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. 

America’s Pastor and the “Quiet in the Land”: Billy Graham and North American Anabaptists, Part II

Author’s Note: Earlier this year, while reflecting on the death of Billy Graham, I promised a multi-part series examining the long history of North American Anabaptist engagement with American evangelicalism, and especially the towering figure of Graham himself. In my first post, I described the ways in which primarily white Anabaptists in Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches looked favorably upon Graham and his evangelistic empire. In this post, I explore some of the negative reactions to “America’s pastor.” In a final post, I plan to use these reflective comments about Graham’s influence as a jumping off point for thinking about one of my major areas of research interest: the relationship between Anabaptism and evangelical Protestantism in twentieth century America.  

In 1967, the National Association of Evangelicals celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. At a commemorative banquet at the Statler Hilton Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, the evangelist Billy Graham delivered a keynote sermon that featured all the trappings of a classical white evangelical remonstration. He warned against the liberty-imperiling advance of secularism and Communism; he described the urgent need for global revival; he prophesied the imminent return of Christ; and he proposed born-again religion as the solution for America’s moral crisis. The nearly 1,000 banquet attendees greeted Graham’s message with a standing ovation.1

Among those applauding Graham’s oration that night were C. N. Hostetter Jr., and Arthur Climenhaga, two leaders in the mid-century North American Brethren in Christ Church. Both expressed favorable reactions to Graham’s speech and to the anniversary celebration itself in the denominational press and in subsequent reflections.2 And indeed, as part of the celebration, both men posed for a snapshot with the famed evangelist.

Five white men pose for a photograph

In this 1967 photo, two Brethren in Christ leaders—C. N. Hostetter Jr. (second from left) and Arthur Climenhaga (fourth from left)—pose next to the evangelist Billy Graham (fifth from left) at the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of the National Association of Evangelicals. Also pictured are NAE officials Clyde Taylor (first from left) and Herbert Graffam (third from left). (Source: Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives, Messiah College, Mechanicsburg, Pa.)

Though smiling brightly alongside America’s pastor in this photo, neither Hostetter nor Climenhaga had always looked favorably upon Graham and his ministry—as we shall shortly see. Indeed, although many Brethren in Christ and their Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren contemporaries celebrated, emulated, and participated in Graham’s evangelistic empire, still others from these Anabaptist communities reacted negatively to Graham.

Anabaptist critiques of Billy Graham typically fell into one of two categories: ecclesial or theological. Ecclesial critiques tended to frame Graham’s ministry as too emotional, too greedy, or too popular—and therefore, and most importantly, a threat to Mennonite churchliness. In other words, these critics contended that the bright lights and big crowds associated with Graham might draw people and money away from Mennonite congregations.

Examples of this kind of critique abound. Writing in the Gospel Herald in 1953, and responding specifically to reports of revival campaigns carried out under the auspices of the Mennonite-related Christian Layman’s Evangelism Inc. but referring obliquely to Graham’s ministry, the editor Nelson Kauffman opined,

The large crowds of our time give us a false sense of values. The man who can fill a big auditorium is by no means always the man with the most important message. . . . Every big crowd is pervaded by a strong emotional factor.3

A similar report came from a Mennonite layman who attended one of Graham’s crusades in Virginia in the late 1950s. In an article in the Gospel Herald, Moses Slabaugh gave a generally ambivalent assessment of the Graham campaign. He appreciated that the “message was simple and Christ was lifted up as Savior of men,” although he objected to the choir and especially the coiffeur of its female members. (“Cut hair and jewelry were very much in evidence,” he observed.) In his conclusion, he pointed to his real concern about such mass meetings: that they sap human and financial resources away from the local congregation.

My concern is this: Are we equally as zealous at home as we were to go to Richmond? Could you spill a little enthusiasm for your home pastor and the evangelism of the lost as you did for Billy? Would you lose sleep and travel miles for the work of the kingdom at home?4

Slabaugh’s concern that Graham crusades might draw financial resources away from local congregations and into the evangelist’s coffers indicates a wariness among Mennonites about Graham’s personal finances—another sign of his “big-ness.” Such was the topic of the editor G. D. Huebert’s 1962 article in the Mennonite Brethren Herald. In the piece, Huebert assured readers that they should not worry about Graham for financial reasons. Charges that Graham was a “multi-millionaire,” Huebert contended, were false; the evangelist made a “regular salary” of $15,000. Moreover, Huebert guaranteed his readers that Graham’s organization, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, was incorporated as a non-profit and regularly audited. Though positive in its assessment of Graham, Huebert’s article nevertheless takes for granted that at least some of its Mennonite Brethren readers harbor concerns about Graham’s financial extravagance.

A magazine cover. It is an emerald green color and features the words "Mennonite Brethren Herald" in white at the top of the page. In the middle of the page is a white box with text, featuring an image of Billy Graham speaking to an audience while holding an open Bible.

The cover of the February 1962 issue of the Mennonite Brethren Herald. The cover story offered an “evaluation” of Graham, including his personal finances. (Source: Borrowing Bones blog)

Still other Anabaptists objected to Graham not on ecclesial grounds, but on theological ones. Reflecting the influence of Protestant fundamentalism, one Mennonite Brethren writer penned an article in the Mennonite Brethren Herald addressing the question, “Is Billy Graham liberal?” Starting in the late 1950s, fundamentalists had started asking such questions about the evangelist because of his decision to cooperate with mainline Protestants and Catholics in conducting his 1957 New York City crusade. The article’s author, former Mennonite Observer editor Leslie H. Stobbe, concluded in an unambiguous “no.” Far from compromising, Stobbe contended, Graham “was taking every opportunity to assail modernist and neo-orthodox theological weaknesses.” Indeed, according to Stobbe, counselor trainees coming from “non-fundamentalist” churches were being converted themselves during the crusades. And on the rare occasions that Graham appeared to used “neo-orthodox terminology” in his sermons, Stobbe claimed, he actually meant a term used by fundamentalists. For instance, Graham may have said “commitment” but he meant “to be saved.”

Again, Stobbe gave a positive assessment of Graham—but his decision to even address the question of Graham’s alleged liberalism suggests that at least some Mennonite Brethren harbored such critiques of the evangelist.

Certainly other Anabaptists were concerned about Graham’s potential liberalism. The Brethren in Christ missionary and bishop Arthur Climenhaga, for example, who posed smilingly alongside the evangelist in 1967 did not always possess such affinity for Graham. Climenhaga confessed in his memoirs that he initially opposed Graham for “mixing in a bit too much on certain wide theological levels.”5 This phrasing suggests a covert reference to Graham’s 1957 decision to cooperate with mainliners and Catholics. Climenhaga later changed his mind about Graham, particularly after working alongside the evangelist when he came to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in 1960. Climenhaga would later serve as executive director of the National Association of Evangelicals, in which role he worked closely and frequently with Graham.6

Other Mennonites and Brethren in Christ objected on more conventionally Anabaptist theological grounds. They looked askance at the evangelist’s embodiment of American nationalism and his implicit if not-always-explicit support for war and militarism. For instance, as a doctoral student living in Amsterdam in 1954, the future Eastern Mennonite College and University of Amsterdam professor Irvin B. Horst lobbed such a critique at the globe-trotting evangelist. Horst reported on Graham’s services in that city. While he praised Graham’s skills as an evangelist and concluded that evangelists “are direly needed in our sinful world,” Horst nevertheless had criticisms of Graham and his style:

He is certainly not an Amos or a Jeremiah and has very little perception of the social and economic implications of the Gospel. Unlike the early Christians and Anabaptists, [he sees] . . . no tension between his program and the powers of this world. . . . [W]ith the sensation that goes with evangelism we must not unthinkingly consider evangelism the sole work of the church or the note of repentance the complete message of the Gospel.”7

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In this photo from the Oct. 21, 1961 issue of the Evangelical Visitor, Billy Graham (third from left) meets with representatives of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches to discuss his views on war and peace

Horst’s critique of Graham on the basis of his conformity to “the world” parallels another Anabaptist critique of Graham: that he was too uncritical about war and military violence. Indeed, this view of Graham among some North American Anabaptists prompted several leaders within Mennonite Central Committee to invite Graham to a sit-down discussion about war, peace, and nonresistance. The discussion, held over breakfast in Philadelphia during Graham’s 1961 crusade in that city, including some of the luminaries of MCC at that time, including Mennonites John C. Wenger and Elmer Neufeld, and Brethren in Christ C. N. Hostetter Jr.

According to the scant records available about the gathering, MCC leaders apparently hoped to convince Graham of the gospel message of peace. In turn, Graham—then at the apex of his national popularity—would proclaim that message far beyond the bounds of American Anabaptism. Reports suggested that Graham politely listened to leaders’ presentations and then declared himself in agreement with “about 99%” of what they had said. He then “commented briefly on the problems involved in taking the nonresistant position, but noted the uncertainty and confusion among Christians regarding the proper attitude toward participation in war. He stated his personal openness and interested in meeting for more extended discussion on the doctrine of nonresistance.” (To learn more about this meeting, check out my previous post on the topic.)

A few observations about these critiques of Graham. First, they appear to cut across the various factions within mid-twentieth century white North American Anabaptism. Both “acculturated” and more conservative Anabaptists had difficulties with Graham’s message and style. More conservative Anabaptists tended to critique his “big-ness,” by which I mean his conformity to certain expectations of middle-class, white Protestant culture. More acculturated Mennonites and Brethren in Christ worried about the extent to which he had been infected by liberal theology and by his patriotic nationalism. Importantly, more acculturated Anabaptists also saw Graham as a potential ally; the MCC leaders who met with him in 1961 wanted to convert him to nonresistance and then use his platform to spread this theological message. (They also noted that they also sought from Graham “a word which might encourage and stimulate our churches to become more evangelistic.”)

Second, these criticisms tell us much about the ideological diversity of mid-century Anabaptists (especially white Anabaptists). Clearly some Mennonites and Brethren in Christ were moving in circles in which the specter of “liberal theology” still functioned as a cultural boogeyman. Others were engaged in transnational exchanges in which they worried about the importation of white, middle-class North American values into global marketplaces. Still others were institution builders who saw media coverage and Graham’s celebrity as something upon which they could capitalize as they advanced, say, the humanitarian work and the peace education programs of MCC.

Such diverse impulses should remind us that there was no singular “Mennonite” or “Anabaptist response” to Graham or to the post-World War II evangelical Protestantism that he represented—an observation that has not characterized much of the historiography on Anabaptist-evangelical relations since the 1970s. (I’ll say more about this historiography in my next post.) It should also remind us about who is missing from our portraits of Anabaptist encounters with Billy Graham—that is, it should call to mind the forms of Anabaptist diversity glossed over by the historians and archivists whose work has visibly and invisibly shaped our scholarship and public memory.

So, why does any of this analysis matter? Short of remembering Graham in the wake of his recent death, why should we care about Anabaptist responses to and encounters with the evangelist and his ministry? In the third post in this short series, I want to use these reflective comments about Graham’s influence as a jumping off point for thinking about one of my major areas of research interest: the relationship between Anabaptism and evangelical Protestantism in twentieth-century America. Stay tuned!

NOTES:


  1. On the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration and Graham’s speech, see “Certainty in a World of Change,” United Evangelical Action, May 1967, 11-14. 
  2. On Hostetter and Climenhaga’s reactions to Graham and the NAE celebration, see John N. Hostetter, “NAE Celebrates Twenty-Five Years,” Evangelical Visitor, April 24, 1967, 2, and Arthur Climenhaga, “Memoirs,” Book II, 370, Arthur M. Climenhaga Papers, Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives (Mechanicsburg, Pa.). 
  3. Nelson E. Kauffman, “Report of the First Annual Meeting of Christman Layman’s Evangelism, Inc.,” Gospel Herald, February 3, 1953, 102-103. 
  4. Moses Slabaugh, “We Went to Hear Billy Graham,” Gospel Herald, October 23, 1956, 1012. 
  5. Climenhaga, “Memoirs,” Book II, 262, Arthur M. Climenhaga Papers, Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives. 
  6. For more on Climenhaga, see Harvey R. Sider, Casting a Long Shadow: A Biography of Arthur Merlin Climenhaga (Grantham, Pa.: Brethren in Christ Historical Society, 2004). 
  7. Irvin B. Horst, “Graham and Boniface,” Gospel Herald, August 3, 1954, 729. 

The Language Nonproblem of the Old Orders

Mark L. Louden

Fifty years ago, on November 18–20, 1968, a symposium was hosted by the Department of Germanic Languages at the University of Texas at Austin on the topic of “The German Language in America.” As the oldest and most widespread German-American variety, Pennsylvania Dutch (Pennsylvania German) figured prominently in three of the five papers read at the symposium, as well as in a sixth paper on the language in Virginia and West Virginia that was added to a 1971 anthology based on the symposium.1

Although today nearly all active speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch are members of Amish and Old Order Mennonites communities, in the 1960s traditional Anabaptist sectarians were not yet on the radar of most students of Pennsylvania Dutch language and culture, including the participants at the Texas symposium. Rather it was the “church people” or “Fancy Dutch,” the descendants of mainly eighteenth-century Lutheran and German Reformed immigrants from southwestern Germany, Switzerland, and Alsace, who were regarded by scholars as the main standard bearers of a distinctive Pennsylvania Dutch folk culture. This made sense, since well into the twentieth century the church people greatly outnumbered their fellow Pennsylvania Dutch speakers who were Amish or Mennonite.

In one of the few references to Plain people at the symposium, one presenter, Heinz Kloss (1904–1987), a German linguist whose disturbing past during the Nazi era has been closely examined in recent years, shared the following thoughts about the possible utility of government-funded Foreign Language in the Elementary School (FLES) programs for German-American communities.2

In the last two decades over two hundred church schools have come into being among the Amish and Old Order Mennonites. Perhaps the FLES idea could be introduced into such denominational schools. The anemic, mutilated written German of the Amish, garbled and unintelligible as it sometimes is, could thereby be infused with new life so as to render it once again a vital, enduring component of their culture.3

Later in his paper, Kloss described Amish and also Hutterite children as “linguistically handicapped.”4

What was the basis for Kloss’s harsh assessment of the linguistic situation of the Old Orders? He was not referring directly to their Pennsylvania Dutch, but to the variety of standard German that has always occupied an important place in the sociolinguistic identity of not only Pennsylvania Dutch–speaking Amish and Mennonites, but Hutterites and Old Colony Mennonites as well. Maintenance of a vernacular German-based language—Pennsylvania Dutch (Deitsch), Hutterite German (Hutterisch), and Mennonite Low German (Plautdietsch)—in these groups goes hand-in-hand with the continued use of a form of what is known as High German in worship. Kloss compared the High German he encountered in sectarian communities in America with his native language and found it severely deficient for reasons I will discuss here.

A few words about High German are in order. High German takes its name from the dialects spoken in the central and southern regions of Central Europe (including alpine Switzerland) where the elevation is relatively high. Northern Germany is, by contrast, the home of Low German dialects, which are closely related to the Dutch spoken in the Netherlands and parts of Belgium and France.

Today’s High German, the standard variety used in education and media, traces its origins to written dialects from the central and southern German-speaking regions, especially the so-called chancery dialects used in sixteenth-century central-eastern Germany, where the modern states of Saxony and Thuringia are located. Martin Luther, who hailed from this area, is often mistakenly described as the father of modern German, the belief being that his translation of the Bible established the basis for today’s standard variety. Luther drew on the chancery dialects of his native region for his popular Bible translation, which certainly helped advance the spread of “High German” beyond Saxony and Thuringia into regions, particularly northern Germany, where the Reformation was most successful, but he did not actually create the High German standard language.

For the next nearly four hundred years, until the turn of the twentieth century, High German was used almost exclusively in writing and was subject to a high degree of regional variation. Even today, High German is not uniform, with differences in vocabulary, spelling, pronunciation, and even grammar found across the three major German-speaking countries, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. The situation is, of course, the same with the “World Englishes” spoken in places as far-flung as Delhi, New York, and New Delhi, India.

In the eighteenth century, when the earliest ancestors of today’s Old Orders left Europe for America, their sociolinguistic situation was typical: they spoke regional dialects and read and wrote a form of High German that was strongly influenced by their everyday speech. In America, Amish and Mennonites, along with their Lutheran and Reformed neighbors and members of other groups, developed a language, Pennsylvania Dutch, that resembled the dialects of the Palatinate region, from which most of the founder population had come. High German was the main language of literacy that was used in worship and taught in parochial schools. Historical documents suggest that at least as early as the nineteenth century, original “German” sermons were actually delivered in Pennsylvania Dutch, interspersed with quotations from Scripture in High German. The standard variety was essentially just read, recited, or sung; there is no evidence to suggest that Pennsylvania Dutch speakers could converse in High German, much as their distant cousins in back in Europe basically spoke only Palatine German and other dialects.

In the nineteenth century, especially after the founding of the German Empire in 1871, as German speakers became more mobile and came more frequently into contact with people who spoke what often were mutually unintelligible dialects, the need to establish norms for High German increased, affecting vocabulary, grammar, spelling, and eventually also pronunciation. The efforts to standardize High German accelerated in the first half of the twentieth century, when Heinz Kloss was born, and the use of a normative form of the language became an important marker of social status.

Not surprisingly, Pennsylvania Dutch–speaking Anabaptists were largely unaware of the changes affecting High German in Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their communication needs were well served by their knowledge of three languages, Pennsylvania Dutch for oral communication within their community, High German for use in worship and some writing, and English, which was vital for their economic survival but also became the dominant medium of active literacy, as it replaced German in schools. The Old Orders’ High German has to this day retained many of the characteristics of the variety their forebears brought with them from eighteenth-century Europe. Outsiders, including European Germans and German Americans, often held “Amish High German” in the same low regard as Heinz Kloss did. Such critical views had little effect on tradition-minded Anabaptists whose ancestors had experienced much worse from the “world” they had always wanted to keep at arm’s length.

There were others who found fault with Amish and Mennonites in America who “kept Dutch” and also High German, namely progressive Mennonites. One of the most prominent critics of his Old Order cousins was none other than Harold S. Bender (1897–1962). In the Mennonite Encyclopedia, of which he was a founding editor, Bender wrote an essay whose title, “Language Problem,”5 suggests its largely negative thesis.

Bender begins his essay by acknowledging that the maintenance of uniquely in-group languages served Anabaptists well historically as a useful expression of “nonconformity to the world.” “On the other hand,” Bender continues,

… the language breach has usually prevented a program of active evangelism and outreach, and has imposed a necessary system of private or parochial schools. As long as the breach with the surrounding culture and language was complete and continuous, problems of adjustment, either of the group with the outside world, or of individuals to individuals within the group, seldom arose. However, when the breach has been only partial, or when individuals or a subgroup within the larger group become wholly or partially assimilated to the “outside” language, serious problems of internal adjustment have arisen. At times this has been a problem of adjustment between the generations, so that youth has come into conflict with age, and usually large numbers of the youth have been lost to the group and its faith and way of life. At other times factionalism has arisen, resulting in serious schisms. Conservative groups attempting to hold the language line have died out because of failure to adjust to the new environment. Successful maintenance of small language enclaves detached from any larger language culture body has resulted in cultural and intellectual impoverishment, frequently with attendant religious losses. The battle to maintain the language has usually been fought with religious sanctions which have at times gone to the extreme of claims of higher spiritual values for the mother tongue as compared with the new tongue and of forfeiture of group principles and even faith in God in case of surrender of the language. Usually the transition from one language to another has required two or more generations of confusion and turmoil with considerable loss of membership en route, as well as the diversion of much energy from constructive work. The effect in literary production and consumption by the group is also usually very detrimental.

Bender’s critical views are understandable from his exceptional biography: he was a forward-looking Mennonite who pursued higher education in both the US and Germany, where he earned his Ph.D. at the University of Heidelberg. His wife, Elizabeth Horsch Bender (1895–1988), was the daughter of Mennonite immigrants from Germany and studied German in college and graduate school, going on to devote her professional life to work as a teacher of German and translator. While not exactly Germanophiles, the Benders clearly shared the prescriptive outlook of contemporary educated speakers of European German and viewed the sociolinguistic situation of their Old Order (and Old Colony) brethren as spiritually deleterious. Bender concludes his 1957 essay as follows:

The language problem has been further complicated for the Mennonites by the maintenance of dialects or sub-languages, e.g., the Plattdeutsch among the Russian Mennonite immigrants in North and South America and the Pennsylvania-Dutch among the Old Order Amish. In such groups where the dialect has displaced the High German, at least relatively, the people have lost almost all touch with the literary German language except Bible reading, and therefore have largely stopped reading serious literature of either religious or secular character, with resulting cultural and religious impoverishment.

Sometimes the theory of the cultural value of using two languages has been propounded to support retention of the “mother tongue.” Actually, it is probable that only highly intelligent persons who diligently pursue both languages on a literary level profit from this dualism. More common outcomes are the failure to master either language adequately, confusion of vocabulary and ideas, undesirable carryover of idioms from one language to the other (Germanisms in English and Anglicisms in German), and undesirable foreign accents which handicap individuals in their speaking and other expression as they move in public life.

The language problem has often become acute in the pulpit. Without diligent effort few preachers acquire the ability to preach well in a second language after middle age is reached, and they may be unwilling to pay the necessary price to do so. Consequently congregations have suffered in pulpit leadership because of preachers able to use only the older language. With the older generation of members unable or unwilling to accept a new language in the pulpit, they have denied their children and youth the privilege of religious teaching and worship in the new language, the only one which the latter fully comprehend.

Language problems are characteristic of all immigrant religious groups who find themselves in a new and strange language-culture situation. But these problems have been intensified among Mennonites by their distinctive emphasis upon nonconformity and nonresistance.

Time has proved Bender’s fears of spiritual impoverishment among tradition-minded Anabaptists largely unfounded. It is not correct to say that dialects like Pennsylvania Dutch “displaced” High German, since the latter language was always used mainly in the receptive (passive) domains of reading and writing. It is true that groups such as the Amish and Old Order Mennonites have indeed “lost almost all touch with the literary German language except Bible reading.” Yet Bender overlooks the fact that sectarians are actively literate in English, meaning that the charge that they “have largely stopped reading serious literature of either religious or secular character, with resulting cultural and religious impoverishment” is not supported.

Bender’s negative views on Old Order verbal behavior are reinforced by the notion that the mutual influence of languages on one another, a universal linguistic phenomenon, is a symptom (or cause) of cognitive dysfunction. He implicitly believes it is possible to be “doubly semilingual,” that is, having incomplete knowledge of two languages. Semilingualism occurs in only highly exceptional situations, such as among profoundly deaf people who are not exposed to a manual language (such as American Sign Language) in childhood. Traditional Anabaptist sectarians have never been doubly semilingual.

It is true that past generations of Pennsylvania Dutch speakers were often less proficient in English than their monolingual neighbors, and their knowledge of High German was always limited to certain specific domains of use, however their vernacular language is just as robust and grammatically complex a means of communication as any of the other roughly 7,000 languages spoken in the world today. Borrowing from one language into another (e.g., from English into Pennsylvania Dutch) does nothing other than enrich the receiving language’s expressive power. And in any case, the percentage of English-derived vocabulary in Pennsylvania Dutch is relatively modest, about 15%–20%. Compared to contemporary High German, whose lexicon contains between one-quarter and one-third “foreign” words (mainly from Latin, French, and Greek), and English, in which about 75% of its words have been borrowed from other languages, Pennsylvania Dutch is actually lexically “purer” than both the languages with which it is regularly negatively compared.

I’ll close with my favorite quote on Old Order language use, taken from the essay “What Is a Language?” by Amishman Benuel S. Blank (1933–2009).6

Knowing two languages is a privilege God has provided for us, and we can put them to good use. Although we have a knowledge of two languages, it would be wrong not to make an effort to express ourselves better in the English language. But it would be just as wrong to fail to keep and pass on the German to our children—that rich language our forebears left for us. It is a well-known fact that losing our mother tongue and drifting into the world usually go together.

Any time we speak English around the home when just family members are around, or while working or visiting with others who know Pennsylvania Dutch, we put in a vote to drop a rich heritage that will never be brought back if we lose it.

The value of that heritage is so great that we can’t afford to lose it.


  1. Glenn G. Gilbert (ed.), The German Language in America: A Symposium, University of Texas Press, 1971 
  2. See Christopher M. Hutton, Linguistics and the Third Reich: Mother-Tongue Fascism, Race and the Science of Language, Routledge, 1999, chapter 6, “‘A complicated young man with a complicated fate, in a complicated time’: Heinz Kloss and the ethnic missionaries of the Third Reich,” pp. 144–187; Cornelia Wilhelm, “Nazi Propaganda and the Uses of the Past: Heinz Kloss and the Making of German America,” Amerikastudien/American Studies, 2002, pp. 55–83. 
  3. Gilbert (1971, 123) 
  4. Gilbert (1971, 126) 
  5. Harold S. Bender, “Language problem,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, 1957, http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Language_problem&oldid=141204 
  6. Benuel S. Blank, “What Is a Language?”, Family Life, February 1986, pp. 12–16 

History as Relationship

“We need all the women’s stories we can get.”1 Sofia Samatar’s challenge in her plenary talk at the Crossing the Line conference echoes the words of Gerda Lerner, the American Jewish historian credited as the founder of women’s studies. In Lerner’s words, even though “women have been denied the power to define, to share in creating the mental constructs that explain and order the world, history shows that women have always, as have men, been agents and actors in history.”2 The challenge in doing women’s history is not just accessing the stories; it is also in navigating the relationship between historian and actor. I have found Palmer Parker’s concept of “knowing” to be helpful in thinking about my relationship with those I study: “Knowing of any sort is relational, animated by a desire to come into deeper community with what we know.”3

My interest in the history of Brethren in Christ women emerged as I was completing my undergraduate degree forty years ago. Although my historical journey would take me to a variety of avenues of exploration in church history, mostly Canadian, much of it exploring women’s actions and agency, Crossing the Line brought me back to my Brethren in Christ roots. The panel Devin Manzullo-Thomas organized gave me the opportunity to fulfill my youthful desire to come into deeper relationship with my ancestor Frances Davidson, whose diaries and unusual accomplishments for a nineteenth-century woman had long inspired me.

Over the years I have read and re-read Frances Davidson’s missionary travelogue, her journals, and Morris Sider’s biography.4 Crossing the Line opened the way for a deeper knowing, as I explored Frances’s longing for higher education, and the dramatic call that led her to leave college teaching for pioneer missionary work. Sitting with her early diaries deepened my knowing from the distant image of a brilliant, bold, courageous woman, to one who was passionately spiritual, with a deep mysticism that opened her heart to transformation; my relationship with my ancestor Frances Davidson grew as I pondered her journals where she expressed her experience of God’s call.5

I am grateful to her great-nephew Earl Brechbill for saving Frances’s journals penned in little brown notebooks from extinction by protective family members.6 I am grateful to Morris Sider for taking the risk of publishing them in Brethren in Christ History & Life. Knowledge about this woman had long validated my own deep desire to study. Crossing the Line provided an opportunity to go further into relationship, to follow my own inner push to write about her, something deeper than history.  Her story is part of my story.  We need women’s stories, but it can take years of gestation as we come into relationship with the past. “Why does a historian study the dead past?” Parker Palmer asks: “To reveal how much of it lives in us today.”7 The push to come into closer relationship with this aspect of my history after years of contemplation, feels like a personal gift from Crossing the Line.


  1. “In Search of Women’s History: Crossing Space, Crossing Communities, Crossing Time,” https://anabaptisthistorians.org/tag/crossing-the-line/page/1/ 
  2. Gerda Lerner, Why History Matters: Life and Thought (NY: Oxford University Press, 1997), 207. 
  3. Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 54. 
  4.  South and South Central Africa: A Record of Fifteen Years’ Missionary Labors among Primitive Peoples (Elgin, ILL: Brethren Publishing House, 1915); “The Journals of Frances Davidson,” Part 1: The Early Years (1861 – 1895), Brethren in Christ History and Life (August 1985): 103-23; Part II: The Call to Africa (1895-1898) Brethren in Christ History and Life (December 1985), 181-204; Part III: The First Years in Africa (1898-1904) Brethren in Christ History and Life (April 1986), 23-64; Part IV: The Founding and Early Years of Macha Mission (1904-1908) Brethren in Christ History and Life (August 1986), 125-49; Part V: The Later Years (1908-1931), Brethren in Christ History and Life (December 1986), 284-309; see also Hannah Frances Davidson Diaries Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives, Messiah College, Grantham, PA. http://messiaharchives.pastperfectonline.com/archive/D7FCD1A1-ABA4-4088-94C8-059638202176 ; E. Morris Sider, “Hannah Frances Davidson,” Nine Portraits: Brethren in Christ Biographical Sketches (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1978), 159-214. 
  5. “Conflict, Confession, and Conversion: H. Frances Davidson’s Call to Brethren in Christ Mission,” Brethren in Christ History & Life XL, no. 3 (December 2017), 335-52. 
  6. Interview with Earl and Ellen Brechbill by the author and Phyllis Marr Harrison, 18 July 2000, Mechanicsburg, PA. 
  7.  Courage to Teach, 54. 

Mennonite Heritage Sunday Then and Now

Jason B. Kauffman

This week the Mennonite Church USA Archives released a new collection of worship resources for Mennonite Heritage Sunday which falls this year on October 28. The resources were created by members of the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery coalition and were released on Monday, October 8, to coincide with Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the United States.

The idea of marking a Mennonite Heritage Sunday dates back to the 1970s when Leonard Gross was director of the (old) Mennonite Church Historical Committee. He successfully advocated for the importance of setting aside one Sunday each year to reflect upon our shared history as Mennonites. Mennonite Heritage Sunday has been on the official church calendar since 1980 and falls on the last Sunday of October each year. The date was initially chosen to coincide with Reformation Day, which the broader Protestant church celebrates on October 31 each year to remember the day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Church.

Original Five

The original six persons who met in Hesston, KS, in March 1987 to organize United Native Ministries. L-R Clara Major (Ojibway), Henry Smiley (Navajo), Cindy Bell (Choctaw), Ray Horst, Geraldine Isaac (Choctaw), and Larry Haskie (Navajo). (Photo courtesy MC USA Archives)

The Mennonite Church Historical Committee initiated Heritage Sunday to “remind us that our roots are in the very first church to emerge out of the Reformation.” The committee regarded Heritage Sunday as a day to “look to [our] Anabaptist heroes of faith,” to consider their stories of faithfulness, and to be “reminded of our own living faith.” 1 During the early years the historical committee produced a packet of worship materials with suggestions for congregations on how to prepare for Heritage Sunday, which included hymns, Biblical texts, suggested themes, and story illustrations. More recently, these resources have been posted online on the Mennonite Church USA website. Due to staff transition at the archives, MC USA has not developed worship resources for the broader church since 2014.

While many previous worship materials used the sixteenth century Anabaptist movement as a primary reference point and struck a more celebratory tone, in recent years those who developed the resources have begun to feature other, more recent parts of the Mennonite past. For example, the 2013 and 2014 worship materials focused on the contributions that women and youth have offered to the broader Mennonite Church, often in spite of resistance on the part of institutional leaders. They highlight the roles that conflict, change, and adaptation to change have played in our collective history as Mennonites.

This year’s worship resources take things one step further. They invite us to confess and lament the ways in which Mennonites in North America have benefited from the Doctrine of Discovery at the expense of indigenous people. While Mennonites did not directly seize land from indigenous people, they did gain access to land after their removal, thus benefiting at their expense. Mennonite-run boarding schools provided education for indigenous people but also contributed to culture loss and assimilation. While it is true that Mennonites of European descent did not directly seek to oppress indigenous people in North America, Mennonites as a group have historically enjoyed privileges (legal and otherwise) that indigenous people have not. The history of Mennonite relationships with indigenous people is complex and these worship resources invite Mennonite congregations to engage in meaningful reflection on what it means to confess and lament our role in this history.

Native Amer banner1

Poster created for a conference on the history of Mennonite/Native American relationships in Clinton, Oklahoma, March 30-April 2, 2006. (Photo courtesy MC USA Archives)

The historical relationship between Mennonites and indigenous people would also benefit from further research. I know of no baseline, comprehensive study that chronicles the history of Mennonite interactions (missionary and otherwise) with indigenous communities in North America.2 There have, however, been conferences related to this theme. For example, in 2006 there was a major conference in Clinton, Oklahoma, which gathered close to 300 people “to explore the legacy of Indian/Mennonite relationships since 1880.”3 Titled, “Cheyenne, Arapaho, Mennonite: Journey from Darlington,” the conference was sponsored by the Historical Committee of Mennonite Church USA and resulted in two special issues of Mennonite Life featuring essays from conference presenters.

Many of those who presented at the conference have continued to produce scholarship examining the relationship between Native Americans and Mennonites, including (but not limited to) Raylene Hinz-Penner, Kimberly D. Schmidt, and Marvin E. Kroeker. David Horst Lehman, a PhD student at the University of Illinois, is doing fascinating work on the agro-environmental dimensions of settler (including Mennonite) conflicts with Potawatomi communities in northern Indiana. A 2019 conference on “Mennonites and Anthropology” at the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg will offer another venue for scholars to present new work on the topic of Mennonite/indigenous relationships.

There is also new research waiting to be completed, drawing from untapped sources from the Mennonite Church USA Archives in Elkhart, the Mennonite Library and Archives at Bethel College, and likely other archives and libraries in the United States and Canada. John Thiesen, from the MLA, has started to provide digital access to many of these sources through a page on the Bethel College library website. The page includes hundreds of digitized documents from both personal manuscripts and organizational records – dating to the late nineteenth century – as well as a useful bibliography of published secondary sources on Native American/Mennonite relationships.

At the MC USA Archives the documentary record is much sparser, in part due to the more recent history of mission work with indigenous communities. Mennonite mission work with the Creek in Alabama began in 1951, work with the Navajo began in 1954, and work with Choctaw of central Mississippi began in 1958. Although there are few, if any, personal manuscript collections at the archives, the organizational records of Mennonite Board of Missions do contain correspondence and reports to document the broad contours of these histories. There are also several oral history interviews with indigenous Mennonite women in the Mennonite Women of Color Oral History collection. For more recent years, the archives houses the records of United Native Ministries, an old Mennonite organization created in the 1980s to provide social and spiritual support to Native American Mennonites.

Before arriving at the archives, I had little knowledge of the long history of Mennonite relationships with indigenous people in the United States and Canada. It is a complicated history and it looks much different to Mennonite eyes in 2018 than it likely did in 1918 or 1968. These stories, too, are part of our Anabaptist heritage, so I hope that Mennonite congregations will use the new resources during worship on October 28 (or sometime thereafter). For those of us with little prior knowledge about this history, understanding the Doctrine of Discovery and its impact on the indigenous people of North America is a good place to start. Hopefully the resources will serve as a starting point for further learning, storytelling, scholarship, and understanding.



  1. John E. Sharp, “Mennonite Heritage Sunday Rationale,” 16 February 2005. Mennonite Church Historical Committee (electronic records), I-3-3. Mennonite Church USA Archives. Elkhart, Indiana. 
  2. I’m thinking along the same line as early books by Le Roy Bechler, The Black Mennonite Church in North America, 1886-1986 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1986) and Rafael Falcón, translated by Ronald Collins, The Hispanic Mennonite Church in North America, 1932-1982 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1986). The Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online includes an article for “Indians, North America,” which provides basic information about the various indigenous peoples that Mennonites have interacted with over time. 
  3. “Editor’s Note,” Mennonite Life 61:2 (June 2006). 

Mennonites in Mexico

I am a scholar of Mexican literature and culture, which means that I grew up, academically, studying novels and short stories written in Spanish by people in Mexico. My early research was informed by my understanding of the Anabaptist tradition—it was about state oppression of marginalized people in Mexican history and literature, and how literature helps us imagine creating alternative forms of community. Ultimately, that research became a book, The National Body in Mexican Literature

I have always enjoyed studying Spanish and learning about Mexican history. The stories I read and analyzed were aesthetically and politically interesting. I also had some connections with Latin America. My mom was born in Paraguay, where her parents were working on behalf of the Mennonite Brethren Church, and my dad had many relatives throughout Latin America. These Low German-speaking Mennonites migrated to Mexico—and then to Belize, Bolivia, and other countries—from Canada. Some had spent decades in Latin America and migrated back to Ontario or Alberta. He also spent years working on people’s citizenship paperwork as part of his work with the Mennonite Central Committee. These Mennonite connections with Latin America did not have much to do with Spanish—even though there are many Mennonites in Latin America who speak Spanish and indigenous languages.

These areas of research combined in the book Liminal Sovereignty: Mennonites and Mormons in Mexican Culture. It compares Mennonites to Mormons, because Mennonites are also confused with Mormons in the media, archival documents, and popular culture. In Mexico, Mennonites are usually conflated with the most conservative Old Colony people who use horse and buggy as their form of transportation. (This is as accurate as saying most Mennonites in the US are Amish). Mennonites have been most famously portrayed on screen in Carlos Reygadas’ film Silent Light. They have also appeared on Mexican television, in Los héroes del norte. They appear in archival photographs and in documents that relate to land claims and resulting conflict.

One of the most compelling examples of Mennonite immigration to Mexico are the 4,000 registration cards in the Mexican archives. Between 1926 and 1951, all foreigners in Mexico were to register themselves with the federal government. These documents are unlike stories of church leaders, or generalized narratives of immigration, because they portray the lives of ordinary people, and allow us to imagine what their lives might have been like. The following is adapted from my research examining the registration cards used by Mexico during this period.

The requirement for registration came out of the Mexican government’s desire to solidify control over Mexican territory. It had only settled on a new constitution in 1917, and, through the influence of José Vasconcelos, and other thinkers, began propagating a doctrine of racial mixture or mestizaje. The immigrants would have to become part of this new vision of Mexico.

Migración Canadienses 2-49-1

Katharina Bueckert Epp’s Registration Card

Katharina Bueckert Epp’s card gives us remarkable insight into this woman’s life, and to what the Mexican government considered to be important. The card gives information about her physical appearance and her entry into Mexico. We see that she registered herself as a foreigner living in Mexico in 1933, and that she was thirty years old. She had been one of the early arrivals of Mennonites in Mexico, having crossed the border from the US in 1922. She was single and her occupation was her home, almost certainly her parental home; further, that her first language was German and that she spoke no other language. Her nationality was Canadian and her religion was Mennonite. She was said to live in Campo 5, which the Mennonites called Grünthal. This was in the Manitoba colony, near the city of Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua. The card, as we can see, also includes a photograph. In the photograph, her dress is dark and appears not to have a collar, which is in keeping with what was expected of Old Colony women. Her hair, with a parting in the middle, is combed back and tied in a bun. The way she has written her name, similar to the handwritten Gothic German script that she learned in her school, is not confident. Her facial expression suggests that she was uninterested in the then-lengthy photography process. We don’t know about her hopes or dreams or how she felt about Mexico. We do see that she was trying to present her life in accordance with the values of her church, and that the Mexican government was trying to find a way to include her in its society.

 

 

Fear and the Black Manifesto

I have been thinking a lot about fear as of late. Two events prompt me.

The first is the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the Black Manifesto. The second, a statement released in early September 2018 by a group of evangelicals entitled a “Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel.” The two documents—and the responses to them—suggest to me that white evangelicals, and the Mennonites sometimes counted among their number, have a legacy of fear to confront.

intelligencer-journal-1969-05-26.jpeg

*  *  *  *  *

The story of Mennonite engagement with the Black Manifesto is an unexpected one. It begins in New York City.

On May 4, 1969, former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee staffer James Forman took over the service at Riverside Church in Upper Manhattan. From the front of the sanctuary, he read the Black Manifesto, a document demanding $500 million in reparations for the church’s participation in slavery and ongoing racism. Forman’s act sent shock waves through the Christian community not so much due to the amount of the request but because it came with the threat of ecclesial takeovers. Newspaper reporters from across the country described his original intervention and the subsequent occupancies that followed. In Mennonite-intensive Lancaster County, the Intelligencer Journal ran more than twenty articles about the Black Manifesto in the space of just over two months.

Those articles told the story of Black Manifesto activists disrupting churches and religious organizations. In some cases, congregational leaders arranged for police to be present if disruptions took place.1 Riverside Church obtained a restraining order to keep Forman from hijacking their services a second time.2 In Philadelphia, police arrested a group of Black Manifesto activists who had occupied a Methodist congregation.3 On three separate occasions, Forman and his followers took over denominational headquarters in major cities.4 One group of activists threatened to spit into the communion cup during Catholic mass.5 Reporting on these events focused far more on the takeover actions than on the full list of demands included in the Manifesto.

As those reports continued to proliferate in the popular press, Mennonite church officials started to weigh in. Given that former Mennonite pastor and church agency worker Vincent Harding appeared on a roster of the Manifesto’s steering committee, church leaders paid close attention from the beginning. Two weeks after Forman’s appearance at Riverside, Mennonite Central Committee’s Peace Section executive secretary Walton Hackman sent a cover memo and copy of the Manifesto to every member of his executive committee and each department head in the entire organization informing them of Harding’s involvement.6 One week later, General Conference voluntary service workers in nine cities received a copy of the Manifesto.7 By June, an appeal to fund summer programming at urban Mennonite churches made a brief reference to the Manifesto in the pages of the General Conference magazine The Mennonite.8 That same month, Orlando Kaufman, the director of the southern voluntary service unit known as Camp Landon, floated the idea of an act of repentance on the part of white Christians but did not feel that most Mennonites would be ready for such a response.9

Never before had so many white Mennonites responded so quickly to a race-based challenge to the church. The passage of the 1954 Brown decision ending segregation in the U.S. had prompted a flurry of articles in the Mennonite press and precipitated the 1955 Mennonite Church statement, “The Way of Christian Love in Race Relations.” The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 had likewise resulted in a similar rush of public articles, but in neither of these cases was the subsequent response as sustained, vociferous, or widespread as the response to the Black Manifesto. Mennonites paid attention to the prospect of worship disruption.

Leaders of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference Peace Committee took the response one step further. After meeting on July 10, they decided to send a letter to every pastor in their conference—some three hundred ministers—instructing them what to do should a Black Manifesto emissary show up at the door of their meeting house. A copy of the Manifesto came with every letter. In their missive, the Peace Committee members expressed considerable sympathy for the Manifesto’s authors and acknowledged their own failings, noting, “we too have so often failed to care and be concerned about the needs of those who are suffering right in our own communities.”10 While stopping short of a direct call for financial reparations, the committee members did enjoin the pastors to “demonstrate Christian love and peace,” accept “Black people as equals,” make “financial resources available where it is needed, and “provide employment and housing opportunities.”11

The specific instructions, however, reveal the committee members’ underlying concern and, at root, a measure of fear. Enjoining the pastors to embody “the way of love” to any Black Manifesto emissary, the letter’s authors also instructed the ministers to allow for their services to be disrupted and to “listen to the reading of the Black Manifesto in a spirit of Christian love.”12 Such instructions appear consistent with the doctrine and expressed commitments of the Mennonite community at the time.

What follows next seems somewhat less consistent.

The third point of instruction states: We must avoid any defensive, unchristian spirit or actions such as attempting to restrain those who would enter our services or buildings or the calling of the police. This will only generate greater strife and be considered an act of fear.

I remember the first time that I read this statement. It struck me as significant. Paul Landis and Noah Good, both highly influential members of the Lancaster Conference community, imagined that at least some of the pacifist, quietist, separatist, ordained members of their flock would get physical with black visitors to their congregation. They were afraid that they might call the authorities.

Good and Landis clearly were far more concerned about their pastors acting in ways they deemed inappropriate than with what might happen to those African-American activists if things got violent or the police showed up. In 1969, the police already had a long record of responding with violence to members of the black community. The likelihood of violence increased dramatically in settings where white lives and propriety were somehow threatened or disrupted. Yet, that threat to black life was not the primary concern emphasized in the letter.

That Good and Landis would be concerned about conflict should come as no surprise. White people’s avoidance of conflict in general and racial strife in particular during the 1960s has been well established.13 What was true for the white populace as a whole was doubly true for white Mennonites.14

Yet the chance that a Black Manifesto emissary would show up at a Lancaster Conference church was extremely low. I have yet to find a reference to a rural or suburban congregation being taken over by Forman or one of his emissaries. Some may have occurred, but they certainly did not show up in reports from the era. Congregations in Ephrata, Elizabethtown, Millport, or Masonville simply were not on the radar for those focused on the payment of half-a-billion dollars in reparations.

So why send the letter at all?

Perhaps Good and Landis wanted to educate their pastors about an issue that they deemed important. They knew that their members would have no ready access to a copy of the Manifesto, and wanted them to be informed.

Perhaps the Conference leaders desired to forestall the kind of ruckus that had taken place when church leaders of other denominations had shut the door on Forman and his lieutenants. Things had gone awry elsewhere.15 It is reasonable that they would not want to display public conflict at a time when Conference leaders were considering joining the larger Mennonite church denomination.16

Or perhaps Good and Landis had every reason to fear a racist response. In an interview I conducted with him in 2005, Landis recalled his “concern that people were buying the right-wing reaction to black power” and his desire to foster “more of a Christian stand.”17 But overall, his memory of the events surrounding the Black Manifesto in Lancaster Conference was vague.

Memories can fail us.

Yet I am less interested in faulty recollections than I am in reactive fears.

Because those same kinds of fears are still with us.

In early September 2018, a group of evangelical pastors—all of them men—released a Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel. Others have analyzed the racism, sexism, and hetero-sexism amply evident in the declaration.18 My interest is in the fear that seems to be underlying the authors’ intent.

It looks a lot like the fear evident back in 1969.

The parallels between the two periods, nearly fifty years apart, are striking. In both 1969 and 2018, the African-American community and their allies have organized powerful challenges to white supremacy. As in 1969, much of that criticism has been directed at the church. Womanist and mujerista theologians, anti-racism educators—many of them faith-based, and a burgeoning group of historians, sociologists, and critical race theorists have challenged the patriarchy, sexism, and racism present within the Christian church in general and the evangelical community in particular.19

No wonder that a group dominated by white men released a statement essentially saying that they did not have to pay attention to, consider, evaluate, or reflect upon their receipt of white privilege, participation in male dominance, or class dynamics. Those supported by systems of oppression have consistently been the last ones to agree to discuss that reality and have offered the most strident objections to changing the status quo. Prominent evangelical pastor John MacArthur and the other original signatories have much to gain by deflecting discussion about the systems that serve them. They are in particular, as noted in multiple responses, deeply reluctant to talk about racism.20

Beneath that resistance is a deep fear of exposure.

I don’t know the men who wrote the 2018 social justice gospel statement. I haven’t interviewed the pastors who received the 1969 Black Manifesto letter. But I recognize the signs: defensiveness, anger, striking out, attempting to forestall any discussion that might lead to a loss of power, a loss of face. Later in 1969, Mennonite pastor John Powell challenged the church to establish a “compassion fund,” a sort of Mennonite version of the Black Manifesto to be funded by above-budget giving at the rate of six dollars per member. Although some funds did come in to support the Minority Ministries Council’s ministries in African-American and Latinx communities, they never received even half of their $500,000 goal. In their attempts to raise the Compassion Fund monies, Powell and his colleagues encountered similar defensiveness. Powell wrote that, among many statements he had heard, white Mennonites had responded, “The Mission Board is collecting money to give to the niggers.”21

In her masterful 2013 study of white southern evangelicals and the challenges they faced to integrate their congregations, Carolyn Renée Dupont discusses at length the fear of the unknown, interracial contact, and loss of control that she found in white congregations during the civil rights movement.22 Under the guise of theological fidelity, white segregationists rejected the presence of the black body in their worship space. Their fear was evident, palpable, concrete.

*  *  *  *  *

A white pastor recently told me that she recognizes her reticence to speak up regularly about racial issues because she is afraid. Members of her congregation had invited church leadership to release a statement publicly expressing their opposition to white supremacy in the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville in August 2017. Although they did organize a mid-week service of mourning and repentance, members of the church’s leadership team did not allow the statement to move forward because they were afraid that it would offend wealthy, white men in the congregation.

Although twelve months later the congregation had still not released a statement despite their location in a state with several active hate groups, she told me that she is trying to confront her fear. I respect her for it.

*  *  *  *  *

The history of Mennonites’ response to the Black Manifesto, this curious moment of warning pacifist pastors neither to pummel visitors to their congregation nor call the police to do it for them, as well as a statement issued to forestall discussion about racism and other forms of oppression, and privileging call for a similar sort of courage as that shown by the pastor who spoke to me, one that—at the very least—casts out fear. Or at least acknowledges how fear very often keeps us quiet at the very moment when we need to be speaking with our fullest voice.

 

 

 

Endnotes


  1. “Forman Lauds Pastor after Rights Sermon,” Intelligencer Journal, May 12, 1969. 
  2. “Forman Asks $200 Million from Catholics,” Intelligencer Journal, May 10, 1969. 
  3. “8 Clergymen Arrested for Occupying Church,” Intelligencer Journal, July 11, 1969. 
  4. “Offices of Church Occupied,” Intelligencer Journal, June 6, 1969. 
  5. “Protesters Arrested in Churches,” Intelligencer Journal, June 16, 1969. 
  6. Walton Hackman, “Manifesto to White Christian Churches and Jewish Synogogues [Sic],” (Akron, Pa.: Mennonite Central Committee, 1969). 
  7. Fred Unruh, May 26, 1969. 
  8. “Special Funds for Summer City Needs,” The Mennonite, June 10, 1969. 
  9. Orlo Kaufman, June 19, 1969. 
  10. Noah G. Good and Paul G. Landis, Letter, July 1969. 
  11. Ibid. 
  12. Ibid. 
  13. Beverly Daniel Tatum, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And Other Conversations About Race (New York: BasicBooks, 1997). 
  14. Tobin Miller Shearer, “White Mennonite Peacemakers: Oxymorons, Grace, and Nearly Thirty Years of Talking About Whiteness,” Global Mennonite Peacebuilding: Exploring Theology, Culture, and Practice, 35, no. 3 (2017). 
  15. “8 Clergymen Arrested for Occupying Church.” 
  16. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Lancaster_Mennonite_Conference 
  17.  Paul G. Landis, “Interview with Paul G. Landis,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Lancaster, Pa./Evanston, Ill.2005). 
  18. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2018/09/on-john-macarthurs-racist-statement-on-social-justice/ 
  19. See, for example, Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Traci C. West, Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter, 1st ed. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006); Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origin of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010); James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2011); Jennifer Harvey, Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, ed. Bruce Ellis Benson, Melinda Elizabeth Berry, and Peter Goodwin Heltzel (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2014); Felipe Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture, ed. Donald B. Kraybill, Young Center Books in Anabaptist and Pietistic Studies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014); Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). 
  20. See, for example: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/its-impossible-to-separate-social-justice-from-the-christian-gospel/2018/09/10/26764628-b528-11e8-94eb-3bd52dfe917b_story.html 
  21. John Powell, “The Compassion Fund Is,” Gospel Herald, March 24, 1970, 271. 
  22. Carolyn Renée Dupont, Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975 (New York: New York University Press, 2013).