Soviet Mennonites, the Holocaust & Nazism: Part 1

Almost a year ago, an article appeared in the Canadian Mennonite that caused a brief, yet significant controversy. Ben Goossen, a scholar of global history, wrote an article entitled, “Becoming Aryan,” in which he challenged Mennonite churches to acknowledge that Mennonites had benefitted from Nazi racial policies, which had also instigated and justified violence against the Jewish people. He chose the Soviet Mennonites as his case study to illustrate the sins of our Mennonite past, implying that not only had Soviet Mennonites profited from Nazism, but also that under German occupation Soviet Mennonites in Ukraine had “first learned to think of themselves as Aryan.”1

2004-0071

Adelsheim choir at the church in Nikolaifeld, Molochna, Russia, during German occupation, ca. 1941. (Mennonite Library and Archives, Photo Collection, 2004-0071)

Members of the Soviet Mennonite community in Leamington, Ontario, objected to this version of their story. In a short response, Johanna Dyck, on behalf of other Soviet Mennonites, challenged Goossen’s interpretation of their lived experience. As she wrote, “The choices we made in Ukraine were not motivated by Aryan, National Socialist or racist theories, but, rather, were based on the Stalinist extermination of Mennonites from 1937 to 1940. This oppression and persecution was not unlike that which our religious group faced in earlier historic times… Further, we confirm that we had not heard of Aryanism and other racial theories until well after the conclusion of the war.”2

The role of Soviet Mennonites in the Holocaust has recently received much attention. I feel compelled to unpack these two narratives of Soviet Mennonites as either complicit participants and perpetrators (inspired, in part, by their treatment under Communism) or as unimpeachable victims of the policies and actions of both Soviet and Nazi governments. Both these narratives distort the past and are unhelpful in forging a path towards atonement for Mennonite churches. It should be noted that the issue of atonement with regards to the Holocaust is not new within the Canadian Mennonite community. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Canadian government levelled accusations of Nazi collaboration against Jacob Luitjens, Mennonites debated issues of collaboration, accountability, forgiveness, and atonement in the pages of the Mennonite Reporter.3 One letter writer, Alfred Heinrichs, offered a path for Mennonites to show contrition: “First, we need to draft a statement that takes ownership of our involvement in the Jewish solution. Second, we need to stage a public meeting with the Jewish community as we seek forgiveness. Third, we need to find ways of doing service projects together with the Jewish community as it seeks to build a bond of fellowship.”4

Like Heinrichs and Goossen, I view this not as a hunt for the guilty, but rather an opportunity for Mennonites in Europe and the Americas to exercise a collective acknowledgment of our failings during this period. Notice that I say “our” failings. To engage in a conversation of atonement, it is important for those of us who were not placed in untenable positions, not forced to make compromised choices, to acknowledge that faced with same dilemmas we also might not have emerged morally unscathed. It is time to heed this call for collective responsibility.

While I appreciate that Goossen presented a simplified narrative in order to make a broader point, we need to be cautious in our use of the Soviet Mennonite story.5 Within the Canadian Mennonite community, the experience of the 1940s refugees has been marginalized and appropriated in service of the Russlaender (or the 1920s Mennonite immigrants) narrative of the horrors of Communism. I fear that now the Soviet Mennonite story is once again being co-opted, only this time into a narrative that has its foundations in the Mennonite experience within Germany. In reality, relatively little academic research has been conducted on the Soviet Mennonites.6 Before we can truly unpack this encounter between Soviet Mennonites and Nazism, we must develop a better understanding of what happened to Mennonites in Ukraine during the 1920s and 1930s. The suffering experienced by Soviet Mennonites under Communism did make them susceptible to Nazi ideology during the Second World War. But this narrative is too simplistic. It neglects the communal suffering experienced by Mennonites and their Ukrainian and Jewish neighbours as well as the role of ‘the terror’ in shaping relations within Mennonite communities.7 It also underestimates how Soviet nationality policy influenced the development of Mennonite identity. Over my next several posts, I would like to explore elements of Soviet Mennonite history before and during German occupation to add nuance to the positions that Goossen and Dyck expressed in the Canadian Mennonite.

For this discussion to proceed, one point needs to be made clear: some Soviet Mennonites participated directly in the Holocaust, which means they took part in ‘actions’ in which Jews were murdered (including men, women and children). In Ukraine, the Holocaust unfolded in a very public and brutal way, with the execution of Jews outside of towns and villages, often, though not exclusively, with help from the local police.8 Mennonites participated in these police forces in a variety of functions (as did other Soviet Germans and Ukrainians). Such a statement is still controversial for some Mennonites; this denial cannot continue. Direct Mennonite participation in the Holocaust is a fact. Even before Gerhard Rempel published an article attesting to this point in the Mennonite Quarterly Review, the first chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg, Harry Loewen, who also was a Soviet Mennonite, published the following: “Some [Soviet] Mennonite young men joined the German forces voluntarily and gladly, or at least did not resist induction…Some Mennonites even took part in “actions” against Jews…”9 Stories told informally among Mennonite refugees from the Soviet Union confirm this reality.10 Nonetheless, at this moment in time, we simply do not know the extent of the direct participation of Soviet Mennonites. This issue requires digging through memoirs, survivor accounts, German archives as well as those in the former Soviet Union to write micro histories of these “actions” and of the villages, towns and cities where Jews and Mennonites lived together in Ukraine.11 This is painstaking, but necessary work before we can assess whether these perpetrators were a few lost souls or a significant number of young Mennonite men.12

Goossen draws our attention beyond the issue of direct participation in atrocities into the realm of complicity. As a result of their elevated position within the Nazi racial hierarchy, we must question whether the designation of ‘bystander’ is entirely appropriate for Soviet Mennonites living under occupation in Ukraine. This is a difficult question. Mennonites benefitted from their Volksdeutsche status given to them by their Nazi “liberators”. Yet it is hard to read Susanna Toews’ account and view her as anything but a woman faithful to God, who survived, despite experiencing unimaginable hardships. In fact, the role of women in keeping the Mennonite faith alive in Ukraine and in defining what it meant to be ‘Mennonite’ has been overlooked within the recent academic literature.13 She presented a basic, but in many ways unflinching view of her life under German occupation and her participation in “The Great Trek” in 1943. Her account is straightforward and filtered through a distinctly Christian lens. She expressed her “disappointment” in the attitude of German soldiers towards the Christian faith. She interpreted the murder of Jews by German soldiers as an example of how “unbelief reign[ed] in Germany.”14 She judged people (including other Mennonites) by their kindness and compassion towards others. Anyone who helped her and her sister during the Great Trek, regardless of their ethnic background, was remembered with gratitude, including Russians, Poles, and Germans. She recalled her appreciation that the Polish people were “kind to us” despite having been “evicted from their homes” to make room for this caravan of Volksdeutsche.15

This eviction is just one example of how Toews benefitted from the Nazi racial policies; yet the question remains, how did this privilege influence her identity? At least some sources indicate that Mennonites felt uneasy and ashamed of their treatment by the German occupiers in comparison with that of their Jewish and Ukrainian neighbours. This shame, one might argue, stemmed from their shared suffering during collectivization, dekulakization, and the 1932-33 famine. We must remember that the Soviet Mennonites, more than previous generations, had the language skills necessary to communicate with their neighbours. (These language skills, of course, are one of the reasons that the German occupiers so eagerly integrated them into the administrative system). As John Sawtazky from Osterwick recalled,

“We soon heard that Jews were being killed. At first we didn’t believe it, but it wasn’t long before we learned it was true. Some of my best friends were Jews. We had worked side by side and shared the same hardships. Now we were different. They were targeted, and their lives were in jeopardy, all due to their nationality. I could not face the Jews anymore. I was ashamed.”16

Interactions with the realities of the Holocaust formed deep impressions in the memories of Soviet Mennonites. In her 1946 interview with David Boder, Anna Braun, a 40 year-old woman from Einlage, confirmed that Mennonites were strongly affected by what was happening to their Jewish neighbors. She claimed to have challenged German soldiers on this topic, telling them “…it is wrong the way you treat the Jews, murdering the Jews, who are the chosen people.”17 Another woman, Helen Rempel Wiens Franz, recalled the plight of one family in her village. A Russian woman, Vera, who was married to a Jewish man, was given the choice of living or dying with her husband and children: she chose to die. As Franz wrote, “I saw Vera walking across the yard with her baby in her arms. She had been given a chance to save herself, but her husband and his children would be shot. Knowing what happened to Vera made a deep impression on me to this very day. She had chosen to die with her family…”18 John Sawatzky confirmed this event in his memoirs, adding that Vera’s choice had “touched all people in [Osterwick].”19

While one can find examples of Soviet Mennonites who embraced Nazi ideology, we can also find those who disapproved of these ideas and the actions they justified. This story, however, is complex. In my next posts, I will attempt to unpack the meaning of “Mennonite” in Ukraine as well as address the more troubling aspects of Mennonite encounters with Nazism, including the issue of antisemitism and the persistence within the Mennonite community of the idea of Judeo-Communism as an explanation and justification for the fate of Jews in Ukraine.


  1. “Becoming Aryan,” accessed April 1, 2017, http://www.canadianmennonite.org/becoming-aryan
  2. “Readers Write: November 7, 2016 Issue,” accessed April 1, 2017, http://www.canadianmennonite.org/stories/readers-write-november-7-2016-issue
  3. For example, Gerlof Homan, “Luitjens should apologize and seek forgiveness” Mennonite Reporter (21 November 1988), 8; Edward Enns “Disappointment in coverage on Luitjens” Mennonite Reporter (26 September 1988), 7; John Miller “We must quit hatred of Nazis and repent of our wrong-doing” Mennonite Reporter (19 April 1993), 6; Ruth Heinrichs “Letters: Luitjens must face his day in court” Mennonite Reporter (26 September 1988), 6. Similar processes of uncovering and deporting those accused of Nazi collaboration also occurred in the United States. See Eric C. Steinhart, “The Chameleon of Trawniki: Jack Reimer, Soviet Volksdeutsche, and the Holocaust,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 23, no. 2 (October 1, 2009): 239–62. 
  4. Alfred Heinrichs, “Move from Damage Control to Cooperation” Mennonite Reporter (6 April 1992), 8. 
  5. In his broader work, Goossen has recognized that more research needs to be done on how Mennonites interpreted these categories. See Benjamin W. Goossen, “Measuring Mennonitism: Racial Categorization in Nazi Germany and Beyond,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 34 (January 2016): 240. 
  6. Two exceptions are Colin Neufeldt and Peter Letkemann. See, for example, Peter Letkemann, “The Fate of Mennonites in the Volga-Ural Region, 1929-1941,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 26 (January 2008): 181–200; Peter Letkemann, “Mennonite Victims of ‘The Great Terror,’ 1936-1938,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 16 (January 1998): 33–58; Colin P. Neufeldt, “Separating the Sheep from the Goats: The Role of Mennonites and Non-Mennonites in the Dekulakization of Khortitsa, Ukraine (1928-1930),” Mennonite Quarterly Review 83, no. 2 (April 2009): 221–91; Colin Peter Neufeldt, The Public and Private Lives of Mennonite Kolkhoz Chairmen in the Khortytsia and Molochansk German National Raĭony in Ukraine (1928-1934) (Pittsburgh: Center for Russian and East European Studies, University Center for International Studies, University of Pittsburgh, 2015). 
  7. Thanks to James Urry for bringing this point to my attention 
  8. For more about the role of the local police in the Holocaust in Ukraine and the participation of Soviet Germans in their ranks, see Martin Dean, “Soviet Ethnic Germans and the Holocaust in the Reich Holocaust in the Reich Commissariat Ukraine,” in The Shoah in Ukraine: History, Testimony, Memorialization, ed. Ray Brandon and Wendy Lower (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 248–71; Martin Dean, Collaboration in the Holocaust: Crimes of the Local Police in Belorussia and Ukraine, 1941-44 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003). 
  9. Harry Loewen, “A Mennonite-Christian View of Suffering: The Case of Russian Mennonites in the 1930s and 1940s,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 77, no. 1 (January 2003): 55. 
  10. See, for instance, Doris L. Bergen, “Protestant, Catholics, Mennonites and Jews: Identities and Institutions in Holocaust Studies,” in Holocaust Scholarship: Personal Trajectories and Professional Interpretations, ed. Christopher R. Browning et al. (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 149. 
  11. Omer Bartov draws our attention to the importance of understanding local dynamics, including the “cultures, languages, traditions and politics” of Jewish victims and of their neighbours. He also emphasizes that relatively little work has been done on the “triangular relationship between Jews, local gentiles, and the German perpetrators.” Omer Bartov, “Eastern Europe as the Site of Genocide,” The Journal of Modern History 80, no. 3 (2008): 561–62. 
  12. Harvey Dyck, for instance, writes that “a handful of youthful Mennonites in the Soviet Union undoubtedly participated in the persecution and murder of Jews during World War II.” See Jacob A Neufeld, Path of Thorns: Soviet Mennonite Life under Communist and Nazi Rule, ed. Harvey L. Dyck, trans. Sarah Dyck (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 48. 
  13. For more on this role of women, see Marlene Epp, Women Without Men: Mennonite Refugees of the Second World War (University of Toronto Press, 2000). 
  14. Susanna Toews, Trek to Freedom: The Escape of Two Sisters from South Russia during World War II (Winkler: Heritage Valley Publications, 1976), 19–20. 
  15. Ibid., 31. 
  16. John Sawatzky, “The Fate of a Jewish Friend,” in Road to Freedom: Mennonites Escape the Land of Suffering, ed. Harry Loewen (Kitchener: Pandora Press, 2000), 61. Helen Rempel Wiens Franz recalled that these Jewish families could all speak Low German. There are, of course, strong similarities between Yiddish and Low German. See Helen Rempel Wiens Franz, “My Memoirs,” Preservings, no. 23 (December 2003): 116. 
  17. Thanks to James Urry for providing me with this source. David Boder, “David P. Boder Interviews Anna Braun; September 20, 1946; München, Germany : Voices of the Holocaust Project,” accessed March 29, 2017, http://voices.iit.edu/interview?doc=braunA&display=braunA_en
  18. Franz, “My Memoirs,” 116. 
  19. Sawatzky, “The Fate of a Jewish Friend,” 61. 

Freedom Dreams: On the Legacy of the Minority Ministries Council

Felipe Hinojosa

I first met Neftali Torres in the early 2000s when he came to deliver a series of talks for churches on the South Texas/Northern Mexican border. He came to talk about Mennonites in Latin America. Neftali, born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City, was introduced to Anabaptist theology as a young man and shortly thereafter became a Mennonite pastor in Chicago together with his wife, Gracie. It’s a longer, and much more beautiful story, that unfortunately I don’t have enough space to tell here, though I tell it in Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture. Suffice to say that I was thoroughly impressed with Neftali the first time I met him. So you can imagine how excited I was after his morning talk that he pulled me aside to ask if there was a place to get something to drink. I said, “Sure, lots of spots around here.” “Great,” Neftali said, “it will give us a chance to talk, I have a story to share with you.”

I had no idea that the entire academic trajectory of my life would change during that conversation. Neftali went on to share with me the story of the Minority Ministries Council (MMC), a group of Black and Brown leaders that in the late 1960s and 1970s organized a multiethnic movement to challenge white supremacy in the Mennonite Church. I was hooked. A few years later, in a graduate course on comparative race and ethnicity at the University of Houston, I set out to write the history of the MMC, the politics of multiethnic spaces, and the limits and possibilities of Black/Brown coalition building. That first essay would later become my book, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2014.

Between 1968 and 1973, the MMC worked in African American and Latino Mennonite communities. They organized a K-12 educational program called “High Aim” that created a pathway for Black and Latino youth to attend Mennonite schools; they provided grants for community development in places like St. Louis and South Texas; and they organized a number of theological consultations and church leadership conferences that focused on race and culture in the church. The MMC did important work across multiple constituencies in Anabaptist/Mennonite churches and communities as they organized a social justice movement that was firmly rooted in the teachings of Jesus Christ. The work of the MMC was cutting edge, and in many ways ahead of the rest of the denomination during the civil rights era. For leaders of color, racism in America was a problem that plagued churches and a problem that touched every aspect of congregants’ lives.

Seferina.DeLeon and Gracie.Torres

Seferina DeLeon and Gracie Torres

As important as this group is to Mennonite and Civil Rights history, they were far from perfect. They were an exclusive group of Black and Brown men that prided themselves on being hyper-masculine, and by extension rarely saw a need to include women in their movement. There also existed deep tensions within the group across race/ethnicity as Latinos and African Americans sometimes struggled to understand how racism affected each group differently. When the group dissolved in 1973, it was at least in part due to the Council’s inability to reconcile some of the tensions that existed within the group.

But internal tensions were only a small part of the group’s demise. White Mennonite leaders developed and put in place the plans that would eventually dismantle the Minority Ministries Council as a way to move beyond conversations on race and to separate a group of Black and Brown men that some white Mennonite leaders felt had risen to prominence too quickly in the mostly white Mennonite church. The Minority Ministries Council posed a significant threat to the white Mennonite leadership—they were bold, smart, articulate theologians in their own right—and in the early 1970s, white Mennonites started to slowly chip away at the group’s increasing power. It worked, and by 1973 Latinos and African Americans went their separate ways.

Why don’t we hear more about this group? Why is their story, for the most part, not taught on Mennonite college campuses? And why does there remain a fixation on sixteenth century Anabaptist history at the expense of modern movements that have shaped the church in the last 150 years? To be fair, in recent years several books have reoriented our understanding of Mennonite and Anabaptist history: Perry Bush’s work, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (1998), Tobin Miller Shearer’s work, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (2010), my work Latino Mennonites (2014), and the newly published work by Janis Thiessen, Not Talking Union: An Oral History of North American Mennonites and Labour (2016). While not exclusively focused on the Minority Ministries Council, these works do push us to think more deliberately about Mennonites in the twentieth century navigated modernization, war, civil rights, and shifting notions of identity.

When I first started working on my book, most of the members of the Minority Ministries Council that I met were shocked that anyone would care about their movement more than forty years after the fact. For many of them, the church had treated them badly, ignored their concerns, and played them off as irresponsible radicals. Many left the Mennonite church in the years since 1973. Some returned, but many remain outside of the Mennonite church, frustrated by their experiences after they had given everything to the church they loved.

John.Powell-Lupe.DeLeon-Ted.Chapa

John Powell, Lupe DeLeon, and Ted Chapa

As I learned to know many of them over the years, the one thing that bothered me most was that the church—first the (Old) Mennonite Church and now Mennonite Church USA—had never honored this group. There had never been a ceremony where the church offered these elders their space in church history as a tribute to the work and sacrifice they gave to build and diversify the church. Knowing that the church leadership might never recognize this group in the right way, I started to talk with some folks about organizing a reunion of the Minority Ministries Council leaders. About a year ago Gilberto Perez and Chris Kennel (Goshen College), Marty Lehman (College Mennonite Church), John Powell (Goshen College Board Member), and I gathered to talk possibilities. It was a lot of work, but a year later, during the week of March 29 to April 1, 2017, we made it happen. Over twenty former members of the Minority Ministries Council and their spouses came together in Goshen, Indiana, to reminisce, tell their stories, and share some of their lessons learned from the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s.

This was a time of celebration, reunion (many had not seen each other since the 1970s), oral history, and most importantly, an opportunity for us to commemorate the work and sacrifices they made for the church. As a group we cried, we laughed, and we listened as Black, Brown, and White elders in the Mennonite Church shared their frustrations, the good times and the bad times, and their sadness over how their involvement in the church hurt their families. These were holy moments. I don’t have much more to say because I am still processing it all, but I will say that I was inspired by the freedom dreams that these elders shared with those of us lucky enough to be there. The only thing I can say is that these elders left us with a lasting legacy and a vision of the kind of freedom work we must engage. Were there lessons on the evils of white supremacy, institutional racism, and white power? Yes. All of that.

But even more important, the Minority Ministries Council passed along to us the dreams, the possibilities, the hopes, and the will to continue to fight for justice. They pass along to us the necessity of inter-ethnic anti-racism work, of coalition building across lines of race, gender, and sexuality, and of the need to believe that another church is possible. Coming together is not some false utopian vision. It is the revolutionary idea that we need each other. Don’t misunderstand this as naiveté or as coalition politics without struggle. On the contrary, just like the movement of the MMC—with all its contradictions and silences—today’s work of coalition building is necessary if we are to understand the ways power and oppression operate in the church and society. Doing this kind of political work never comes out of a false sense of history. Rather, it is in understanding our story– and in knowing that our history is not perfect and neither are our movements for justice–that we see the powerful legacy of the Minority Ministries Council.

Money, Sex, and Power: The Black Manifesto and the Minority Ministries Council

Tobin Miller Shearer

On May 4, 1969, James Forman, the former executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), walked down the center aisle of the Riverside Church in New York City to deliver the Black Manifesto, a document calling for white churches and synagogues to pay $500 million in reparations for their participation in slavery and the ongoing practice of racism, an amount Forman indicated was equal to about $15 per black person in the United States. Although as a fundraising tool the Manifesto missed its mark by several orders of magnitude, the document caused a firestorm of response from the white religious community. Given Forman’s threat that he or his lieutenants would disrupt church services in those communities where reparations payments were not made, denominations and congregations made plans for what they should do if Black Manifesto delegates showed up on their doorsteps.

MMC cross cultural cover

Brochure advertising a cross-cultural gathering sponsored by the Minority Ministries Council. “We They Coming Together: A Cross-Cultural Experience,” 1971: Eastern Mennonite Missions Record Room – 4th Cabinet of row on far left wall upon entering room, Second Drawer: Unmarked. Folder: MINORITY MINISTRY COUNCIL 1970-71

Some made arrangements to call the police and then did so upon the delegates’ arrival. Others made plans to simply vacate their sanctuaries if a Black Manifesto activist showed up. A few planned on entering into dialogue. Even fewer invited Black Manifesto emissaries to their congregations and offered them payment. Although disruption was the intent and purpose of Black Manifesto activists, they did not as a rule engage in any form of violence.

It is striking then, that only two months after the release of the Black Manifesto, Paul G. Landis and Noah G. Good–leaders at the time in the Lancaster Mennonite Conference–sent a letter to every pastor in their conference calling them to “repent individually and as congregations of any and all racial prejudice or class discrimination that may be present in our own hearts” after first cautioning them against calling the police or restraining “those who would enter our services or buildings” because “[t]his will only generate greater strife and be considered an act of fear.”1 If nothing else, these cautions come across as highly unusual among a religious group known for their commitment to nonviolence and nonresistance. Under what other circumstances would pastors need to be cautioned against engaging in violence or calling the police to intervene? Good and Landis seemed to have been very afraid that uncontrollable chaos might ensue among this particular group of white Mennonite quiet in the land.

On August 16, 1969, at the (Old) Mennonite Church General Assembly in Turner, Oregon, African-American Mennonite pastor John Powell called for a fund in the amount of $500,000 to be set up “for the purpose of developing and expanding ways of serving the urban poor and other minorities in new and meaningful ways.” He challenged the church to raise that same amount for each of the following five years (for a total of $3,000,000)–an amount indicated as $0.50/member/month. The fund, later deemed the Compassion Fund, was envisioned as a way to “open the door to a new world of freedom and brotherhood.” Powell also called for “racial sensitivity education in white congregations.”2

Like the Black Manifesto that prompted it, the resulting Compassion Fund would never meet its funding goals although it would also result in a firestorm of response, much of it negative, from white members of the Mennonite church. A 1971 report would note receipts of $100,000 in 1969, and $60,000 in 1970 – amounts far below the $500,000/year goal.

Much more could be said about how the Black Manifesto helped bolster the development of what would come to be called the Minority Ministries Council (MMC) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Instead, I will focus on the struggle that emerged over the MMC as its members fostered a multi-racial, multi-ethnic coalition intent upon supporting the black and brown freedom struggles within and without the (Old) Mennonite Church. I will also suggest what those observations might mean to the contemporary church.

Echoing the work of Richard Foster, I contend that the struggle over both the Black Manifesto and the Compassion Fund was about three things: money, sex, and power. Those three issues remain at the core of Mennonite Church USA’s current struggle to dismantle racism internal to its structure and corporate life.

Money. The MMC’s struggle to obtain funding from the Mennonite Church drove to the heart of the problem of racism at that time. Prior to the advent of the MMC, most of the church’s mission and service endeavors in communities of color – where, in fact, the majority of the work took place in both domestic and overseas settings – was typified by white mission workers leading efforts to serve communities of color or, in a few instances, partnering with communities of color. Very few of those efforts were led by people of color from within or without the Mennonite community, James and Rowena Lark being two of the most notable exceptions. MMC’s proposal to fund communities of color to lead their own work and minister in their own communities completely upset that paradigm. The list of funded projects makes the case. In 1970 alone, the MMC funded twelve different urban churches’ self-run summer programs, a new business and black farm cooperative start-up in Mississippi, a “radical black theological seminary in Philadelphia,” and a Mexican-American Advocacy group in South Bend, Indiana, among many other projects.3 The evidence makes clear that this shift to black and brown run programs–more than any other element of the MMC programming initiative–left white Mennonite constituents cold. Their dollars did not flow to support this kind of mission and service.

Sex. On March 23, 1971, the Gospel Herald, the news magazine of the Mennonite Church, ran a race relations survey carried out by MMC white anti-racism educator Lynford Hershey. Hershey had sent the survey out to 98 Mennonite churches, of which 58 responded. Of the many questions asked, one of the most striking made the statement: “There is nothing morally wrong with interracial marriage if both partners are Christian.” Of the 2694 responses to that question, 51% were uncertain or disagreed with the statement.4 Of course that also means that 49% agreed with the statement, but in 1971 it still spoke dramatically of a church community that found the issue of interracial sex to be troublesome at best, morally suspect at worse. Given that the Supreme Court had in 1967 already overruled anti-miscegenation laws in Loving vs. the State of Virginia, it remains all the more problematic that a majority of the Mennonite Church five years later continued to be afraid of the prospect of their white daughters marrying black men – which was almost without exception the gender configuration that sounded alarms. In correspondence with John Powell, former Goshen College President Ernest E. Miller accused Powell of having claimed that “unity and peace” would come through “having interracial sex relations,” a claim he objected to in light of a comment purportedly made by Martin Luther King, Jr. while at Goshen College, in which King apparently said – as he had asserted elsewhere in the sexist language of the day – that “we want to be your brothers in Christ, not your brothers in law.”5 As my research into the Fresh Air rural hosting program has made clear, white Mennonites continued to express grave concern that interracial contact would lead to interracial sex well into the 1970s and 1980s.

Power. On March 8, 1971, MMC founding member Hubert Schwartzentruber made a provocative proposal. He suggested that both the Home Missions and the Voluntary Service arms of the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities come under the authority of the MMC.6 He was in essence proposing a substantive shift of power, one that would have placed the heart and soul of the Mennonite mission enterprise under the control and leadership of people of color. Just as many Black Nationalist and La Raza groups were calling for a similar shift of authority and leadership over programs in their own communities, so too was this group calling for the right to lead mission and service efforts in their own communities. Although the proposal did not move forward, if action had been taken, the church’s mission efforts would have looked very different.

I contend that these three areas remain the principle issues in need of addressing today. Who holds the purse strings and gets to decide how money is distributed continues to stay largely in white hands. We have to find ways to talk about how money too often determines who is listened to, whose voice counts, who remains unheard.

Concerns about interracial sex – discomfort with it, talking around it – continues to be an issue. Two young men of color at Goshen College shared their experience with me of being either avoided or eroticized by white women, and on a related note, being asked to instruct white men on how to “act ghetto” – at term laden with all too much of its own psychosocial baggage.

Issues surrounding power continue to serve as an additional stumbling block to furthering the work of the church. We know from long experience that white norms and standards too often stand in the way of creating a new future. At the same time we see evidence of change in this realm as leaders like Iris Deleon Hartshorn, Glen Guyton, Stanley Green, Michelle Armster, Leslie Francisco, and many others demonstrate that the church does indeed thrive when people of color also lead.

My comments have focused on the legacy and present practice of racism. There is, of course, so much more that could be said in this arena. But, at the same time, I want to name and be clear that our analysis and discussion of this issue must be nested in and cognizant of the interlocking arenas of class, gender, physical ability, and sexual identity. In each of these areas the provisioning of power and privilege and the ongoing dynamics of oppression continue to be relevant and need to be explored as well.

Ella Baker, the most gifted and influential organizer of the modern civil rights movement, once said, “In order to see where we are going, we not only must remember where we have been, but we must understand where we have been.” My hope is that this brief foray into the history of the MMC and the Black Manifesto can be part of building that understanding.


  1. Noah G. Good and Paul G. Landis to Lancaster Conference Mennonite Pastors, July 1969, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, Box: Conference Statements. 
  2. John Powell, “Urban-Racial Concerns Statement,” (Turner, OR: Mennonite General Conference, 1969), Archives of the Mennonite Church, I-1-1, Mennonite General Conference, 1898-1971, 1969 Session materials, Folder 5/8. 
  3. John Powell, “Compassion Fund Report,” (Elkhart, IN: Minority Ministries Council, 1971), 12: Eastern Mennonite Missions Record Room – 4th Cabinet of row on far left wall upon entering room, Second Drawer: Unmarked, Folder: MINORITY MINISTRY COUNCIL 1970-7. 
  4. Lynford Hershey, “What Is the Mennonite Attitude on Race Relations.” Gospel Herald, March 23 1971, 262-264. 
  5. Ernest E. Miller to John Powell, December 3, 1969, Archives of the Mennonite Church, IV-21-4 Box 1, MBM, Minority Ministries Council, Data Files #1, A-K, Folder: General Correspondence, 1969-72. 
  6. John I. Smucker,”Minutes of Minority Ministries Council Executive Committee,” (Chicago, IL: Minority Ministries Council, 1971), 7: Eastern Mennonite Missions Record Room – 4th Cabinet of row on far left wall upon entering room, Second Drawer: Unmarked. Folder: MINORITY MINISTRY COUNCIL 1970-71. 

“They Hear and Believe [Her] As They Do God”: Barbara Rebstock and the Strasbourg Melchiorites

In April 1534, Strasbourg’s Wiedertaüferherren, a committee of magistrates charged with investigating the city’s Anabaptists, questioned and ultimately expelled the Flemish Anabaptist Franz von Hazebrouck. Von Hazebrouck revealed that, while in Strasbourg, he had stayed in the home of a pious woman; in fact, this woman had drawn him to the city in the first place. Rumours of her had reached von Hazebrouck’s home in the Low Countries. She was a prophetess and was even said to work miracles, and he travelled to Strasbourg to meet her for himself. The woman in question was Barbara Rebstock, the wife of the weaver Hans Rebstock and a prominent figure among the followers of Melchior Hoffman who lived in Strasbourg (on the Kalbsgasse, known today as Rue des Veaux). 1

Kalbsgasse

The street in Strasbourg where Barbara Rebstock once lived,  as seen today via Google Street View.

Unfortunately, we know far less about Barbara Rebstock’s life, ministry, and prophetic utterances than we might wish to. Unlike her counterpart Ursula Jost, another prominent Melchiorite prophetess (and, along with her husband Lienhard, the subject of my own doctoral dissertation), Rebstock did not leave behind a corpus of prophetic writings. The records that do survive, however, most of which are gathered in the four volume Alsace subseries of the Quellen zur Geschichte der Taüfer, suggest that Rebstock filled a highly influential leadership role among the Strasbourg Melchiorites. In 1533, when the disgraced Anabaptist Claus Frey left his wife and declared Elisabeth Pfersfelder to be his true spiritual spouse, Rebstock (along with Melchior Hoffman and Veltin Dufft, another Melchiorite leader) chastised him and condemned his infidelity and bigamy.2 In June 1533, while discussing possible sanctions against the recently imprisoned Hoffman and his followers, the Strasbourg city council noted that Rebstock led an Anabaptist meeting in the city, and, as Lois Barrett notes in her chapter on the Strasbourg prophetesses in Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers, Barbara was even called an “elder in Israel.”3

Perhaps the clearest evidence of Rebstock’s influence in Melchiorite circles come from the writings of the Dutch Anabaptist David Joris. After the fall of Münster, the Melchiorites were in disarray and, since Hoffman’s imprisonment prevented him from actively leading the far-flung Melchiorite groups, a series of men attempted to take on the mantle of leadership in his stead. Joris arrived in Strasbourg in 1538 and met with a group of local Melchiorites, including Barbara Rebstock, Lienhard Jost, Peter Tasch, and Johan Eisenburg, in an attempt to convince them to accept his leadership. Joris’ efforts were unsuccessful, in large part due to Rebstock’s intervention. For most of the debate, she seems to have merely listened to the men, but when she did speak the Strasbourg Melchiorites paid attention. In the middle of the debate, she asked for permission to speak, since she felt compelled by the Spirit to voice a word of caution; “some who are here desire to pluck the fruits of our tree before they are ripe,” she warned, “therefore the Lord warns us that no one speak further, for they will account for it.”4 Joris rebuked her and argued that she had not properly understood his message, and the Strasbourg Melchiorites immediately came to Rebstock’s defense, praising her piety and ability to hear from God.5 The conversation stalled, and ultimately Joris’ overtures toward the Strasbourg Melchiorites did not produce the result he desired. In the introduction to his account of the disputation, Joris noted, somewhat bitterly, that the Strasbourg Melchiorites listened to the words and prophecies of Barbara Rebstock “as they do God,” possibly an exaggeration but nevertheless a testament to her influence.6

Rebstock’s visions and prophecies must have been numerous, but very few of them have survived. When the Strasbourg city council questioned her in 1534, she mentioned recurring visions of cataclysmic weather involving large amounts of snow and rain.7 Indeed, cataclysm and impending judgment appear to have been prominent themes in her visions—a 1537 collection of several visions by Strasbourg Melchiorites included Rebstock’s prophecy that, if Strasbourg did not better itself, it would be reduced once again to a village.8 The fullest account of visions possibly by Rebstock occurs in Obbe Phillips’ Confession, an account of his experiences as an Anabaptist written shortly before 1560, after his recantation. Phillips’ account describes the rise of the prophetesses Ursula Jost and Barbara Rebstock in Strasbourg, who “dealt with many remarkable visions…and could predict what deception would arise.”9 He also described a few visions by one of the two prophetesses: a vision of a swan swimming in a river, which was interpreted to legitimize Melchior Hoffman’s identification with Elijah, one of the two witnesses of Revelation, and a vision of a youth serving a chalice to an assembly of Melchiorites, which was interpreted as evidence that Cornelis Poldermann was Enoch, the second witness of Revelation.10 However, there are inconsistencies in Phillips’ account that cast some doubt on this attribution. He also attributes another vision to the same prophetess, a vision of Melchior Hoffman’s severed head on the Strasbourg wall, when in fact this was one of Lienhard Jost’s visions from the 1532 Deventer edition of Lienhard and Ursula’s prophecies.11

Historians of early Anabaptism have repeatedly noted the expanded role of women in Melchiorite circumstances, which was in many ways a remarkable phenomenon. Hoffman enthusiastically defended the ability of women as well as men to hear from God, and pointed out that there was a long and storied history of biblical women filling prophetic roles.12 The surviving details of Rebstock’s life, while scant, point to the importance of her role. However, they also showcase its limitations. Whether the visions Obbe Phillips recounted were Barbara Rebstock’s or not, they illustrate one of the central functions of the Melchiorite prophets: legitimizing Hoffman’s own apostolic role (and, to some extent, that of his associate Poldermann). Ultimately, it was Hoffman and other male apostles who decided which prophets, male or female, had truly heard from God.

 

Footnotes:


  1. Manfred Krebs and Hans Georg Rott (eds), Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer. Vol. 8. Elsass II. Teil: Stadt Straßburg 1533-1535 (Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1960), 300. 
  2. Krebs and Rott, Elsass II, 13. 
  3. Krebs and Rott, Elsass II, 110; Lois Y. Barrett, “Ursula Jost and Barbara Rebstock of Strasbourg,” in Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers, edited by C. Arnold Snyder and Linda A. Huebert Hecht (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996), 282. 
  4. David Joris, “The Strasbourg Disputation, 1538” in The Anabaptist Writings of David Joris, translated and edited by Gary Waite (Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 1994), 198. 
  5. Joris, 198-199. 
  6. Joris, 185. 
  7. Krebs and Rott, Elsass II¸ 304. 
  8. Marc Lienhard, Stephen F. Nelson, and Hans Georg Rott (eds.), Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer. Vol. 15. Elsass III. Teil: Stadt Straßburg 1536-1542 (Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1986), 111. 
  9. Obbe Phillips, “A Confession” in Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, edited by George Huntston Williams and Angel M. Mergal (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1957), 211. 
  10. Phillips, 212. 
  11. Phillips, 212. 
  12. Melchior Hoffman, introduction to Ursula Jost, Eyn Wore Prophettin zu disser Letzsten Zeitt, edited by Melchior Hoffman (Deventer: Albert Paffraet, 1532), fols. F 4 r-v. 

“Hey Smucker”: Protest, Neutrality, and My Cousin Lloyd

Janneken Smucker

A sign at a recent rally against the Trump administration’s proposed immigration policies— including the revised Executive Order known as the “Muslim Ban”—read “Hey Smucker, 200 years ago our Mennonite family took sanctuary in PA, just like yours did.” While I’m all in favor of protest signs calling me out personally, this message was targeted at Lancaster County, Pennsylvania’s newly elected Republican congressman, Lloyd Smucker. I heard about these protesting Mennonites first in a Tweet sharing a post on Esquire magazine’s website, titled “It Takes Something Seismic to Get this Group Protesting: The Mennonites are out in the Street” and in a McClatchy article covering Mennonite responses to current politics, titled “Trump turns apolitical Mennonites into protestors.”

Representative Smucker has publicly stated his support of the administration’s ban on refugees and on immigrants from 6 predominantly Muslim countries, earning the ire of many Mennonites in Lancaster County, who have long welcomed immigrants and refugees into their communities and churches, often sponsoring these newcomers through the Mennonite Central Committee and Church World Service. These protesters knew their local history, and identified that Smucker’s ancestors were indeed part of the wave of German-speaking Anabaptists who flocked to colonial Pennsylvania in the face of religious persecution in Europe.

Trachselwald_chains

The chains where prisoners at Schloss Trachselwald were locked up. Photo by George Smucker, Smucker Heritage Tour, 1988.

A few clicks on the Swiss Anabaptist Genealogical Association’s online database confirmed that Lloyd Smucker and I share an immigration story. We are fifth cousins once removed, each descendants of Christian Schmucker—“The Immigrant,” as the Amish man is known by the Schmucker, Smucker, Smoker Family Association. Schmucker arrived in Philadelphia in 1752 on the St. Andrew, which departed from Rotterdam. My family’s account holds that Christian was deported from Switzerland circa 1745 after serving jail time at Schloss Trachselwald because he was a “Pietist teacher.” Like many Amish emigrating in the mid-eighteenth century, he and his wife Catherine Hesster and their four children arrived in Pennsylvania as religious refugees. In the new world, living in Berks County, Christian and his adult male sons repeatedly were fined for not reporting to militias to fight in the American Revolution or hire mercenaries in their stead.1 This form of resistance (or is it nonresistance?) was common among Mennonites and Amish during the Revolutionary era.2

silas_trachselwald

Silas J. Smucker, my grandfather and amateur historian, at Schloss Trachselwald where “The Immigrant” Christian Schmucker was jailed in the 1740s. Yes, that’s a Smucker’s Jam hat. Photo by George Smucker, Smucker Heritage Tour, 1988.

I read about the contemporary protesting Mennonites a day after I (and fellow Anabaptist Historian blogger Ted Maust – catch his recap here) attended Pub Comm, the Philadelphia area’s annual Public History Community Forum. The theme of this year’s one day event was “‘This is Why We Fight’: Public History for the Public Good,” and featured panels, workshops, and discussions focused on how public historians can harness “public history principles and programming to address issues of social justice and advocacy within their community and beyond.” A presentation from Eastern State Penitentiary’s Sean Kelley focused on how this Philadelphia institution—notorious for imprisoning Al Capone and for its creepy Halloween tour—has rewritten its mission statement in order to examine contemporary mass incarceration, as well as the prison’s historical context. Margery Sly, an archivist from Temple University Library’s Special Collections Research Center, talked about the need to archive contemporary protest movements as they are happening. Annie Polland from the Tenement Museum shared how its public programming makes space to address issues of contemporary immigration experiences, just as it interprets the lives of early twentieth-century immigrant families who lived at 97 Orchard Street in New York’s Lower East Side. I came away from the day feeling more empowered as a historian, reevaluating my own personal mission as I interact with students and pursue my scholarly agenda.

Some historians, like Mennonites, have often tended toward a neutral outside observer status, often preferring to appear apolitical rather than confrontational. These historians have strived for objectivity, despite the subjective perspectives historians bring to our interpretation of the past. Howard Zinn famously observed, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train,” calling on historians to wear their subjectivities on their sleeves while identifying neutrality as collaboration with the status quo and existing power structures.3 Public historians have a particular utility—and by extension, power—in exerting non-neutrality since our audiences are not fellow historians in the academy, but members of the public.

Schmocken

Janneken Smucker, age 12, at the crossroads near Schmocken, the town that perhaps the Schmuckers originally came from. Photo by George Smucker, Smucker Heritage Tour, 1988.

In some ways, historians’ traditionally preferred neutral stance is similar to the Old Mennonite (MC) doctrine of “nonresistance,” a form of pacifism espoused by mid-twentieth century Old Mennonite leaders. Nonresistance emphasized non-political disengagement with the “world” rather than an orientation toward pursuit of social justice.4  Mid-century MCs were not in fact neutral, just as historians cannot be. But both historians and Mennonites tried to be passive “witnesses” rather than active participants. The Mennonites rallying outside my cousin Lloyd Smucker’s office and the public historians gathered at Pub Comm demonstrate that neither group is willing to be neutral any longer. Too much is at stake.


  1. Silas Smucker, Christian Schmucker: Stalwart Pioneer (Goshen, Ind.: Silas J. Smucker, 1986). 
  2. Richard K MacMaster, Land, Piety, Peoplehood: The Establishment of Mennonite Communities in America, 1683-1790, vol. 1, Mennonite Experience in America (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1985), 249-260. 
  3. Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, First Printing edition (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002). 
  4. Paul Toews, Mennonites in American Society, 1930-1970: Modernity and the Persistence of Religious Community (Scottdale, Pa: Herald Press, 1996), 124-27, 262-66. 

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

library-power

Simone D. Horst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Mennonite Weddings at Home and Church

Anna Showalter

When people find out that I am planning my wedding for this summer they often ask, “What are Mennonite weddings like?” Sometimes I respond saying, “no dancing, no alcohol,” and enjoy watching the disbelief on my non-Mennonite friends’ faces. In reality, however, there are as many ways to have a Mennonite wedding as there are Mennonites. Despite the inevitable diversity of practice across North American Mennonites, my study of Gospel Herald essays and marriage announcements between 1908-1960 made it clear that Mennonite Church leaders felt strongly that important matters of doctrine and practice were at stake in how church members conducted their marriage ceremonies. Beyond the problem of dress, music and the wedding ring was the question of home wedding versus church wedding. The primary concern was that weddings, whether at home or church, be consistent with Mennonite commitment to simplicity and non-conformity to the world. The shift from home weddings to church weddings meant that weddings were no longer semi-private events but full congregational occasions. Though there is little discussion of what is at stake with this shift in the Gospel Herald it strikes me as a question to pursue. How does the inclusion of marriage vows in congregational worship reflect Mennonite beliefs about marriage in relation to our beliefs about the church as the family of God?

At the turn of the twentieth century, (Old) Mennonites had a firmly established practice of holding wedding ceremonies in the home of either the bride or the officiating bishop. The services were small, involving a handful of close friends and family, often on a Tuesday or Thursday. Gospel Herald marriage announcements usually described these events as a “quiet wedding.” In the late 1920s, however, an occasional “church wedding” appeared in the listing of recent marriages. The trend continued to build slowly so that by 1957 the majority of weddings were held in churches rather than homes.1

Though less is known about Mennonite weddings prior to the twentieth century, we do know that the shift to church weddings did not come without a precedent. The 1890 Minister’s Manual instructs officiants that “The marriage ceremony, according to our present usage, generally takes place at the home of the bride. There is apparently no reason, however, why it should not be performed in the meetinghouse at the time of public services, according to the custom of our brethren in former times, and as is still the custom with some Mennonite churches.”2 An eyewitness account of a nineteenth century Reformed Mennonite wedding describes such a wedding. The couple stood up during Sunday morning worship after a sermon on marriage and divorce, said their marriage vows and then took their (segregated) seats in the congregation.3

Historical precedent or not, the shift back to church weddings in the 1930s and 40s in Mennonite Church communities raised questions and concerns for some. Virginia Conference, for instance, ruled against church weddings entirely in 1900 but modified the prohibition in 1914 to permit weddings to take place at church during regular services.4 The question was still debated in 1944, and Ruben Brubaker wrote to the Gospel Herald to express his concern. “[I] would not encourage the practice of church weddings for [I] feel they will cause drift into worldly practices.”5 A church wedding opened the door for a larger congregation, and increased the visibility of the couple as they made their vows. Even if the wedding was conducted without the pomp and circumstance of attendants, processional, special clothing and flowers, a church wedding would still be a larger, public event in contrast to the “quiet wedding” of previous years.

16443775_10155768055812166_233282845_o

John and Doris Sollenberger married December 9, 1951 during Sunday morning worship at the Rowe Mennonite Church. The bride wore blue.

My own grandparents exchanged their marriage vows during Sunday morning worship at the Rowe Mennonite Church near Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, in 1951. They wore their Sunday best and stood up during church at the appointed time to say their vows. My grandma remembers her mother-in-law cautioning her against this plan in favor of a low-profile home wedding that would not draw unnecessary attention to the couple. My grandparents, however, felt that since Grandpa had recently been ordained as a minister, it was fitting for them to take their marriage vows in the midst of their church community.

Despite a cautious attitude toward church weddings in general, several essays in the Gospel Herald show that my grandparents were not alone in believing that the church body gathered at the meetinghouse was potentially an ideal context to make marriage vows. One voice representative of this view was Amos Weaver of Ronks, Pennsylvania. In 1956, he noted the shift to church weddings as a positive change:

Until about 10 years ago Mennonite church weddings were practically unknown in many communities. Today, any other type of wedding is a rare thing. To have this very important God-given ordinance of holy matrimony solemnized publicly in the church of Christ certainly seems right and proper for a Christian. Many of us will say it is a change for the better.

Amos Weaver went on to clarify that this change could only be positive if done with the utmost simplicity within the context of regular church worship. Any added frills would obscure the advantage of explicitly placing marriage vows in the midst of corporate worship. Weaver described the church wedding he would advocate:

We could have a church wedding with all of the advantages of the church’s sanction and blessing by including it in a regular church service without all the fanfare we now have. I believe all the truly spiritual values to be had in a church wedding for the bridal couple and for the brotherhood would be retained and enhanced by a simple marriage ceremony in connection with a regular Sunday morning or Sunday evening service. No dramatic arrangements staged for the bridal party to enter at timed intervals, and no tableau of specially gowned attendants would be necessary.6

It appears that for Weaver and his like-minded contemporaries, the primary issue at stake was simplicity, economy and non-conformity to worldly wedding practices. I wonder, however, if in addition to the exhortation to simplicity, a subtext running underneath conversations about changing wedding practices is the question of how marriage vows belong in the life and worship of the church. Perhaps unarticulated in the hesitation to shift weddings from semi-private events to full congregational occasions is concern about a fine line between elevating the romantic couple in the public eye and maintaining the simplicity of a community of Christian brothers and sisters.

My study of Mennonite home and church weddings leaves me with more questions than answers. For instance, is it possible to read the inclusion of marriage vows in congregational worship as potentially, very subtly, obscuring the Christian claim that it is our baptismal vows rather than our family ties that constitute our membership in the family of God? Alternatively, could such an inclusion be read as acknowledging the particularity of the marriage vow while placing it in the context of community instead of romanticizing the idea of an insular, self-containing couple? In a cultural moment in which marriage practices are changing, today Mennonites have the opportunity to again consider how to make marriage vows in a way that communications our convictions about human marriage and the family of God.


  1. Orville R. Stutzman, “Vital Statistics,” Gospel Herald 50 (Nov 12, 1957): 970. 
  2. Confession of Faith and Minister’s Manual (Elkhart In: Mennonite Publishing Company, 1890). 89. 
  3. Phebe Earle Gibbons, Pennsylvania Dutch and Other Essays (Philadelphia Pa: J.B. Lippincott & Co, 1872), 28-31. 
  4. Minutes of the Virginia Mennonite Conference (1835-1938), (Scottdale Pa: Virginia Mennonite Conference, 1939), 56, 109. 
  5. Ruben Brubaker, “Church Weddings,” Gospel Herald 37 (October 13, 1944): 557. 
  6. Amos W. Weaver, “Weddings,” Gospel Herald 49 (June 26, 1956): 622.