From the Flat Files

Tucked away in the office of the Menno Simons Historical library is a flat file that has eleven drawers filled with various and sundry historical treasures. I thought it might be interesting to dive in and sample a few of the items housed therein.

The first item I wanted to highlight is a bill for two shillings and six-pence or half-a-crown printed in colonial Pennsylvania in 1772. 

Next is an announcement issued in March 1862 by Lt. Col. J.R. Jones at the behest of General Stonewall Jackson to muster the militia for the Confederate Army in Rockingham County. This announcement contains a provisio for conscientious objectors that states, “I am authorised to say to the Tunkers and Menonites [sic], that Gen. Jackson believes them to be sincere in their opposition to engaging in war, and will detail them as teamsters, etc. They can serve their state as well in such a capacity as if bearing arms.”

Here is a full transcript of the announcement: 

Attention Militia

Special Order   Head quarters, V.P.

Non. 1853                                           March 31 1862

Lieut. Col. J.R. Johnes 33 D Regiment Va. Vols.
is ordered to proceed to Rockingham County for the purpose of bringing out the Militia.  
By order of Maj. Gen. Jackson, A.S. Pendleton, A.A.G
A company of cavalry has been ordered to report to me here, for the purpose of executing the above order; and any additional force necessary will be sent. I sincerely hope, therefore, that All Militia Men Will promptly report themselves, and avoid the mortification of an arrest. I am authorised to say to the Tunkers and Menonites [sic], that Gen. Jackson believes them to be sincere in their opposition to engaging in war, and will detail them as teamsters, etc. They can serve their state as well in such a capacity as if bearing arms

Come Forward, Then, Promptly. 

You brethren from Rockbridge, Augusta, Shenandoah and Page are in the field, and our brave little army is hard pressed by the enemy.

You will rendezvous at the courthouse

On Thursday morning at 9 o’clock. Prepare to leave for the army. 

J.R. Jones Ct. Col.      33d Regt vol

We have a poster depicting scenes from the 1936 Mennonite World Conference held in Amsterdam.

And finally, we have a number of lovely etchings depicting Mennonite groups in the Netherlands.

“Mennonist Church named the Waterlanders” 
“Mennonist Church named the Flemings”
“The Sun; Depiction of the division of the bread in the Holy Supper by the Mennonites”
J.V. Schley “The Lord’s Supper of the Anabaptists Premiere figure”
J.V. Schley “The Lord’s Supper of the Anabaptists Seconde figure”

 
I hope you enjoyed this peek into the treasure chest that is our flat files. If you would like to see more, you can visit this website that contains a number of scans of other items in our collection.

“Conform to the rules and regulations herein set forth”

While processing a recent box of donations, I happened upon an Annual Catalog from the 1920-21 school year at Eastern Mennonite School. As I leafed through it, I found handwriting all throughout the margins. There is no name on the catalog, so it could have been a student eager to remember all the rules or a member of the faculty or staff taking notes so they knew how to guide their pupils. Either way, these notes provide a revealing look at the minutiae of life at EMS a century ago. 

EMS was in its fourth year in 1920-21 and the fledgling school was finding its wings. In January of 1920, students and faculty moved up the hill from the White House in Park Woods to the newly built Administration Building. As the only building on campus, it was the focus of campus life. Students studied and lived all together under one roof. Enrollment was 216, nearly triple the first year’s enrollment of 77.1

EMS Administration Building

The rules were numerous at EMS in 1920-21, so our scribe was savvy to take notes. The first rule under, “General Rules and Regulations” sets the tone, stating that, “The discipline of the school will be parental and homelike but firm and positive.” The rest of the 23 rules and regulations cover behavioral expectations both in and out of the classroom.2 EMS sought to educate young people to become good workers for the Mennonite church, and their rules were meant to keep students in good standing with the school, the church, and their fellow students. The “Discipline and Decorum” section states that “for a denomination to maintain and perpetuate doctrines which are unpopular and the observance of which call for self-denial and non-conformity to the world, she must exercise a rigid and judicious discipline.” and “It should not be considered that obedience and submission to wholesome discipline and authority militates against the happiness of man, or that it infringes upon his real liberty”3. Following the rules was required to maintain the harmony of community at EMS and foster an environment where learning was possible.

Here is a sampling of what was noted in the catalog: 

On curfews and timeliness: 

“Gentleman in the building by 7 o’clock. Ladies in the building by supper time.”

“Prompt to come, prompt to go. Do not linger in basement hall.” 

In the halls, one must not linger or loaf habitually or blockade the stairway and doors.

“Students must be in their rooms when last bell rings for study period. At 10 o’clock all lights must be out and quiet”

“No noise before 6 A.M.” 

On relationships:

“Students will be allowed to associate on the campus provided there is no habitual coupling off of the same individuals of opposite sex”

“Students will not be allowed to couple off away from the campus except on outings accompanied by authorities. Violations of this rule will be punishable by at least 10 demerits.”

“No visiting during study hrs. without permission from H.M. or assistants” 

On personal health:

“Bathe twice a week–bathing schedule on bulletin board Friday P.M. 20 minutes each” 

“Have a study schedule, refrain from eating between meals, exercise regularly, and avoid too much sweet.”

Failure to follow these rules, along with other infringements like unexcused absences could result in a demerit. The writer notes that five demerits disqualify someone from office (for school clubs or literary societies), 10 earn a reprimand from the principal, 20 a reprimand before the faculty, 25 suspension and 30 expulsion.

There was at least one perk of 1920 EMS–someone else does your laundry! The scribe writes that students were allowed 12 pieces besides bedding and were to throw their items down the chute Sunday afternoon. 

Though the above rules have gone, the 2020-21 school year at EMU has seen a new crop of regulations–this time for the physical health of all on campus and in the wider community. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students must do their best to observe social distancing, mask wearing, and there are limits on the dining hall, athletic spectators at games, and gathering size. Following the rules is yet again required to maintain the harmony of community and to foster an environment where learning was possible.  Though the methods and reasoning look different a century on, I believe the hoped for outcome is the same: a conscientious and caring community that prepares students to make a difference in the world.


1. Kraybill, Donald B. Eastern Mennonite University: a Century of Countercultural Education. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017. p. 343.

2. Eastern Mennonite School. Annual Catalog 1920-21. p. 22-23.

3. Eastern Mennonite School. Annual Catalog 1920-21. p.17.

Peppernuts, Theme and Variations

A number of Facebook friends graciously shared photos of their peppernut-making and peppernuts when I asked for photos this week. Thank you all for helping to demonstrate the diversity of this delicacy!

To me, Christmas has well and truly arrived when the peppernuts are made. Though both my maternal and paternal lines come from a Swiss-German Mennonite background, my dad began pastoring a General Conference Mennonite church when I was a young girl, which meant that my understanding of “Mennonite food” wasn’t Shoo-fly pie and fastnacht but pluma moos and peppernuts. No fewer than three varieties of peppernuts graced the cookie table at our Christmas Eve service, some small and spicy, others slightly larger with a mild molasses flavor. I loved them all. 

As I prepared to make peppernuts this year, I became curious about their origins. I had always heard that they were closely associated with Mennonites (even Wikipedia says so!). But was that true? Where did this tradition come from? To try to discover the origins I did a quick survey of our cookbook collection at the Menno Simons Historical Library and struck gold when I found the two-volume Mennonite Foods & Folkways from South Russia by Norma Jost Voth. When I saw that it had a nearly 40 page chapter dedicated solely to “Christmas Peppernuts”, I knew I was in the right place! 

I learned that peppernuts or similar cookies, “are made in most Scandinavian countries at Christmas. Pfeffernüsse are also made in northern Germany. However, the older recipes from the Russian Mennonite kitchens more closely resemble the Dutch or Scandinavian pepernoot or pebernødder cookie than the German Pfeffernüsse.”1 Voth also writes that “Peppernuts have been part of Russian Mennonite baking traditions for several centuries.” But “Whether or not this custom came from the Mennonites from Holland to the Vistula Delta in the 1500s has not been established.”2

Everyone I speak to about peppernuts mentions that each family they know who make them has a unique recipe or method for “their” type of peppernut. The recipes have all been tweaked as they have been passed down through families and across years and borders. And it continues on into the next generation! Earlier this month I was scanning the Nov. 19 issue of the Goshen College Record when a line in “The GC pandemic logbooks” caught my eye. Claire Franz writes: 

“Made pfeffernusse today with Kristin. Even though we’re the only two Russian Mennonites in the house, we still managed to disagree about everything in the recipe. Ground anise or whole anise seeds? Chill the dough in the fridge or the freezer?”3

For her chapter, Voth collected over 33 recipes hailing from at least six different countries, though I’m sure the true number of peppernut varieties is many times more. The basic recipe is made from butter or shortening, sugar, flour, leavening like baking powder or soda, molasses or a similar syrup, and spices. The dough is chilled then rolled into logs and cut into coin sized rounds. The recipe variations in Voth’s volume included ingredients like lard, eggs, Karo syrup, watermelon syrup, candied peel, peppermint, anise seed, nutmeg, walnuts, almonds, honey, buttermilk, whipping cream, sour cream, cherries, pineapple, and even gumdrops, each adding a different flavor to the iterations (though I want to stress that no one recipe contained all of these ingredients).4

The more I read about these little spice cookies, the more I am convinced that folklore is a secret ingredient. The stories about peppernuts Voth captured in her volume were as delicious as the recipes. Some folks remember peppernuts being given by grandmothers to their grandkids to keep them quiet in church.5 Their small size also meant that they were perfect to fill the pockets of children “on their way to school or to do the chores.”6 Hildred Schroeder Wiebe recalls a tale her grandmother told of men throwing peppernuts to wolves to ward them off as they made their way by horse and sleigh into town. And there are a number of stories in Voth’s volume that describe hard Christmases where no treats can be expected, only to be surprised at the last minute by mothers or community members scraping together the necessary ingredients for a batch of peppernuts.7 Passing down the tales seems just as important as passing down the ingredients list. 

Voth writes that as she compiled this chapter, “the testers and tasters came to these conclusions: The best peppernuts are crisp and very spicy. Anise is the most popular flavor. Pepper enhances the other spice flavors. The plain, traditional peppernut is still very good. This tradition will continue!”8 Traditional foods like peppernuts connect us in a very tangible way to the experiences of those who came before, and are a tasty way to pass down the past. May we all find ways to continue these traditions in this very untraditional year.

1. Voth, Norma Jost. 1994. Mennonite foods & folkways from South Russia. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 366.

2. Ibid., 365.

3. Franz, Claire. “The GC Pandemic Logbooks.” The Record , November 19, 2020.

4. Voth, Norma Jost. 1994. Mennonite foods & folkways from South Russia. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 372-402

5. Klassen, Bev. “Pfeffernuesse (Peppernuts).” Web log. Mennonite Girls Can Cook (blog), November 6, 2014. http://www.mennonitegirlscancook.ca/2014/11/pfeffernuesse-peppernuts.html.

6. Voth, Norma Jost. 1994. Mennonite foods & folkways from South Russia. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 364.

7. Ibid., 365.

8. Ibid., 366.

Mennonites and politics, for better or worse

Front page of the Gospel Herald Nov. 11, 1920

“We thank God that we are living in a land where the voice of the people is respected without thought of armed opposition. There were exciting times, at places— some “mud-flinging,” bitter disputes, charges and counter-charges, etc.; — but no sooner had the people spoken than there was a general acquiescence in the result. This is something to be encouraged, a condition for which to be thankful.”1

These are the opening words from Daniel Kauffman’s editorial in the November 11, 1920 edition of the Gospel Herald. On November 2, 1920 Warren G. Harding was elected president by a landslide, earning seven million more votes than his opponent James Cox.2 Reading these words a century later, it seems that politics has not changed much (although this election has seemed especially fraught and contentious). The relationship between American Mennonites and politics, however, has greatly shifted in the intervening hundred years. The recent presidential election in the United States has demonstrated the depth of division in political perspectives in our country. The 1920 election emphasized a different divide for Mennonites–that between the church and the world. 

The relationship of Mennonites and politics has a complex and nuanced history, but it is fair to say that historically Mennonites have eschewed politics, seeking to be “in the world, but not of the world”, a calling rooted in New Testament verses including John 15:19, John 17:14-16, and 1 John 2:15.  John Redekop states in his article “Politics” on the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO) that, “Concerning politics, the traditional Mennonite stance, despite some deviation and exceptions, may be described as separationist or apolitical.” But after discussing major shifts in attitude during the twentieth century, he concludes at the end of the article that, “the spiritual descendants of Menno are well on the way to becoming part of the general political establishment. Increasingly, in these free and prosperous lands, as they move up the socioeconomic scale, Mennonites are learning, for better or worse, to take political activism seriously.”3

Despite the difficult experiences of many Mennonite COs and the hardships of World War I, the 1920 presidential election seems to have been observed with detachment by many Mennonites. Daniel Kauffman, Gospel Herald editor, exhorts his readers to, “be equally zealous in their support of the cause of Christ and the Church” as the cause of a political candidate or ideal.  He writes that, “In comparing issues, the most striking issues of the recent campaign were as nothing compared with the great issue of salvation.”4 A recurrent theme in the article is that to put stock in the world is to rely on things that are temporary, transient, and tenuous, but to place one’s allegiance in God is to ensure eternal salvation. 

The intervening century has brought enormous change and challenge, and at each turn Mennonites–particularly those in MCUSA and other similarly progressive bodies–have taken steps toward engagement with the world and with politics. In this recent election many Mennonites in good standing with their church campaigned for, voted for, or donated money to candidates and causes they believed in. To abstain from politics in our current political climate smacks of privilege; an acknowledgement that because of your race, religion, or socioeconomic status the success of either political party would have little to no impact on your life. 

 It is tempting to put our faith in civic action and political candidates, hoping that if only we could elect the right people they would promote peace and justice in our country. But Mennonites will never be fully in step with American politics, and American politics will never fully support Mennonite ideals. The national support for the military, focus on unlimited economic growth and consumerism, and the American myth of rugged individualism all run counter to core Anabaptist values of pacifism, economic and ecological stewardship, and community.   

We have come too far as a nation and a church to return to the 1920 stance of detached observation, but we should remember that to become too comfortable in the world is to lose sight of our unique perspective as Anabaptist Christians. Perhaps it need not be the either/or dichotomy put forth by Daniel Kauffman in his 1920 editorial–in the last one hundred years many Mennonites found ways to genuinely engage the political world without sacrificing their faith.  But when the election cycle has run its course, we shouldn’t forget that politics is just one avenue for change.

Daniel Kauffman wrote that “The essential difference between the Christian and the worldling- The first makes spiritual matters his first concern, counting the things of this world secondary. The second counts the things of this world first, making spiritual matters secondary.”5 We must continue to push for peace and justice in every aspect of our lives and remember that we are driven not by the highs of political victory but by humbly following Christ in daily life.


1. Daniel Kauffman, “Editorial,” Gospel Herald 13, no. 33 (11-11-1920): 641.

2. Eugene P. Trani, “Warren G. Harding: Campaigns and Elections,” U.S. Presidents, Warren Harding, University of Virginia Miller Center, 2019, accessed 09 Nov. 2020, https://millercenter.org/president/harding/campaigns-and-elections.

3. John H. Redekop, “Politics.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Accessed 05 Nov. 2020, https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Politics&oldid=167135

4. Daniel Kauffman, “Editorial,” Gospel Herald 13, no. 33 (11-11-1920): 641.

5. Daniel Kauffman, “Editorial,” Gospel Herald 13, no. 33 (11-11-1920): 641.

Hard Times Come Again No More

We are living through very challenging times. 2020 thus far has been marked by uncertainty, upheaval, and loss of many kinds.  For the first time in a long time, we are facing a collective hardship that requires us to make personal sacrifices for the good of society. Many have turned to history, studying events like the Spanish Flu and the Great Depression in an attempt to glean wisdom and find a path forward for our nation. At Eastern Mennonite University we can also look to the responses to these events in our own history—the Spanish Flu arrived just a year after the school opened its doors and a decade later the Great Depression tested the school just as it began to find its footing. I wrote earlier about the Spanish Flu at EMS, and today want to focus on the Great Depression. In each of these stories, we find examples of resilience that can inform our response today and give us hope for the times ahead. 

October 29, 1929, better known as Black Tuesday, ushered in financial downfall all over the world and set the stage for the Great Depression. The still-young Eastern Mennonite School was not exempt from its impact. EMC historian Hubert Pellman writes in his book Eastern Mennonite College, 1917-1967 that “in the period 1929-34 the expansion of curriculums to qualify for and hold state accreditment and the decrease of enrollment and other straitening financial conditions caused by the depression made the problem of finances particularly acute.”1  But with community sacrifice, frugality, and ingenuity the school was able to survive and thrive.

Even before the Great Depression hit, faculty and staff were no strangers to low compensation, being paid only one half of what other faculty in the area made. But this financial problem would require even greater sacrifice—“on Sept. 11, 1931, the faculty heard that the school lacked the money to pay its employees.”2  The dedicated faculty and staff went above and beyond to make up the difference, offering to give up another ten percent from their already meager salaries. A select few were pressed into giving up even more–the three full-time women on the faculty, Sadie Hartzler, Ruth Hostetter, and Dorothy Kemrer, were chosen by the faculty to receive a two-thirds salary, because they were unmarried and it was determined that “those who are married should be the last to suffer.”3  (Unsurprisingly, all the married faculty were men.) Ruth Stolzfus Stauffer Hostetter said that the women, “knew through those early years that single women didn’t get the pay of married men. We recognized that it was happening. But we seldom talked about it.”4  Their reduced pay continued from 1931 until 1934, when their full salaries were reinstated. 5  Hostetter claimed that there was “comfort in numbers” since so many other Mennonite institutions and their workers were feeling the same crunch, and that she just “was thankful for an opportunity to serve in a professional setting.”6 

EMS Faculty 1930

Eastern Mennonite School Faculty, 1930 Source: EMS Journal, 1930

The executive committee of EMS also thought of creative ways to reduce the number of faculty and staff without firing anyone. In addition to those working for severely reduced wages, some took on lighter course loads and others were encouraged to return to school to continue their education, with the hope that they could return once things improved. 7

The dedicated faculty and staff placed the needs of the school above their own to realize the school’s mission of distinctly Mennonite education and their sacrifices did not go unnoticed or without thanks. In the August 1931 Eastern Mennonite School Bulletin, Dean C.K. Lehman wrote a very affirmative report about the faculty of EMS, praising them for “laboring under handicaps,”8  but continuing to put forth their best work as educators. H.D. Weaver, business manager at the time, also gratefully noted the ten percent reduction in salary that the faculty took.9  

Cost-cutting around campus was also necessary, and this was championed by President A.D. Wenger, who “taught and exemplified frugality.”10  Even before the Great Depression, Wenger was intent on penny pinching and keeping EMS to a strict budget. Pellman reports that “students paid two cents a term for every watt of light above forty,”11  that they were expected to study together in a study hall instead of their dorm rooms to conserve electricity, and that modern conveniences like telephones and adding machines were not brought to EMS until almost a decade after the school’s inception. In the years before the depression this budget-saving tactic was effective, with quite a few years under Wenger’s administration ending in the black. 12 

Wenger’s frugality was essential during the Great Depression and his ingenuity was just as integral to the school’s continuing survival. To help students afford tuition and make it feasible for them to continue attending EMS, he started the Sharon Manufacturing Company along with Ernest G. Gehman and E.C. Shank.  They manufactured cast aluminum toys and operated out of a farm building on EMS’s campus. The company was the “only maker of cast aluminum toys in the United States,”13  and was quite successful in its heyday, selling to large department stores like Woolworths and Kresge’s. But the greater success that emerged from this business risk was the employment of up to forty EMS students which allowed many to afford tuition and continue attending. Ultimately, however, the company met its end in 1934 when it was shut down by the U.S. Government. 14  

 

20200827_090613

Toy cars produced by Sharon Manufacturing Company

Sharon Manufacturing Company Advertisement

Notice for Sharon Manufacturing Company in an EMS Bulletin Source: EMS Bulletin Vol. XII No. 8 Aug. 1933

As evidenced by the size and scope of EMU today, Eastern Mennonite School survived the Great Depression and thrived in spite of it. Its financial setbacks were great at times, but it had loyal faculty, students, and constituents who were willing to work together in order to see the mission of EMS realized.  The administration succeeded through their frugality, innovation, and shrewd decision-making that required sacrifice but respected the dignity of everyone in the community. As we continue to grapple with the challenges of our times, we can find inspiration and hope in the ingenuity, tenacity, and resilience of those who came before us.


  1. Hubert Pellman, Eastern Mennonite School, 1917-1967. (Harrisonburg: Eastern Mennonite College, 1967), 98. 
  2.  Ibid., 97. 
  3.  Ruth Krady Lehman, “How Three Women Helped Save the School” Eastern Mennonite College Bulletin 62, no. 2 (1983): 4.  
  4. Ibid., 4. 
  5.  King, Mary Jane “Ruth Hostetter” Eastern Mennonite College Bulletin 62, no. 2 (1983): 5.  
  6. Ruth Krady Lehman, “How Three Women Helped Save the School” Eastern Mennonite College Bulletin 62, no. 2 (1983): 4.  
  7.  King, Mary Jane “Ruth Hostetter” Eastern Mennonite College Bulletin 62, no. 2 (1983): 5.  
  8. Hubert Pellman, Eastern Mennonite School, 1917-1967. (Harrisonburg: Eastern Mennonite College, 1967 
  9. Chester K. Lehman, Eastern Mennonite School Bulletin vol. 10 no. 8 (August 1931): 3.  
  10.  H.D. Weaver, Eastern Mennonite School Bulletin vol. 10 no. 8 (August 1931): 4. 
  11. Hubert Pellman, Eastern Mennonite School, 1917-1967. (Harrisonburg: Eastern Mennonite College, 1967), 104. 
  12. Ibid., 104. 
  13. Ibid., 104. 
  14. Ibid., 104. 

Christmas Cheer from a Bygone Era

‘Tis the season to send and receive holiday greetings! While the missives of today often contain perfectly posed photos of the sender’s family, a century ago photographs had yet to make it to the mainstream since they were not as easily reproduced. Instead, holiday postcards contained lovely illustrations coupled with sweet sayings. 

The Virginia Mennonite Conference Archives is fortunate to house the collection of Nora Hostetter, which contains some fantastic examples of these antique cards sent to her family and friends over a century ago. I have scanned a selection to share here and hope they give you a glimpse into holidays past.

 

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The message on this card gives a unique glimpse into the sights of the day, with John Paul asking his uncle David Hostetter whether he is still seeing “lots of airplanes and dirigibles” ( blimps) and if the “swallows still fly around” in Denbigh. 

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Merry Christmas and here’s to another year of discovering treasures in our historical collections!

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

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.