. J.) Showalter from Rockingham County, Virginia. His father was a singing school teacher from the Funk tradition, so Showalter grew up attending singing schools and studying music. He began his career working for Ruebush-Kieffer as a singing school teacher and in the publishing house. Showalter later moved to Georgia and became a prolific composer; his most recognizable tune is “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” which he wrote in 1887 after hearing about two friends losing their wives6.

Though many can recognize the tune, few may know its connection to the Shenandoah Valley or its ties to Mennonite hymnody. Once I learned the hymn’s provenance I felt that it was an odd, yet perhaps apt, juxtaposition to have a hymn born out of a Mennonite tradition of song used in a commercial about war that highlights one of the few peaceful moments of the horrific conflict. I’m sure when the advertising executives chose the song, they had little idea of its connections to an historic peace church tradition in rural Virginia, but to me that makes it even more meaningful. 

*If you are interested in learning more about Joseph Funk and the Ruebush-Kieffer legacy, the Menno Simons Historical Library is a great place to start! We have a nearly comprehensive collection of Ruebush-Kieffer and Funk song books, as well as interesting artifacts like Joseph Funk’s writing chair and Aldine Kieffer’s organ (which is still played occasionally by Lois Bowman, former librarian and wonderful volunteer).

References:

Brunk, Harry Anthony. 1959. History of Mennonites in Virginia 1727-1900. Staunton, Va: McClure Print. Co.

Eskew, Harry, Wm. B. Blake, B. C. Unseld, John Walter Wayland, and Weldon T. Myers. 1995. Two notable shaped-note leaders: combined from Musical million, Dayton, Virginia. Wytheville, Va: Available from Jim Presgraves, ABAA, Bookworm & Silverfish.

McNeil, W. K. “Showalter, Anthony Johnson.” Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music. New York: Routledge, 2005. 339-40.


  1.  The town was founded by Joseph Funk and initially named “Mountain Valley.” It was later renamed Singers Glen to honor his and Ruebush-Kieffer’s contribution to music in the area. 
  2.  Though Funk is often credited with developing the first form of shape note notation, this is likely not the case. But he did develop one unique to his work and schools.  
  3.  Harry Brunk, History of Mennonites in Virginia: 1727-1900, (Staunton, Va.: McClure Print Co., 1959), 121. 
  4.  Brunk, 118. 
  5. Weldon T. Myers, “Aldine S. Kieffer, the Valley Poet, and His Work” Two notable shaped-note leaders. (Wytheville, Va.: Available from Jim Presgraves, ABAA, Bookworm & Silverfish, 1995), 21-25. 
  6.  W.K. McNeil, s.v. “Showalter, Anthony Johnson” Encyclopedia of American Music, (New York: Routledge, 2005), 339-340. 

You shall not oppress a refugee. You know the heart of a refugee, for you were refugees in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

shenandoah-valley-sept-1864
Shenandoah Valley, Sept. 1864. Alfred R. Waud.

Diaries give us a unique, intimate look into the lives of people throughout history. They have a special ability to shed light on our present realities by exposing similarities and differences in daily life across time.

The Virginia Mennonite Conference Archives, located on the first floor of EMU’s Hartzler Library, is fortunate to have the diaries of Emanuel Suter, a Mennonite potter from the Shenandoah Valley. His diaries span nearly 40 years (1864-1902), and today I will highlight some entries from early October 1864, almost exactly 152 years ago. In September 1864, under the direction of General Sheridan, the Union army began a systematic burning of the Shenandoah Valley, which was known as the “breadbasket of the Confederacy”. Fearing for their safety and facing the destruction of their homes and livelihoods, Suter and his family, along with other Mennonite and Brethren families from the Valley, made the difficult decision to leave the Valley and were escorted to safety in the North by the Union army1 Here are his reflections on that trek:

Diary commencing the 5th day of October 1864

The federal army being in the valley of Virginia, burning barns dwelling houses mills &c a general destruction was threatnt [sic]. Myself and family decided to leave the Shenandoah Valley and go north. In the morning of the 5th day of October we left went to Harrisonburg then went with the army to Mt. Jackson, there we remained that night and all the day of the 6. I will here mention that my family at this time consisted of myself and wife Elizabeth, three children Daniel Reuben, Susan Virginia, John Robert…The sister Margaret Suter and father Daniel Suter were with us. Brother Christian Suter, also belonged to the family but he and a young man Albert Jenkins were back in the rear but came to us on the way.

On the morning of the 7th we were ordered to get in readiness to move at one o’clock we with the Army started down the Valley Pike, I will also mention here, that at Mt. Jackson we found many families of the Valley that we knew also going some north and some west. we were now pushed on hurretly [sic] in a fast walk but most of the time in a trot. This evening we came to Cedar Creek where we put up for the night. Here we had some trouble keeping my horses from being stolen. Father and I took turn about guarding them. One fellow cut the halter strap while in Father’s hand but found that he was seen and got away quickly.

This morning the 8th which was Saturday. The Army soon move down the valley2 We traveled like the day before mostly in atrot two wagons in abrest. We past through Winchester and at night we stopped at a place called Bunker Hill. It turned cold during the day. It was cold and blustery all night. We were constantly compelled to keep an eye on our horses, our nights rest was not at all comfortable. We had considerable trouble keeping warm.

The morning of the 9th Sunday we moved towards Martinsburg [WV]. We arrived there at 8pm. Here we spent another cold night out in an open field

The morning of the 10th Monday we moved on an old sawmill where we remained camped until the 12th. The two days while there all that were going north and west were required to take the oath of allegiance.

We left for Maryland, traveled nearly all day. At night myself and my family came to old John Horst we remained with him the next day and that night. The same day [the 13th] myself Father Suter Brother Christian…started with the wagons and…crossed the little South mountain through Adams and York counties. The first night we came to Christian Muslemans [sic]. We had some trouble to get a place to stay the people did not trust us they thought we were rebels but this man received us and treated us kindly.

We were away from home under very unfavorable circumstances, yet we engaged ourselves as well as could be expected. We were in a strange country and surrounded with everything quite different to what we were used to, but kind friends made us comfortable.3

By the time the Suter family reached their destination of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, they had traveled over 200 miles, mostly by foot.

Many Mennonites in North America today live lives of comfort, privilege, and stability. It is easy to see the news and feel removed from the experience of refugees whose troubles seem worlds away from our day-to-day life. It is also easy to forget that it wasn’t long ago that Mennonites were driven from their homes with little warning and forced to settle in new places to ensure safety for their families. The Suters fled just 150 years ago. Many Russian Mennonites had to flee the hostile Soviet regime in the early 20th century.4 And even today, Anabaptists in the Global South face intolerance and fear for their safety.5

Emanuel Suter wrote that at times it was hard to find a place to stay as “the people did not trust us.” Many refugees today are also met with hostility, xenophobia, and violence as they flee dangerous homelands and attempt to find security for their families. In Suter’s diary he notes the names of each person or family who helped his family and expresses his appreciation for “kind friends who made us comfortable.” We should remember the people throughout history who helped Mennonites in their time of need and seek to be helpers as well.

To learn more about the refugee wagon train that took many Mennonites out of the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War, you can read Shenandoah Mennonite Historian’s Autumn 2014 edition (v.22 n.4), or the book The Burning by John L. Heatwole.

To learn more about how you can help the cause of refugees today, visit Mennonite Central Committee’s website.

Works Cited:

1864 Diary, Box 1, I-MS-31, Emanuel Suter Diaries 1864-1884, Virginia Mennonite Conference Archives.

Epp, Frank H., Mennonite exodus; the rescue and resettlement of the Russian Mennonites since the Communist Revolution. (Altona, Manitoba : Canadian Mennonite Relief and Immigration Council, 1962).

Heatwole, John L. The Burning : Sheridan’s Devastation of the Shenandoah Valley. (Charlottesville, Va. : Rockbridge Pub., 1998).

Waud, Alfred R. , Artist. Shenandoah Valley, Sept. 1864. September, 1864. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2004660274/. (Accessed October 13, 2016.)


  1. Heatwole, The Burning, 30. 
  2. This means north. Valley folk use the northern flow of the Shenandoah River rather than traditional cardinal directions to indicate direction in the Valley. So you go “down” (North) to Winchester and “up” (South) to Roanoke. 
  3. Suter, 1864 Diary, 1-9. 
  4. Epp, Mennonite Exodus, 139-155. 
  5. For example, consider the violence and persecution facing Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (Church of the Brethren in Nigeria). 

Threads of Connection Woven through History

What do the Anabaptists from Prussia, cowboys, and Eastern Mennonite College have in common? Admittedly not much, but these three threads have intertwined in a unique way throughout history to weave a tale of conflict, connection, and caring.

Gesangbuch 1908 1

Danzig Mennonites

The first thread is the Anabaptists in Danzig, Prussia (now Gdansk, Poland). The history of the Danzig Mennonites is long and complex and there isn’t enough time or space do it justice here, but I will attempt to give a brief overview.1 Anabaptists moved to the Danzig area in the 1530s fleeing persecution in the Netherlands and other areas of what is now Germany and Switzerland (Mannhardt 2007, 37-38). They established a community in Danzig, living there from the 16th century to the early 20th century.  Both Menno Simons and Dirk Philips visited the Anabaptists at Danzig a number of times, with the latter living there for a while. Danzig church historian H.G. Mannhardt says that “the beginnings of our church can be traced to Menno himself” but that Philips “is considered the actual founder of the Danzig Mennonite Church.”2 
The Danzig Mennonites practiced strict church discipline, tried to avoid fashionable clothing, and were excused from military service so long as they paid for two substitutes. They also practiced mutual aid and care for the poor. They maintained an alms house to house the homeless and had an alms fund for the care of needy church members. Mannhardt says that “their care for the poor was to be similar to that of the early Christians, and for that reason they had, besides the office of preacher, the office of deacon or caregiver to the poor.”3

The Mennonites were appreciated for their work ethic and quiet nature, but they still experienced some discrimination. For the first few centuries of their tenure they were denied the rights of citizenship as they refused to take the citizenship oath, were not allowed to live within the city walls (many settled in the nearby suburb of Schottland), and endured hindrances to practicing their crafts and trade in lace and fine liquors. Seemingly each time a new King of Poland came to power he would try to evict them.4 Fortunately, they were given enough protection by the Danzig City Council to be able to continue living in and around Danzig.5

By the 1800s Danzig Mennonites were granted citizenship along with other protections and were able to move within the city walls, where they constructed a church building on what became known as Mennonitenstrasse (Mennonite Street).  Church membership was always strong and had grown to over one thousand after World War I, but it dwindled significantly after World War II as many were driven out by the conflict and subsequent Soviet occupation.6  The church building was restored after the war and continues to serve as a church, although it is no longer used by Mennonites.7 

Seagoing Cowboys

The second thread is post-World War II relief work done by young men of Mennonite, Church of the Brethren, Brethren in Christ, Quaker, and other Anabaptist faiths. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) was instrumental in overseeing and coordinating the Anabaptist connection to governmental conscientious objector (CO) programs during and after the war, including Civilian Public Service (CPS) and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).8 After WWII, the UNRRA partnered with the Heifer Project, a Church of the Brethren organization, to provide livestock for people in Europe and China whose lives and livelihoods had been destroyed during the war. The men who volunteered to accompany heifers, horses, mules, and other livestock across the ocean were nicknamed “Seagoing Cowboys”. In total they made over 350 trips over the course of three years.9 Many went over as a fulfillment of their alternative service, but some were just seeking adventure. All came back with a deeper understanding of the gravity of pain and destruction endured by the survivors of WWII.10 

The Menno Simons Historical Library

The final thread is that of Eastern Mennonite College (now Eastern Mennonite University), more specifically its special collections library, the Menno Simons Historical Library (MSHL). The MSHL was started in the 1920s by two professors who wanted to create a collection of materials related to Mennonite and Anabaptist history, life, and culture. Since its inception, the collection has grown to include a number of rare books and materials relating to the early Anabaptists in Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. It now holds over 45,000 books, including about 5,000 rare books, and a host of other materials related to the Mennonites and Anabaptists.

Conflict, Connection, and Caring

These threads were woven together when a young man from the Shenandoah Valley named Wilbur C. Layman went over to Poland as a seagoing cowboy in 1946. His fellow cowboys went out one day to explore the ruins of the bomb-damaged Danzig Mennonite church, but Wilbur stayed back as he wasn’t feeling well. The men found church records and documents in the damaged church, many of which they recovered and brought back to the United States.11 These were housed at the Mennonite Library and Archives at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas from 1947-2009 (they have since been transferred to the Mennonitische Forschungsstelle in Weierhof, Germany).12 Although he had stayed back that day, two items found their way into Wilbur’s hands and were brought home to Virginia. He later donated them to the Menno Simons Historical Library–a 1908 songbook from the Danzig Mennonite Church entitled Gesangbuch zur kirchlichen und häuslichen Erbauung : für Mennoniten-Gemeinden and a single page entitled Rechnung von unsrer Gemeinte[sic] Armen Gelder : welche anno 1698 adÿ 29 December geschlossen worden, which very roughly translated means, “Account of our community poor funds which concluded December AD 1698”. This page lists the deacons for the poor that are mentioned in Mannhardt’s history of the church as well as an account of the alms fund. The deacons listed are Martin Enken, Harman Allerts, Hendrick Klaassen, Andries Penner, Gerrit Jansen, and Nicolas Penner. This document is a fantastic example of the mutual aid and care for the poor practiced by the Danzig Mennonites.

Gesangbuch 1908 2.JPG

Documentary evidence such as this provides a tangible connection to history that is hard to replicate through reading facts and figures. Every rare item in the Menno Simons Historical library has a unique provenance, but we aren’t fortunate to have such a complete and fascinating tale for them all, which makes this document and songbook all the more special.

 

 


  1.  More information can be found in the GAMEO article on the Danzig Mennonite Church or in H.G. Mannhardt’s book The Danzig Mennonite Churchthat was recently translated and published in English. Mannhardt, H.G. The Danzig Mennonite Church: Its Origin and History from 1569-1919. Translated by Victor G. Doerksen, edited and annotated by Mark Jantzen and John D. Thiesen. North Newton, Kansas: Bethel College, 2007; Mannhardt, H. G. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. October 2012. “Danzig Mennonite Church (Gdansk, Poland).” Accessed August 22 2016.
    http://gameo.org/index.php title=Danzig_Mennonite_Church_(Gdansk,_Poland)&oldid=127394 
  2. Mannhardt 2007, 44-46. 
  3. Mannhardt 2007, 116). 
  4.  (Mannhardt 2007, 53; 56-57). 
  5.  (Mannhardt 2007, 71-72). 
  6.  (Mannhardt 2007, 245). 
  7.  (Mannhardt 2007, 251-53). 
  8.  Byler, J. N. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. “UNRRA (The United
    Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration).” Accessed August 19 2016.
    http://gameo.org/index.php?title=UNRRA_(The_United_Nations_Relief_and_Rehabilitation_Administration)&oldid=78411
  9. For more information on Seagoing Cowboys, visit seagoingcowboys.com, where a great deal of information and wonderful stories have been compiled by Peggy Reiff Miller. Also check out her new children’s book entitled The Seagoing Cowboy, now available from Brethren Press. Miller, Peggy Reiff. The Seagoing Cowboys: Delivering Hope to a War-Torn World. Accessed August 18, 2016. www.seagoingcowboys.com
  10. Miller, Peggy Reiff. The Seagoing Cowboy. Elgin, Illinois: Brethren Press, 2016, 38-39). 
  11. Scans of the Danzig Mennonite Church records that were once housed at the Mennonite Library and Archives can be found 
  12.  (Mannhardt, xxvii).