Writing History in the First-Person

Nearly a decade ago, in one of Steve Nolt’s classes at Goshen College, I read Hasia Diner’s essay “Insights and Blind Spots: Writing History from Inside and Outside.”1 In just a few pages, Diner succinctly sums up the historian’s complicated relationship with the concept of objectivity and then makes a coherent argument for the relative strengths and weaknesses of approaching a historical project as, first, an insider, and, then, as an outsider.

The piece might be a graduate student’s first-semester essay on the question of objectivity and bias, except for one thing: Diner uses the first-person voice throughout. She illustrates her points with her experiences writing about Jewish history, a subject to which she is an insider, and Irish history, which she has written about an outsider.

It is an instructive essay for the history student, in that it renders the challenge of a scholar’s position to their subject not only in a digestible fashion but in a detailed, compelling, and memorable one. Diner’s name and the title of her essay had long faded from my memory, yet the effect of her words remained and I periodically remembered the general outlines of the piece.

I thought of the essay in the last few weeks and went looking for it. Due to the sadly limited quantity of essay collections about and by Mennonite women with a historical lens (and the relative rarity of overlap between Jewish and Mennonite scholarship), I was able to find it. Diner’s essay came to mind because I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the first-person in preparation for a course I’m teaching: “First Person America.

This class, a general education requirement listed under American Studies in the Temple University course catalog, has been taught in a variety of ways. Typically it involves readings ranging from diaries and recollections of American colonists to late twentieth-century coming-of-age stories. I decided to think about the first-person more broadly and I am assigning texts ranging from visual art to music videos to podcasts. Ultimately I see the course as a primer on critical thinking, historical consciousness, and identity.

In my class, my students and I are exploring the lived experiences of people and how they claim identities based on their place in the world, or in spite of it. We are finding common ground with people whose lives are very different from ours. Perhaps more importantly, we’re trying to understand the limits of our own experiences, the places where our fellow humans face challenges and find motivations that we don’t know. We are looking for the structures which are often invisible to us and oppressive to others, but also learning how responses to those structures vary from person to person. I hope to give my students a window into other people’s realities and a skill set that will help them examine their own existence.

I am choosing to assign a variety of media rather than “breaking”2 historical monographs in part because it will allow us to fit in more people’s views and in part because while first-person writing does find its way into historical monographs, it is typically resigned to the introduction and (occasionally) the conclusion, like a frame narrative. The transition from the introduction, in which the author is present, to the main text, where they are not, is a bit like Sean Connery’s first scene in The Hunt for Red October, where he and his interlocutor switch from Russian to English in the midst of a Bible passage and the audience spends the rest of the movie suspending their disbelief on that particular point. Readers of a history book know that the author’s voice is in there somewhere but it is discreetly hiding. While not every history needs to be a memoir, an author has already inserted themselves into the story by conducting research. Why not acknowledge it?

The historical monograph, as we know it today, came from an era when history was a young profession and its practitioners believed they were working toward a common, universal, truth. They might have understood the folly of this endeavor sooner had they not had so much in common with each other: they were predominantly white men educated in the finest schools in the nation. The identity of any given historical writer could, for decades, be assumed to be something of a cookie-cutter academic. These historians were divided by politics, perhaps, but sought to build their arguments with the illusion of dispassionate facts.

The occlusion of the authorial voice is not only a pitfall of the academy. Public history spaces such as museums have long bolstered their authority in the eyes of visitors by adopting a third-person omniscient perspective to signage and interpretation. The artifacts or images are presented as though they are part of some organic collection, discovered en masse by the visitors, rather than a curated set of available artifacts.


In historical work as in art, sometimes it is useful to see the artist’s hand. Painting by Dennis Maust.

Our scholarship is much better when we acknowledge our own position in society, our own foibles and petty preferences, and our own deepest-held beliefs, not only in the introduction but throughout our arguments. In museum contexts, labels should come with an author photo and curators should give regular talks about why and how they do their work. I advocate these practices not simply to make history consumers better informed, but in the hopes that historians continue rigorous self-exploration and understand something of the field they work in.

For those of us working from personal histories in the Anabaptist tradition, Diner’s arguments about the relative merits of the insider/outsider dichotomy should linger in our minds. Whether we are tackling subjects of church history or the broader world, we need to acknowledge the tradition from which we come. When I claim Anabaptist roots, I must wrestle with the tendency toward exceptionalism that I absorbed throughout my childhood and adolescence, from my church, my teachers, and my peers. I find this more difficult to reckon with than the history of racial inequality in the denomination as well as the ongoing denial of queer humanity. The more deeply-embedded the assumption, the harder it is to confront in one’s work.

In class tomorrow, I will lead my class in analyzing texts and discussing our own identities. I hope our discussions equip them to recognize their role as historical actors and the forces that have shaped their view of the world. We will talk about ourselves and learn about ourselves, and that is a good thing.

  1. “Insights and Blind Spots: Writing History from Inside and Outside.” in Strangers at Home: Amish and Mennonite Women in History,  ed. Kimberly D. Schmidt, Diane Zimmerman Umble, and Steven D. Reschly (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002): 21-38. 
  2. If you have not heard the term “book breaking,” here is a good summary of the practice: Douglas Hunter, “Book Breaking and Book Mending,” Slate, 15 July 2018: https://slate.com/human-interest/2018/07/academic-publishing-and-book-breaking-why-scholars-write-books-that-arent-meant-to-be-read.html 

The Mausts at Stone Mountain

Over the last year, as my grandmother, Evelyn Brunk Maust, neared the end of her life and then passed away, I started looking at family pictures. At Christmas, I looked through scrapbooks as she slept in her chair. In May, as we prepared to bury her, we looked through many more. And last week, as most of the family gathered at a beach house for a vacation, we looked at a couple hundred slides.


Evelyn, Dennis, and Robert Maust pose in the Petrified Forest National Park.

David Thelen and Roy Rosenzweig included looking at family photos as one way of engaging with the past in their landmark study The Presence of the Past, and now I understand why. I was able to see past editions of these people I love, versions I will never meet. I was able to catch glimpses of their world: to see how my grandparents’ house evolved and how the neighboring campus of Eastern Mennonite University has changed and remained constant.

There were flashes of the present too. Nearly every photo of my dad and my uncle was accompanied by an outburst of “He looks like [my cousin/me/my cousin’s children]!” The boys in the slides, now in their seventh decade of life, retained fresh memories too: of people, places, and sartorial choices.

IMG-3213 (1)

I believe those folks facing the camera are members of the Brunk family. Photo by unknown photographer, circa 1940.

Because of my interest in public history, I paid special attention to the photos of relatives at historic sites. In the scrapbook, for instance, I found a photo of my grandmother’s family visiting Mount Vernon. In the slideshow, there were many more history sites.

When my father was a boy, his family spent many of their summers in Pigeon, Michigan, with his father Earl’s extended family. Several summers, however, they embarked on massive road trips. On these odysseys, the Mausts made stops at various national parks and tourist attractions.


Dennis and Robert Maust in front of one of the ships they visited.

Historic ships have their own special appeal, and the Maust family visited at least two of them. They visited Plymouth Rock too. The rock, inscribed with the year “1620,” was identified as the landing place of the first Pilgrim immigrants by a ninety-five year-old man in 1741 and moved multiple times over the last centuries.1


An unnamed interpreter in American Indian dress poses for a photo, location and date unknown.

The western trips included stops at the St. Louis Arch, giant redwoods, at least one spot that had a person in American Indian ceremonial costume, and Mount Rushmore. Perhaps more surprisingly, on a trip through Georgia, the Mausts visited Stone Mountain. Their visit was probably soon after the site—which features carvings of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson—opened to the public as a state park on the centenary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.


Dennis, Earl, and RobertMaust sit in front of the tree named “General Sherman” in Sequoia National Park.

What were the lessons at all of these sites in the 1960s? Despite Denise Meringolo’s uncovering of radical precedents of public history, the historic sites and monuments of the mid-twentieth century were overwhelmingly nationalistic and concerned with privileged Americans. Many of these sites, both private and public, explicitly aimed to teach visitors how to be American; that is, how to assimilate to a specific strand of American culture. House museums and period rooms, for instance, were used to display idealized American homes and teach the values which informed the décor choices.

The sites visited by my family probably saw themselves fulfilling the same purpose to varying degrees. The messages at historic ships and Plymouth Rock likely centered around eighteenth century European immigration. Across the American west, history sites largely told the story of Manifest Destiny. Did the Mausts hear anything about the “Six Grandfathers” on the South Dakotan mountain which were replaced by four white presidents? Surely the word “genocide” did not appear on any plaques or on any tour guide’s tongue.


A Maust photo of Mount Rushmore, undated.

Evelyn and Earl Maust were mainstream Mennonites for their time. Earl achieved several degrees in music and education and Evelyn was a nurse. Earl served in Puerto Rico in Civilian Public Service. Together they had traveled through Europe. So what did they take away from any of these places? Did they feel patriotic fervor at Mount Rushmore? Or alienation? Did they feel American? Did they settle for awe at the size and and skill evident in the carving?

Perhaps more intriguingly, what did they take away from Stone Mountain? To what extent had the nurse from Harrisonburg, Virginia, and the choral director from Pigeon, Michigan, internalized the Lost Cause narrative? Did they know that Stone Mountain was the site of the re-founding of the KKK in 1915? Earl participated in a march led by Martin Luther King Jr. in Nashville just a few years before. How do we square these events in one family’s life? What was the Mausts’ racial consciousness in the mid 1960s? Were Earl and Evelyn just attracted by the novelty of the new state park?


Dennis and Robert Maust pose in front of Stone Mountain.

These are questions I suspect I’ll never have answers to. My grandmother left behind some diaries and correspondence which might shed light on her tourist experience, but knowing her, any observations would likely be enigmatic and brief. My grandfather, who passed away fifty years ago this fall, left these slides and little else, I think.

Why do I pose these questions? By the late 1960s, over a million and a half Americans visited Mount Rushmore each year. I suspect that the Mausts were not the only Mennonites among that number. Considering how Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups engaged with American public history sites at the high tide of their nationalist focus could provide an important data point in the story of twentieth century Anabaptist life and these communities’ relationship with the state. Perhaps more importantly, considering Anabaptist reactions to sites such as Mount Rushmore and Stone Mountain which directly or indirectly commemorate white supremacy and genocide might provide important context for those working to dismantle racial injustice in the present. For those of my parents’ generation, understanding their parents’ engagement or disassociation with mainstream American culture through this lens might be enlightening as they consider their own identity as American Anabaptists.

What messages conveyed by these sites were comfortable to mid-century Anabaptists? Which ones were uncomfortable? Even glimpses into the answers to these questions might be illuminating as contemporary Anabaptists confront an uncomfortable present.

Special thanks to Robert Maust for digitizing these slides on short notice. 


  1. James Thacher, History of the Town of Plymouth: From Its First Settlement in 1620 to the Year 1832 (Boston: Marsh, Capen & Lyon, 1832), 29-30: http://books.google.com/books?id=IWWLjiaEs2AC. Also, here’s a great home video of Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock ca. 1960: https://vimeo.com/32595596. 

Anabaptist Monuments?

The last year has been full of discussion about collective memory and ownership of historical truth. Last summer I had to explain what “public history” meant to many people as I prepared to start a master’s program in the discipline. These days I’m just as likely to hear, “We need that now.”

Societal and political debates about history have coalesced in the last few months around the concept of commemoration through monuments. Statues of Confederate generals have been torn down or shrouded, and a statue of Christopher Columbus in Baltimore was just defaced. Here in Philadelphia, a months-long “Monument Lab” has kicked off with—among other pieces—a statue of an Afro pick incorporating a fist in the same plaza as a controversial monument to former mayor Frank Rizzo.

I’ve watched the unfolding conversation with interest but with critical distance. Others are saying things far smarter and more meaningful than I could. The National Council on Public History made a valuable contribution, for instance, with a special virtual edition of The Public Historian, re-running essays on monumentalism and memory around the world and across time. To date, one of the best proposals I’ve heard for Confederate monuments is that they all be piled up in one place to convey the volume of metal and concrete and stone that supported white supremacy.

I’ve begun to try to think about which monuments I support. Many monuments lack nuance and do not invite conversation. A bronze man on a horse doesn’t ask any questions, but makes powerful statements about power. As a historian, these are problematic characteristics, even if it weren’t true that monuments in the United States are overwhelmingly dedicated to white men over all other types of people. When President Trump asked on Twitter if monuments to Washington and Jefferson were next on the agenda for debate, someone on my social media feed acknowledged that the president accidentally posed the most relevant public history question of the year.

Looking closer to (metaphorical) home, what have Anabaptists, my people, commemorated? I struggled, initially, to think of any. Then I remembered the many sculptures that decorated the campus of Goshen College, my alma mater. I remembered Esther and Michael Augsburger’s “Guns into Plowshares” in Washington, DC (which is moving again). A Google search alerted me to a variety of Mennonite monuments scattered throughout Canada and Europe. I came across Paul Epp’s monuments across Eastern Europe to Anabaptist persecution, including a particularly haunting piece in Zaporizhia, Ukraine, that depicts a family over a mantle, the human forms in negative space in the granite, the voids representing disappeared Mennonites throughout the former USSR.

In this field, too, I find others far ahead of me. James Urry explored the history of Mennonite monumentalism a decade ago in the Conrad Grebel Review.1 Urry traces the resistance of Anabaptist communities to statuary, a form they associated with nationalism, up until the nineteenth century. Early in that century, Menno Simons began to be included (along with Calvin and Luther) in several monuments to the Protestant Reformation, and around 1861, a marker was proposed (and rejected) to mark the three hundredth anniversary of Simons’ death.

Nearly two decades later, an obelisk was raised to Simons in Friesland, purportedly on the site of his first teaching after leaving the Catholic church. Similar obelisks were erected in Russian Mennonite colonies over the next generation before such commemorative forms seemingly lost wide approval. “Instead,” writes Urry, “the opening of new schools, hospitals, and other institutional structures seemed sufficient to mark the steady march of progress in the Mennonite world.”

The next phase of Mennonite monumentalism, Urry argues, took place in the United States and Canada as Mennonite settlers joined other North American settlers in commemorating westward expansion. Canadian Mennonites of Russian origin marked the centennial of the 1870s wave of immigration, just as in the United States polities big and small geared up for the bicentennial celebration. Interestingly, Urry notes that many of the most fervent supporters of the 1970s Canadian commemorations were immigrants from the 1920s.

Another generation passed before the next form of Mennonite monuments were erected. These include Paul Epp’s monuments, and were spurred by tours and conferences in the Ukraine that revealed the extent to which evidence of Mennonite colonies had largely been erased. The statues generally commemorated specific events such as massacres or persecution, but Urry seems to argue that the erasure of colony-built environments was also a motivating factor. He focuses his analysis on one particular monument—which resembles a gravestone and marks the site of a 1919 massacre at Eichenfeld-Dubowka, north of Khortitsa, Ukraine—and makes a compelling argument about monumentation in this vein:

[This monument] clearly indicates some of the problems in trying to mark a complex past event in a singular stone memorial. At one level its message might appear simple: it is a memorial to the victims of a savage massacre who have lain in mass, unmarked graves until the stone was erected and unveiled. But the memorial is also supposed to mark not just a single event and its victims…

The fact that a number of people were murdered in such a terrible manner, on the date stated on the stone and detailed in the book, is not in question. But why the deaths occurred in this particular village, to this group of people, and at this particular time is something that must be interpreted and explained. The explanation in press releases provided at the memorial’s unveiling, and the more detailed account given in the later booklet, are simple and inadequate. We are presented with simple dichotomies of good and evil, with innocent Mennonite victims and guilty perpetrators. Such stark oppositions have little explanatory power in understanding such complex events.

Urry completes his analysis with the recent trend of memorial trees, grown from the seeds of ancestors still planted in European soil. These living monuments seem more in line with early Anabaptist iconoclasm (and indeed, Urry argues, earlier pagan forms of commemoration) but I feel the monuments still lack context and nuance.

Rather I would suggest that Mennonite monumentalism has recently, like global monumentalism, embraced more polyvalent forms that offer space for debate and nuance. The Eichenfeld-Dubowka tablet that Urry analyzed was dedicated in 2001. Eight years later—and two years after Urry’s essay—another Paul Epp monument, the family in negative space described above, was unveiled. By embracing an evocative visual language rather than an engraved message, this latter monument represents the new monumentalism, perhaps best represented by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed by Maya Lin. These memorials reject the (literal and metaphorical) monolith form of many nineteenth- and twentieth-century monuments in favor of aesthetics more representative of current movements in public art and landscape architecture. Another example that comes to mind within the Anabaptist context is this monument at the center of a roundabout in Paraguay.

Paraguay Monument

Photo by Ben Goossen

The result of this aesthetic shift is an openness to interpretation. Monuments are still not neutral, yet these commemorations allow space for people to bring a variety of experiences to them and come away with a sense of reflection (in the case of the Vietnam wall, this reflection is literal).

The line between public art and public monument can be sticky. A memorable presentation by Frank G. Pérez at the National Council of Public History 2017 conference described how attempts to diversify the monumental landscape in El Paso with public artwork faced countless obstacles. Monuments to conquistadors were unquestioned, but new sculptures elicited complaints about aesthetics and logistics. I suspect one of the factors that separates “monument” from “public art installation” in most people’s minds is choice of material (e.g. stone, unpainted metal). I look forward to Philadelphia’s Monument Lab’s exploration of that liminal space.

Meanwhile, the monolith has not gone away. Each year is a new opportunity to mark an anniversary of something or other. For Anabaptists in North America, many of those mark first settlements in an area. Many of these will take the form of a plaque or stone marker. I encourage families seeking to mark their persistence in the land to think carefully and critically about the statements that these monuments make. What was this land before your ancestors came here? Whose land was it?

On the global scale, Mennonite World Conference is gearing up for the five-hundredth anniversary of the first rebaptisms in Zurich. In Mennonite Life, Ben Goossen has argued, persuasively, that Anabaptists should embrace a more polyvalent origin story that spans from apostolic times to the present and includes the global church. Like monuments, other kinds of commemoration can tend to reify established narratives rather than providing context or provoking dialogue.

I have learned in the last couple months that monuments can spark debate, but sometimes only after years of organized opposition. Historians are in a position to contextualize the origins of these obelisks and busts, to tell the stories of how and why they came to be there. I think, however, that some monuments are effective because they invite questions and emotions as well as marking an event or movement. Let’s have more questions, more reflection, and fewer white men on horses.

  1. James Urry, “Memory: Monuments and the Markings of the Past,” Conrad Grebel Review 25, no. 1 (Winter 2007), https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/publications/conrad-grebel-review/issues/winter-2007/memory-monuments-and-marking-pasts#12 

Online Resources

Ben Goossen’s introduction to Anabaptist digital history in January got me wondering what other Anabaptist history resources were available online. I embarked upon a very unsystematic quest, crowdsourcing the question via Facebook and Google-searching such terms as “Mennonite Database.” I found more than I thought I would and I’m sure I found only a small portion. Many of the sites I found made reference to each other, but there were also closed loops that represented denominational communities. Interestingly, I also found Ben’s post reproduced on the Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta (http://mennonitehistory.org/) homepage, presumably because he’d made reference to a partner organization, Mennonite Archival Image Database (MAID), near the end of the post.

Consider what follows a brief annotated bibliography of the Anabaptist history online archive. I’ve included mostly resources that are available for free and marked the few paid services with an asterisk. Please use the comments section to add resources I’ve missed.

Primary Sources

Mennonite Genealogical Resources: A deceptively simple website, this contains links to a lot of interesting resources from lists of names and places of settlement to other databases. One word of caution: I followed a rabbit trail of links to the Mennonite Genealogy Data Index (http://mgdi.mennonitehistory.org/) which had a lot of dead links and at least one that seemed fishy and sent all kinds of dialog boxes flying at me. Digital history 101: Not all that is put on the internet stays on the internet.


The Mennonite DNA Project: While not really history per se; this resource attempts to use the widespread adoption of tools such as familytreedna.com and 23andme.com to put DNA to work in genealogical quests. While I’ve heard mixed reviews of these sorts of DNA, this could be interesting to some. I’ve included an asterisk because while Tim Janzen’s collection and analysis is free, neither of the DNA tests are.


GRANDMA’s Window: GRANDMA (which is a very convenient initialism) is a project of the California Mennonite Historical Society’s Genealogy Project Committee. It’s a database of Mennonite family lines that go back through Poland and Russia. It costs a little to access it via the web or CD-ROM so I can’t say I’ve tested this out.


Index of Saskatchewan Cemeteries – MHSS: The Mennonite Historical Society of Saskatchewan has links to a lot of other resources (GRANDMA, GAMEO, etc.) but I think the coolest thing I found was their Index of Saskatchewan Cemeteries, which is available online. I think its a good example of a set of data that is easily moved from print to digital.


The Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta has some neat stuff going on: links to censuses in Canada and Mexico, lists of “travesties” committed to Mennonites in Russia during WWI, and a forum for identification of images. Worth more exploration


Mennonite Archival Image Database (MAID) launched in 2015, is a collaboration of: the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies (Winnipeg); the Mennonite Archives of Ontario; the Mennonite Heritage Centre (Winnipeg); the D. F. Plett Historical Research Foundation; Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta; Mennonite Historical Society of British Columbia; Mennonite Historical Society of  Saskatchewan; and Mennonite Library & Archives at Fresno Pacific University (ML&A). It’s got some cool stuff  but it also watermarks everything, which for this copyleft guy is kind of a bummer. It does have Dublin Core export functionality, which is pretty cool.


Then there are the Mennonite Church USA Archives, whose Flickr page has “No known copyright restrictions,” which is very cool. I would have gone with a Creative Commons license, myself, but access is awesome. I’ll be pulling from this the next time I have to illustrate a blog post. Oh wait.

Cleo Mann counsels I-W man


Images like this one of Raymond Jackson, MBM-related Home Missions leader in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1979 are freely available at the MC USA Archives Flickr page.

German Mennonite Sources Database: Ben talked about this particular resource in more depth in his post but it’s pretty great if you need access to German Mennonite newspapers and books. I can’t read German but a lot of the frontispieces are pretty!


Mennonitische Geschichte und Ahnenforschung: A vast array of sources on Russian Mennonites, mostly in German. The collection includes maps, diaries, magazine and newspaper excerpts, and more.


Archive-it/Mennonite Church USA: This has already been featured on Anabaptist Historians but it’s always worth a mention. The MC USA Archives have been using the Internet Archive (archive.org) to archive Mennonite-affiliated blogs and web content. These various sites and publications, taken together, form a snapshot of mainstream Mennonites in the early 21st century.


Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary library has posted some of their holdings online. Issues of The Mennonite and The Gospel Herald from throughout the twentieth century and published minutes of the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities are highlights of this collection.


I should note that this is just one collection available on archive.org, there are also occasional gems that may be of use, such as the Holdeman Mennonite hymnal, copyright 1959, posted by churches or individuals. With the right search keywords, there may be more Anabaptist sources here than first meet the eye.

John Howard Yoder Digital Library: largely consisting of unpublished work. Additional supplemental reading necessary for those studying Yoder: http://mennoniteusa.org/menno-snapshots/john-howard-yoder-discernment-group-2/ and http://www.ourstoriesuntold.com/to-the-next-generation-of-pacifist-theologians/


Martyr’s Mirror images: Reference images (i.e. not print quality) of images from the Martyrs Mirror, courtesy of the Mennonite Library and Archive in Bethel, KS.


Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies: A ministry of the Canadian Conference of MB Churches, CMBS is “preserving and maintaining historical records of churches, schools, and people; assisting in research and writing on topics of historical and theological interest to MBs; and publishing books and the quarterly magazine, Mennonite Historian.” It’s digital collection includes institutional records, church publications, personal papers, genealogies, and more.


Secondary and Tertiary Sources

GAMEO is onto at least its second online iteration and still going strong. Based upon the print Mennonite Encyclopedia, it’s a great reference work for when someone refers to a Mennonite theologian whose name sounds really familiar but maybe it’s just because you have a cousin with that name. And now it’s built on a Wiki structure, which is cool. 


Global Anabaptist Wiki was in its infancy when I was at Goshen so it was a little bit on my radar but it seems to have mutated a bit in the time when I wasn’t paying attention (perhaps when it allied with GAMEO) but in really interesting ways, providing primary and secondary sources (in multiple languages!!) as well as encyclopedia entries (which I think have mostly been moved to GAMEO). For instance, there’s full-text versions of Anabaptist Confessions of Faith.


Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission also offers some online reading of published works on Mennonite Brethren history.


I have compiled this list to facilitate use of these resources but the many archives and libraries of the Anabaptist tradition remain the richest sources for historical study. As we make strides in diversifying The Archive, digital repositories present a valuable tool to quickly, efficiently, and cheaply, share sources around the world. However the internet is impermanent (and so it goes) and physical archives have greater longevity. New collections should not only be digitized and shared but added (in some form, whether physical or digital) to the institutions that still form the backbones of our amateur and scholarly historical endeavors.

And there are many such places. Here is a 2015 list of the Mennonite/Anabaptist archives and libraries in North America:  2015DirectoryofNorthAmericanMennoniteHistoricalAgencies

Joel Nofziger is currently on a team working to update this list worldwide, so if you know of any that aren’t on this list, share them in the comments!

Here are a (very) few links to finding aids for Anabaptist archives:

What do Public History’s methods have to offer Anabaptist History (and the Anabaptist Future)?

Mainstream (that is, acculturated) North American Anabaptist denominations have made efforts to reach outside of ethnic and geographical boundaries in many ways over the last century and a half. Beginning with the resettlement of Mennonite Refugees in the 1870s and continuing with mission and service efforts at home and abroad, these efforts have had varying amounts of success (however success is quantified). If this is a continuing social and evangelical goal for these denominations and the populations that compose them, the discipline of public history can provide strategies and techniques to achieve it.

Public history is a field that doesn’t like to be pinned down. Academic programs branding themselves as “Public History” sprang up in the 1970s in response to a shortage of jobs in academia, but the work the newly minted public historians did had a long history. Many of the products of the discipline—exhibits, archives, lectures, oral history, monuments and markers—were the only history products that existed prior to the nineteenth century and the Rankean professionalization of academic history. In the early twentieth century, public history had flourished in the form of the Works Progress Administration and the National Parks Service.

In the last half century, the field of public history has tried to define itself, often settling for the distinction that it is concerned with history outside of the academy. Yet at the same time public history has proliferated within the academy, with new public history programs emerging every year. Part of this explosion of interest is pragmatic: with fewer tenure-track jobs in the humanities available than the number of graduate students, departments must prepare their pupils for life outside of the academy. In part, however, public history is the logical extension of the social history movement of the 1960s. Public history often seeks to decentralize history through such tenets as shared authority. In the prologue to Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History, Denise Meringolo argues that public history is “practicing history not simply in public but rather for the public” (italics in original). By engaging in collaborative work with inter-disciplinary methods, Meringolo suggests, public historians who self-identify as such primarily see their work as public service.

So what would specifically Anabaptist public history look like? Or to put the emphasis differently, what would public Anabaptist history look like? Or what does it look like? Within the field of Anabaptist History, we already have many institutions that could be called public history: archives and libraries, local and regional historical societies, and interpretive exhibits in museum settings, to name a few. In several cases, multiple elements are present together, as in the Mennonite Heritage Center in Harleysville, PA, and Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, which combine exhibit space with library and archives. Efforts such as Lancaster Roots, a calendar of cultural events by the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society and 1719 Hans Herr House & Museum, take history out to churches and invite people in with specific programming on cultural crafts, as well as lectures.

However, these institutional settings tend to be intrinsically conservative in nature. Jarrett M. Drake has written about the oppressive experience of archives, which protect the resources within them through the tyranny of “silence, solitude, and surveillance.”1 Furthermore, archives often exclude people by virtue of their accessibility—located far from public transport or open for limited hours—or simply by the hoops would-be researchers must jump through—registration, fees for copying through convoluted mechanisms, etc.

On this blog in recent months we’ve seen calls to “deterritorialize” Anabaptist History from Felipe Hinojosa and Jason B. Kauffman. What could that look like?

The Lancaster Longhouse at the 1719 Has Herr House & Museum (created in collaboration with Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, the Circle Legacy Center, and local American Indian groups) is one example of public history in an Anabaptist context, though its creators may not have envisioned it as such. The digital archive of a (relatively) diverse Anabaptist web presence by Mennonite Church USA’s archive (begun under Colleen McFarland Rademaker’s tenure as archivist) is another way forward.


Lancaster Longhouse at the 1719 Hans Herr House & Museum

This is the work of history but it has bearing on the present and future reality. The Longhouse and the MC USA web archive are both attempts to share authority with communities that have been held at arm’s length, at the the periphery, by Anabaptist denominations and academia. If Anabaptist denominations want to move toward a more diverse population (racially and otherwise) within North America, the techniques of public history present one way toward reconciliation and engagement with populations that have been excluded, offended, or oppressed by the church and/or the academy. This could also be an opportunity to connect with Amish and Plain communities who have been left out of the academic history of the last fifty years other than as subjects of academic work (and the Lancaster Roots approach is especially suited for this outreach). At the root of all of those efforts must be a willingness to cede truth-telling power, truly collaborate, and have projects and the greater church move in directions that weren’t expected or hoped for.

More traditional public history institutions can make changes to deterritorialize their collections. Archivists can identify collections that have been overlooked—those that provide a window into the lives of the evangelized as well as the missionaries, the lives of women as well as men, and the lives of Anabaptists whose sexuality was not recognized as legitimate by their social and religious communities, among others—and invite scholars to tell the stories they contain. Traditional methods such as historic preservation can be used in areas outside of the traditional Anabaptist enclaves—some of the first 1-W or MVS units could make fascinating historic house museums. Some changes could be painful. The Heinrich (Henry) Voth collection in the MC USA archives could be repatriated to the Hopi Reservation, for instance, even though the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) doesn’t extend to photographic materials.

The work of public history is not apolitical. As an example of the aims and methods of public historians in this country, it is instructive to read the National Council on Public History’s editorial in the wake of the presidential election.2 The whole piece is worth a read, but here’s the crux of the argument: 

Promoting education and dialogue will likely not be enough to ensure that human rights are respected. Public history exhibits and projects provide people with tools to parse how fear and self-interest can be manipulated, but if we want to walk our talk, our institutions will need to continue to strengthen emerging practices of direct engagement and civic action that we see around the field.”

While standing up for immigrant, minority, and refugee rights fits comfortably within Biblical calls to action, historians working in MC USA-affiliated organizations may find that advocacy for other vulnerable groups, such as LGBTQ Americans (which is also within the scope of “the least of these”) puts them in political or ethical quandaries at work. Historians may find themselves, in the coming years, in the public arena against their will, as our own Tobin Miller Shearer did this week when he was listed by an alt-right group for “advanc[ing]leftist propaganda in the classroom.”

This work is not simple. As Philipp Gollner cautions,  it will be easy for white progressive voices to drown out others, even while seemingly asking for input.3 The Mennonite world that I grew up in was proud of its humility, multiculturalism (even while being predominately white), and progressivism. Yet that very progressive identity can shield against self-reflection. Humility, self-examination, and willingness to listen when others tell you that you are wrong are all necessary in this work.

More pragmatic concerns are where the financial and social capital would come from to develop more innovative public history programming. The Anabaptist historical institutions that exist have long histories, yet little surplus that they could gamble on an ephemeral program that may or may not have the desired effect. Our colleges face tough financial times, and the departures of Lancaster Conference and others from MC USA  have put fund-raising throughout the Mennonite non-profit world in jeopardy in ways that may have knock-on effects.

So what does public Anabaptist history look like in a North American context and what should or could it look like? Our institutions have been resourceful with the budgets they’ve been given, but also tended to take conservative forms. I want to see Anabaptist Historians (the folks who contribute to this blog as well as the broader field) try new ways of making history that get out of our fellowship halls and our college campuses and our archives and combine the concerns of our religious community—pacifism, social justice, and the Dominion of God—with the methods and verve of public history. As public history moves toward disruptive techniques that cede control and challenge traditional narratives, public Anabaptist historians should do the same. As the greater discipline hears a call to activism, public Anabaptist historians should embrace the same call, especially where it aligns with the ethics we espouse in our congregations and households. We should approach the challenges that come—including funding shortfalls and awkwardness—with humility as well as fervency.

  1. Jarret M. Drake, “Libraries and Archives: Towards Belonging and Believing,” On Archivy, October 22, 2016 https://medium.com/on-archivy/liberatory-archives-towards-belonging-and-believing-part-1-d26aaeb0edd1#.fb37008sb 
  2. National Council on Public History, “A Response to the Election,” History at Work, November 11, 2016 http://ncph.org/history-at-work/a-response-to-the-election/ 
  3. Phillip Gollner, “Who Calls Whom Racist, and What’s The Privilege With That?” Anabaptist Historians, November 4, 2016, https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2016/11/04/who-calls-whom-racist-and-whats-the-privilege-with-that/ 

‘Selling the Amish’: Amish Country as Consumerist Self-help or Retrograde Utopia?

I’ve just moved from Wisconsin back to Southeastern Pennsylvania, and one of the things I’d completely forgotten about was the use of a horse-and-buggy logo for regional shorthand. The silhouette, with or without a prominent wide-brimmed hat sticking out, seems like it’s everywhere. And just at the moment when I noticed it, Susan L. Trollinger’s Selling the Amish: The Tourism of Nostalgia was dropped into my hands.1

Trollinger opens with a short chapter for those readers unfamiliar with the religious and cultural history of the Amish, then moves on to frame her argument in Chapter 2. Drawing on precedents in cultural studies (such as Dean McCannell’s The Tourist) and those specifically about the phenomenon of Amish tourism (such as Thomas J. Meyers’ essay “Amish Tourism” in Mennonite Quarterly Review), Trollinger explains that places such as Shipshewana, Indiana and Intercourse, Pennsylvania become mediated spaces at which mainstream Americans (most of them middle-aged, middle-class, and white) can encounter the idea of the Amish.Selling the Amish

It is in three such liminal places in Ohio that Trollinger explores in her next three chapters. In each town, she identifies a few larger themes of Amish tourism in general to focus on.

In Walnut Creek, the majority of tourist buildings embrace a Victorian aesthetic outside and in. In Berlin, the architecture is split between the old(e) frontier and the 1950s. Sugarcreek, Ohio, is known for its Swiss Cheese and its annual Swiss Festival in addition to its proximity to a large Amish population. Each of these themes offer an intermediary setting, a stylistic mid-point between the tourists who come and the Amish they come to see. The technology in the tea room in Walnut Creek and for sale in Berlin is not that different from that which the Amish utilize. Mainstream America sees the Amish as trapped in time and it takes entering simulacra of past mainstream Americas for tourists to not be too discomfited by the life of the Amish.

The irony is that it is just that life that they are coming to see in many cases. Trollinger suggests that Middle Americans facing a “time famine” are entranced by the slower pace of agrarian Amish life and that the retrograde gender roles of the Amish are comforting in a time of gender revolution. Tourists who have just been given iPads by their children find comfort in seeing an old apple peeler like the one they used in their youth.

On the whole, Trollinger succeeds in raising interesting questions about the commodification of members of the Amish church by tourism entrepreneurs. For instance, she complicates the idea that this practice is necessarily exploitative. Trollinger cites Roy C. Buck’s argument that Amish-themed tourism insulates the Amish community from mainstream society by directing tourists to a commercialized version of Amish life rather than the homesteads, farms, and schools in which the Amish actually live.

Furthermore, Trollinger opens and closes the book with a conversation she had with several New Order Amish men in Holmes County, Ohio. The men suggested that they pitied the tourists who toured their community because of the awful rushed lives they led. The men relished the opportunity they had to perform a witness to the tourists, to show them that life need not be lived in a frenzy. Thus while the Amish lifestyle is turned into a marketable brand, it also preserves its practitioners’ everyday activities and provides a stage on which they can share their truth with the mainstream.

Yet I wonder how much witness the tourists receive. Retail is at the forefront of Walnut Creek and Berlin, and Trollinger suggests that a large part of the appeal of these places is that visitors can take tools (cookbooks, décor, hand-planers) back to their mainstream lives to capture a little of the slow and simple life and work toward “fixing” their modern problems.

While I find this argument persuasive, I wish that Trollinger had applied the same visual close-reading to some more Amish-adjacent tourist attractions (buggy rides, barn tours, etc.) that she does to the Thomas Kinkade portraits and American-flag bunting on sale next to “hand-dipped” candles and other kitsch. Perhaps in these more “authentic” experiences (even though they are simulacra) there is more opportunity for witness?

As Trollinger described the appeal of the Amish: the slower pace, clear-cut gender-roles, and simple technology, I found myself waiting for her to get to the darker side of such a time-traveling yen. When she talks about the 1950s as evoking an “innocent” time, I think Trollinger soft-pedals a bit. It seems to me that the appeal of the 1950s (and Victorian America, and Ethnic Swiss pride) for middle-aged, middle-class, and white tourists is not “innocence” but “purity.” As in racial purity. Trollinger doesn’t fail to cite statistics that only 3% of tourists to Shipshewana, Indiana are non-white, but I think she fails to acknowledge that the appeal of an agrarian, patriarchal, Luddite existence on the frontier is inextricably tied up with racial homogeneity and a winding back of the clock past the civil rights movements. In the face of changing demographics, racial anxiety is surely just as prevalent in the minds of Middle Americans as any of the other lizard-brain impulses that drive them to Amish country.

Selling the Amish is certainly a contribution to a growing field of semiotic analysis of how the Amish are portrayed. I am confident that this volume will join David Weaver-Zercher’s The Amish in the American Imagination, Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s The Thrill of the Chaste (still the best title ever), and The Amish & the Media (which Trollinger contributed to as Susan Biesecker) as a foundational text.

  1. Susan L. Trollinger, Selling the Amish: The Tourism of Nostalgia, Young Center Books in Anabaptist and Pietist Studies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).