There are a very small number of extant objects that have direct connections with the stories of early Anabaptist and Mennonite martyrs: the list of currently known items includes a part of a serviette owned by Thomas von Imbroich (1533-1558); a pear that Maeyken Boosers (d. 1564) gave to her relative (probably her son) Hans Booser in the time leading up to her execution; and a tongue screw, which was used on Hans Bret (d. 1577)1. The tongue screw is in private ownership, and the other two objects are a part of the collection of the Mennonite Church of Amsterdam (VDGA), on loan to the University of Amsterdam2. The Amsterdam Mennonite Church’s collection also includes the only extant handwritten letter by Menno Simons.3
The pear, cloth, and the tongue screw are historical items that occupy a middle ground between artifacts and memorial objects. These are not only of interest for scholarly research, but also items that have been considered to be of emotional or even devotional importance within the centuries-long Mennonite story.
I recently had the chance to see Maeyken Boosers’ pear in the Zaal Mennonitica (Mennonite Room) at the Special Collections library of the University of Amsterdam. Withered, shrunken, and extremely delicate, the 455 year old dried pear does not look much like a fruit any longer (figure 1). The story of Maeyken Boosers is well preserved in Dutch Mennonite circles and in the Mennonite martyrological literary tradition. Boosers was executed in Doornik (present day Tournai, Belgium) following imprisonment and torture. Notes to her family describe these trials, while demonstrating her dedication to her faith. Her story circulated as a song, “Die op den Heere betrouwen” (Those who trust in the Lord), which made its way into the late sixteenth-century Dutch Mennonite martyrology, Offer des Heeren4. Seventeenth-century martyrologies, including the Martyrs Mirror include several of her letters to her family.5 Maeyken passed along the pear to a member of her family during a visit to her in prison before her execution.6 Since then, the object has been protected and passed down over the centuries by her Dutch descendants.7 In the nineteenth century the pear found its way from the Booser family (sometimes written Boosers/de Booser) to the related Van Geuns family, after which time it entered into the Amsterdam Mennonite Church’s collection in the twentieth century.8
At present, the pear is stored in a simple oval box with a hand written label indicating the contents (figure 2). However, up until the nineteenth century, it appears that the pear was kept in a silver casing. According to Samuel Cramer, writing about the “Mennonite relics” at the turn of the twentieth century, several of the older members of the Van Geuns family still remembered the silver container.9
A handwritten note, which has long accompanied the pear, offers a short account about the origins of the pear. The message is signed, “Jan de Booser.” He is thought to be the grandson of Maeyken – the son of Hans Booser, who received the pear from Maeyken in prison. Jan de Booser, who lived in Grossenfehn in East-Friesland, died around 1630, meaning that the note likely dates to the late sixteenth- or early seventeenth century.10 The note states, “[t]his pear was given by Mayke Boosers to our dear father [beste vader] Hans de Booser in Doornik in the prison to be honoured as an eternal memorial” for Maeyken who was “sacrificed on September 10, 1564” (figure 3).11
The text is transcribed again in later penmanship beneath the early modern hand, followed by addition instructions to see the account in Thieleman Jansz. van Braght’s Martyrs Mirror, volume II, p. 302. This is likely an inscription added by a later member of the Booser or Van Geuns family. The more modern hand also adjusts the death date to September 18, which matches with the date given in the Mennonite martyrs books.12 This handwritten note was briefly lost in the nineteenth century. Cramer details the rediscovery and reacquisition of the letter by Dr. J.B. Van Geuns, a member of the family then in possession of the pear.13
The careful preservation of this pear, together with the fact that it used to be kept in a fine silver casing certainly lends itself to the characterisation of the object as a “relic” in some respects. Furthermore, the pear is referred to as a relic in the existing literature on this object; namely, the articles by Cramer and the Mennonite Encyclopedia entry on “Mennonite relics.”14 In other ways, the term is perhaps not appropriate, given the historical Mennonite perspectives on relic veneration, and given the history of the pear as an object. In broader Christian tradition, relics are objects or physical remains thought to be from early Christian apostles, saints, martyrs, and even Christ. Since the origin and spread of Anabaptist movements around Europe in the sixteenth century, Mennonites have eschewed the veneration relics along with the veneration of saints, images, and the Host. These theological decisions have shaped the appearance of Mennonite churches, as well as the form of Mennonite worship. While relics housed in fine reliquaries have a long history of attracting pilgrims and generating a tradition of miracle stories in the Catholic tradition, Mennonite churches have not systematically kept or searched for “relics,” and Mennonites have historically excluded important heritage objects – whether artifacts or memorial items – from within the church sanctuary. The pear is very explicitly an object intended as a memorial for Maeyken Boosers – this is stated in Jan de Booser’s note. However, the known history and provenance of the pear suggest that it was treasured for sentimental and devotional reasons within the family sphere. In keeping with long engrained Mennonite theological practice, it was not placed within a Mennonite worship space as an object to be venerated. Now, the pear is stored among rare books, letters, and prints, in a library. The aim in this post is not necessarily to arrive at a definitive conclusion about how we should relate to Maeyken’s pear and the other objects that belonged to Mennonite martyrs – as artifacts, memorial objects, or indeed as “relics.” However, it is always interesting to check in on the question of how we as Mennonites relate to material culture that pertains to our socio-religious history. As a memorial object in a library setting the pear certainly continues to garner some attention (and spark some scholarly library pilgrimages) from within the global Mennonite faith community and the networks of Mennonite history aficionados.
Ibid. The pear is being housed within the University of Amsterdam’s Special Collections, and the cloth of Thomas von Imbroich is likely also there. See H.W. Meihuizen, Catalogus: Historische tentoonstelling achste doopsgezinde wereldcongres, Amsterdam RAI (Amsterdam: 1967), p. 25, cat. no. 40. ↩
This is also on loan to the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. See I.B. Horst, “De strijd om het fundament des geloofs: van melchioriten tot menisten,” in Wederdopers, menisten, doopsgezinden in Nederland: 1530-1980, S. Groenveld, J.P. Jacobszoon, S.L. Verheus ed. (Zutphen: Walburg Pers, 1993), p. 35, figure 21. ↩
Thieleman van Braght, Het Bloedigh Tooneel of Martelaers Spiegel der Doopsgesinde of Weereloose Christenen, Die om ‘t getuygenis van Jesus haren Salighmaker geleden hebben ende gedood zijn van Christi tijd of tot desen tijd toe. 2nd ed. (Amsterdam: Hieronymus Sweerts, etc., 1685), part II, 302 ff.; in English translation, Van Braght, The Bloody Theatre or Martyrs’ Mirror of the Defenseless Christians Who Baptized Only upon Confession of Faith and Who Suffered and Died for the Testimony of Jesus Their Saviour . . . to the Year A.D. 1660 (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1951), pp. 667-669.↩
Samuel Cramer, “Het reliek van Mayken Boosers,” De zondagsbode. Doopsgezind weekblad, P. Feenstra Jr. Ed., vol. 15 (1902), p. 79. ↩
Samuel Cramer, “Martelaarsrelieken,” Doopsgezinde Bijdragen, vol. 38 (1898), pp. 115-116.↩
Cramer, “Het reliek van Mayken Boosers,” De zondagsbode, p. 79↩
Original Dutch: “dese peere heeft Mayke Boosers/ an onse beste vader Hans de Booser binnen doornick int gevangenhuisz ver eert tot een eeuwyge gedachtenis/ geschiet Anno 1564 den 10 Septemb [sic.] op geoffert/ [signed] Jan de Booser”]↩
The early modern handwritten note reads “September 10.” Cramer is first to note the discrepancy in date. Cramer, “Het reliek van Mayken Boosers,” De zondagsbode, p. 79.↩
When Samuel Cramer first wrote about the pear in his 1898 article, the note remained lost. He wrote only on the basis of the pear, the martyr accounts, and the family recollections. His 1902 articles on the pear note that the paper has been found once again, and he offers a transcription. See Samuel Cramer, “Martelaarszaken,” Doopsgezinde Bijdragen vol. 42 (1902): pp. 150-171 especually, 168-170, transcription in Dutch on p. 168.↩
Recently a sobering report was released by the United Nations stating that as many as one million of the roughly eight million animal and plant species on Earth – about 13% – are threatened with extinction. On the human cultural front, the statistics are even grimmer. Of the approximately 7,000 languages spoken around the globe today, at least half, probably many more, are predicted to die out, that is, they will no longer be spoken natively by the turn of the next century. While the loss of biodiversity is likely to initiate a negative cascade effect on our natural world, the extinction of a language deals a critical blow to the cultural heritage with which it is associated.1
Most of the world’s languages, including all those that are endangered, are spoken by small minority populations. In the United States and Canada, for example, all indigenous languages are threatened to some degree, including Navajo in the US, which has the largest number of native speakers at around 150,000, and Cree, which is spoken by about 117,000 in Canada. Among the descendants of immigrant populations in North America, only English and French (in Canada) are considered “safe” languages. Contrary to popular opinion, Spanish as a heritage language in the US is not in a robust state of health among those who were born in this country. The vast majority of fluent native speakers of the language are first-generation immigrants from Latin America. Were the migration of Spanish speakers to the US to cease tomorrow, within a generation the language would be just as critically endangered as, say, Mandarin, Hmong, Somali, Arabic, and a host of other languages brought to the North American continent by immigrants.
There is a small group of languages spoken in North America and elsewhere that are successfully resisting the threat to minority languages worldwide. These include the native tongues of hundreds of thousands of traditional Anabaptists and Orthodox Jews, languages that are coincidentally all members of the Germanic language family. The primary vernacular of most Hasidic Jews is Yiddish, while members of Amish and many traditional Mennonite groups speak languages that descend from regional dialects of German.
The two largest Anabaptist heritage languages are Pennsylvania Dutch, spoken by most Amish and many Old Order Mennonites in the US, Canada, and Belize; and Plautdietsch, a form of Low German used by the descendants of Russian Mennonites, most of whom live in North and South America, especially Mexico, Paraguay, and Bolivia. Pennsylvania Dutch and Plautdietsch each have about 400,000 native speakers. Other Germanic heritage languages spoken by Anabaptists include Hutterite German (Hutterisch) and the languages of the so-called Swiss Amish (Shwitzer) subgroup within the Old Order Amish, most of whom live in Adams and Allen counties in Indiana. The Swiss Amish, who descend from nineteenth-century immigrants from France and Switzerland to North America, speak either a variety of Bernese Swiss or Alsatian German.
These five Anabaptist minority languages, along with Yiddish, are in a robust state of health. Despite being mostly oral vernaculars, they are acquired by children without formal instruction and actively used in a range of informal and formal settings. Four key factors promote the health of these languages.
First, each of these languages has become an important external symbol of group identity and a way of marking the socio-religious distance between their speakers and the larger societies in which they live, a distance that for the Anabaptists is explicitly grounded in their understanding of separation from the world. It should be pointed out, though, that all speakers of these Germanic heritages languages are bilingual and in some cases multilingual, for example, knowing both English and Spanish in addition to their mother tongue.
A second crucial factor is that these traditional faith communities are strictly endogamous: marrying outside the faith – which would mean marrying someone who does not speak their heritage language – is not an option for those seeking to formally join or, in the case of the Hasidim, remain within the community, which the overwhelming majority do. This high retention rate is the third factor.
Finally, another important plus-point for groups like the Amish, traditional Mennonites, Hutterites, and Hasidim, and not only with respect to language, is their exceptionally high birth rates, which are between three and four times the national averages in the US and Canada. No other human populations anywhere are increasing more rapidly, which means that minority languages like Pennsylvania Dutch, Plautdietsch, and Yiddish are not only surviving but in fact now have the distinction of being fastest growing languages in the world.
For linguists and community members who seek to revitalize endangered languages, there are few practical lessons to be learned from groups like the Amish. Forbidding intermarriage and expecting couples to have at least a half-dozen children are not likely to be popular strategies for even the most ardent members of minority linguistic communities. But speakers of all languages, large and small, safe and endangered, can appreciate the emotional value that traditional Anabaptists and Hasidim attach to tongues that are a tangible connection to a treasured spiritual heritage.
When people who grew up speaking the Germanic languages discussed here leave their heritage communities, the shift to English monolingualism is usually swift, typically within one generation. But there are exceptions. In my own experience, I have found that people of Amish background living in Holmes County, Ohio, are more likely to maintain Pennsylvania Dutch than folks in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, or the Elkhart-LaGrange area of northern Indiana. And in places like Mexico and Bolivia, the continued use of Plautdietsch among people no longer affiliated with Old Colony groups is not uncommon. The Ekj Ran (I Run) ministry based in Bolivia is one excellent example.
I will close with the thoughtful reflections of an Amish schoolteacher from Pennsylvania who taught in Mexico as part of the Old Colony Mennonite School Project and whose experience living among Plautdietsch speakers deepened her appreciation of her own native language.
Learning Plattdeutsch allows you to feel more connected with the Russian Mennonite culture. It also opens the door to a very fascinating language. My impression is that Plattdeutsch is somehow more colorful and descriptive than either High German or English. For example, the Plattdeutsch poem and song that the first graders learned one Easter were so alive with meaning. The clear word pictures, the powerful way the emotions of Good Friday and Easter were portrayed in the poetry, seemed singular to me. I have grown to appreciate the beauty of the language.
Speakers of Plattdeutsch seem also to be aware of this beauty and therefore treasure it enough not to lose it. To us, as conservatives from the States, this stands out because of the trend towards English and away from Pennsylvania German in our circles. Among our people, one of the first things lost in a more liberal move is the German language. In Mexico, even the most liberal of the Russian Mennonites retain the speaking of their mother tongue. There are many beautiful Plattdeutsch songs and hymns, and recently Plattdeutsch Bibles and dictionaries are available. Plattdeutsch is still their favorite language to speak, even for those who know High German, Spanish, and English.2
On March 31, 2019, following a thematically-diverse, well-attended international colloquium at Bienenberg Theological Seminary on “Anabaptist History and Renewal Movements,” John D. Roth moderated a day-long discussion on the subject of the identity of the Swiss Brethren. This conversation centered around Martin Rothkegel’s challenge to the scholarly consensus, which Arnold Snyder has recently reasserted, concerning the character of this Anabaptist tradition.1 The essential contours of this disagreement are as follows: Snyder (along with most of his colleagues) sees the Swiss Brethren as a transregional confessional movement, rooted in the earliest theological statements of Anabaptists in Switzerland, with a consistent set of distinctive doctrinal and behavioral markers; Rothkegel, meanwhile, posits that the label Swiss Brethren was the name given to an organized, underground network of churches, analogous in structure to Calvinist églises plantées and centered in the Holy Roman Empire, with only incidental links to the Swiss Confederation and early Swiss Anabaptist theological positions and texts.
This interchange represents a new chapter in debates over group definition which have long characterized historical research into early Anabaptism. This focus persists, in large part, because the categories and models that historians have employed to explain the development of official confessional movements (Lutheran, Catholic, Reformed) during and after the Protestant Reformation cannot be easily applied to marginalized communities of nonconformists. Arguments about who Anabaptists were, what they believed and did, and how they related to each other and to those outside of their communities require creative interpretations of sparser evidence.
This particular iteration of a longer conversation about the identity of the Swiss Brethren is provocative because it encourages reconsideration of basic questions. Which sources matter in determining where the boundaries of the Swiss Brethren community lay? Which methods are most effective in uncovering these sources’ significance? And, at the core of the matter, what is the historical significance of Swiss Anabaptist origins to later Anabaptist-Mennonite traditions?
These questions brought to mind a rare reference to the “Swiss Brethren” in my reading of legal records from Zurich’s territory in the late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In May 1595, Markus Wydler, the pastor of the village of Kilchberg, along with a local deputy bailiff and lay elder authored a supplication to Zurich’s city government on behalf of their community.2 They complained of the recent settlement of the glassmaker Heinrich Rützensdorfer “of the Anabaptist sect” and his wife and children in their parish. The new family refused to attend Reformed services. The locals’ efforts to persuade Rützensdorfer and his family to integrate into Reformed parish life had failed. On multiple occasions, the pastor, lay community leaders, and, eventually, Rützensdorfer’s own mother-in-law had visited the couple’s home in order to investigate their religious opinions. Rützensdorfer responded to these approaches, the supplication’s authors claimed, by outlining positions associated with the “Swiss Brethren, as they are called.”3 He would only attend a church that, one, exercised the ban and, two, allowed congregants to correct the preacher when he erred. (In a separate interrogation, Rützensdorfer also expressed unwillingness to swear an oath.)4 Out of fear of the potentially “damaging unrest” that might result from these new arrivals’ presence, the supplicants asked the authorities to remove the Anabaptists, “who had never existed in our parish since the beginning of the Reformation.”
In the framework of Snyder and Rothkegel’s exchange, this document presents intriguing evidence. On the one hand, the document’s authors appear to see continuity in the identity of Anabaptists within Zurich’s territory over time. One sect has been present in the region from the introduction of Zwinglian reform in Zurich to the end of the sixteenth century. At the same time, after diligently examining Rützensdorfer’s stated beliefs, the people of Kilchberg apply a label (Schweizerbruder) to him that authorities in the area simply did not use to refer to local Anabaptists settled permanently in their communities. Officials who governed parishes and bailiwicks inhabited by larger numbers of Anabaptists employed the derogatory labels Wiedertäufer, Täufer, or, in rarer cases, Taufbrüder. In my reading, the use of the name Swiss Brethren attributes a degree of foreignness to Rützensdorfer and his family.
There is a tension within sixteenth-century attempts to categorize the religious community or tradition to which Rützensdorfer belonged which suggest both continuity and change. Examination of other extant records are not particularly helpful in resolving this tension for modern observers. As Christian Scheidegger has shown, Rützensdorfer participated in a reading circle of Schwenckfelders in Zurich proper in the late-1580s before being temporarily expelled from the city.5 Although he continuously refused to attend Reformed services in Kilchberg into the 1610s, Rützensdorfer’s wife eventually participated actively in the life of the parish and regularly sent her children to Reformed religious instruction.6 I have not yet been able to document whether Rützensdorfer established membership in a specific Anabaptist congregation or, indeed, whether he was ever baptized. Still, in addition to his aforementioned statements regarding the proper form of Christian community, Rützensdorfer also used theological argumentation often employed by local Anabaptists when refusing to submit to authorities’ demands for him to leave the territory.7
This set of documents doesn’t provide conclusive evidence about the nature of Swiss Brethren group identity, organization, and theology. Rather, it shows that even contemporary observers struggled to understand the ongoing influence of early Swiss Anabaptism on nonconformists and the forms of nonconformity they encountered in their own time. Although unique in its particulars, this case represents many more which frustrate attempts to make narrow claims about who the Swiss Brethren were. On account of Anabaptists’ marginality, Rützensdorfer’s biography is complicated in ways that many nonconformists’ biographies are complicated. As we continue to refine an understanding of the Swiss Brethren, our models need to be flexible enough to account for this type of evidence. As this post has shown, the task of definition does not necessarily become easier as we move past the turbulence of the early Reformation.
The context of the referenced quote follows: “Demnach so habenn wir durch unseren pfarrer un[d] die Ehegoumer zu mehermalen un[d] undersheidenlichen ziten, Inne siner Meinung der Religion halben Laßen erforschen, die dan bey uns ungebrechlich, Insonders wie Er sich deß kilchgange halben wölle halten. do Er sich dan für das ine zu[o] den Schweitzerbrudern, wie man si nennt.”.↩
Christian Scheidegger, “Täufergemeinden, hutterische Missionare und schwenckfeldische Nonkonformisten bis 1600,” in Die Zürcher Täufer, 1525-1700.↩, ed. Urs B. Leu and Christian Scheidegger (Zurich: Theologisher Verlag Zürich, 2007), 155.↩
During an undated period of imprisonment prior to Rützensdorfer’s settlement in Kilchberg, Zurich’s authorities interrogated him in the Wellenberg tower in the middle of the Limmat river. When he was asked to promise to leave the city’s territory and not return, the prisoner responded by citing Psalm 24:1. Since the earth was was the Lord’s, secular authorities had no ultimate power to determine people’s movement through it, Anabaptists often claimed.↩
does a historian study the dead ‘past’? To reveal how much of it
lives in us today.”1 Recently
Abigail told me that she has this brief quotation posted on her
refrigerator. She had noted it during one of my lectures and wanted
to keep it where she would see it every time she opened her fridge
door. During our conversation, she owned that in the class on
“Canadian Church History” that she had recently completed with
me, she had learned for the first time that slavery is a part of our
nation’s past. North of the 49th
parallel, we prefer to focus on our role in helping enslaved people
towards freedom through the Underground Railroad.2
As the hard truth was exposed, she confided, a new awareness of her
own racism began to emerge. Our conversation
confirmed for me that some of my passion for the classroom had stuck.
My sense of mission had born fruit.3
My life in university classrooms spans five decades. Early on in my
student life I began to imagine myself in the role of professor. I
recall sitting in a class on “Canadian Indian History,” as it was
called then, observing Professor Palmer Patterson and admiring his
passion. As a quiet, reserved young woman sitting towards the back of
the room, I remember thinking how I’d like to end up where he was,
behind the podium – teaching. Not long after that Professor
Patterson began to draw me out of my reserve; he assisted me in
moving forward, helping to kindle the passion that he had observed in
that student in the back of the classroom. His invitation to work
under him as a graduate student, and to fill the role of teaching
assistant was a critical moment in my development. As an
undergraduate, I also admired Professor Frank Epp’s clear
understanding of the multiple expressions of Mennonites in Canada and
their common Anabaptist heritage that tied them together. He, too,
would become a significant mentor.
Decades later I reflect back on being at the front of countless
classrooms, attempting to kindle in my students some of the passion
that had sparked mine as a young undergraduate. In my development as
a teaching professor, I have been inspired by many scholars. Some of
those are Anabaptist. But the two thinkers that I find myself
returning to again and again are neither Brethren in Christ nor
Mennonite. They are Jewish and Quaker. This is hardly surprising, I
suppose, with the cultural connections shared between Jewish and
Mennonite communities, and shared principles in Anabaptist and Quaker
perspectives on peace.
A secular Jew who narrowly escaped the Nazi invasion of Austria, Gerda Lerner’s career as a historian that included the founding of women’s studies, played itself out in the United States. I share Lerner’s feminist principles. But I am a Canadian historian, formed by my Brethren in Christ background and adult academic and faith journey shaped, in part, in Mennonite communities. Although the classrooms where I have taught have been in Liberal Arts institutions and a School of Religious Studies, and they have rarely included Anabaptist students, it seems that whether I’m teaching women’s studies, Canadian history or church history, I come back to Gerda Lerner’s stimulating essay collection Why History Matters, again and again.4
Lerner has spoken to my desire to
kindle in students a sense of knowing who they are in relationship to
their own past, and that of others. Her work has provided a paradigm
into my course syllabi those who have suffered intolerance and
persecution in the past – indigenous peoples, people of
African-Canadian heritage, Asian Canadians, those with Eastern
European roots, and the women who comprise more than fifty per cent
of every cultural group.5
Lerner’s insistent plea, that the failure to give expression to the
underside and dark moments of the past – the horrors of wars,
holocausts, genocides, slavery, rape, sexual abuse – will allow such
atrocities to happen again and again, reinforces my Anabaptist
voices infrequently heard means making hard decisions. What do I
omit, so I can do this work? Who decides what is critical? How does
one integrate the previously voiceless into the canon? Although none
of this is obvious, my Anabaptist background means that from
childhood I have viewed the world from outside the mainstream. I have
known myself as ‘the other’. This formation has trained me to see
the hidden dark places in history; it has planted in me the hope that
exposure will promote healing. My Anabaptist background has me
teaching in trust that creating an environment that allows students
to do some of their own reconciliation work will do its small part in
working towards healing and justice.
Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach provides a helpful paradigm for this reconciliation work in the classroom: “Knowing of any sort is relational, animated by a desire to come into deeper community with what we know.”7His insistence that in the classroom the student and the teacher must be in relationship, not just with each other, but with the knowledge that they are together deepening into, provides a model for a community of learners. Abigail responded with surprise as she began to own her previously unnamed racist attitudes; I have also heard students’ gratitude for the naming of their personal hurts and sense of exclusion. As we grow in community with each other and our subject matter, students come to know themselves in a deeper way, even as I do, semester after semester.
my academic journey teaching mostly Canadian history and Women’s
Studies in the Liberal Arts in a variety of universities and colleges
in three Canadian provinces, the student with Anabaptist background
sitting in my classrooms has been rare. But as I often hear from
students whether they are theology, history, women’s studies,
Canadian studies majors, that they’ve come out of our experience
together in the classroom with a deepened sense of community. They
have entered into relationship with me and with each other, as we
together deepen our knowledge. Some, like Abigail, tell me that they
have gained a new awareness of the necessity to hear the voices of
the marginalized and oppressed. Others come to a deeper sense of
their own experience of being ‘the other’, sometimes hurt deeply
by their experience.
my classrooms Anabaptist? I have come to see that at least in part,
my attraction to both Gerda Lerner’s insistence on exposing the
dark side, and Parker Palmer’s relational way of knowing is a
product of my Anabaptist formation shaped by my Brethren in Christ
and Mennonite background heritage. As I reflect on my Anabaptist
heritage and how it has shaped my experience of the classroom, I,
too, come into a deeper knowing and relationship with the past.
Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 54.↩
Denise Gillard, “The Black Church in Canada,” McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry, Vol. 1 (1998). ↩
See, for instance, my Presidential address to the 1917 meeting of the Canadian Society of Church History published as “Reflections on the Necessity of Canadian Church History, Historical Papers, Canadian Society of Church History (1917).↩
Thirty-five years ago, on 1 April 1982, Gerda Lerner spoke to the Organization of American Historians in Philadelphia, on “The Necessity of History and the Professional Historian.” It has since been published in her thought-provoking Why History Matters: Life and Thought (NY: Oxford University Press, 1997): 113-28.↩
For a helpful discussion on the Canadian history of discriminatory legislation, please see Allan Levine, “Slow Road to Tolerance” Canada’s History (April-May 2016), 41-47.↩
It also parallels the work of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where the revisionist work of numerous Canadian historians figures prominently. See “Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,” Vol. I: Summary “Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future,” (Toronto: Lorimer, 2015). J.R. Miller, Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools (University of Toronto, 1997) and John S. Milloy, A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 – 1986 (Winnipeg, MB: University of Manitoba, 1999) are key in this work.↩
The Mennonite church in the United States has established a record from the middle to the end of the twentieth century of welcoming, celebrating, and then frequently discarding charismatic, provocative African-American leaders. Most – but not all – have been men. Some went on to established and well-respected careers outside the confines of the denomination. Few stayed within. Evangelist and seminary professor William E. Pannell provides one such example. I contend here that many of these figures offer striking parallels to the phenomenon of what journalist and author Christopher John Farley has called “magical African-American friends” or MAAFs.1
A MAAF, also referred to more problematically as a “magic negro,” is a well established Hollywood trope in which an African-American character plays a salvific role in the life of a White person, often through magic or supernatural means, even if it means sacrificing themselves to do so. In the 1958 crime drama, The Defiant Ones, Sidney Portier’s character sacrifices his chance at freedom to save the life of the White convict played by Tony Curtis. In The Green Mile (1999), John Coffey as played by Michael Clarke Duncan exercises his healing powers on behalf of a White inmate, White death row guard, and the White wife of the prison warden before being executed. The MAAF trope crops up in a host of other Hollywood dramas such as Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost (1990), and Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption (1994). The list goes on. The comedy duo Key and Peele spoof the Hollywood archetype in a hilarious 2012 skit the skewers the trope’s reliance on stereotypes.
Of particular importance to the function of a MAAF in these films is that the Black figure – again most often male but not always, note the Whoopi Goldberg role in Ghost – usually comes into the life of the White protagonist from outside. In the case of Will Smith’s Bagger Vance, he literally approaches the White lead played by Matt Damon from out of the dark of the night. In few of the films does the Black savior figure stay around in the life of the White person he or she has saved.
William E. Pannell came into the White Mennonite community having spent time with Brethren Assemblies in Detroit. By the end of the 1950s, already a well known evangelist, he began to show up at Mennonite sponsored meetings such as the 1959 round table discussion entitled “Program of Witness to and With Negroes,” held in Chicago and sponsored by the Home Missions and Evangelism Committee of the Mennonite Church.2
Although in these early meetings, his voice in the minutes comes across as reconciliatory and appeasing, that would change over time. While in 1959 he commented, “We should remember that our primary problems are the spiritual, and here we must make our basic contributions,” a year later in the pages of the Mennonite Church news outlet, the Gospel Herald, he caricatured White people as being held hostage by an insurmountable “basic fear” of Black people expressed by trembling “slightly” and mumbling “nonsense about intermarriage.”3 By 1968, an excerpt from his controversial book My Friend, The Enemy criticized White-dominated missions conferences sponsored by congregations that relocated from Black neighbors even as they claimed to minister to them.4 As of 1971, he appeared in the pages of the General Conference news magazine, The Mennonite, with a reflection on the need for the Black community to have “power, control, the sharing of power.”5 That same year he also participated in the AFRAM conference held near Nairobi, Kenya, to bring together African-American and African Mennonites.6
Pannell’s Mennonite connections were more extensive than these publications and meetings suggest. He counted White Mennonite church planer Vern Miller as a “friend and brother,” even indicating that Miller introduced him to Martin Luther King, Jr.7 He recalled conversations with theologian John Howard Yoder while visiting Goshen College and referenced talks he gave at nearly every Mennonite college and high school as well as most Black Mennonite congregations in the U.S.8 Even more importantly, Pannell credited Mennonites with forming his “understanding of servanthood, of discipleship, of dimensions of faith in practice,” going so far as to exclaim in the course of an oral history interview, “Ah, boy, that was good stuff. I watched them live that stuff out in very uncomfortable circumstances. It helped me enormously.”9
And the exchange between Pannell and the Mennonite community wasn’t just one way. His invitation to participate in the 1973 AFRAM conference was only one indication of the trust that Black Mennonites placed in him. Already in 1968, leaders of the racially integrated Broad Street Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, had invited him to consult with them to discern their role as a church in their immediate neighborhood.10 White Mennonites also found Pannell’s contributions helpful. One reader praised Pannell for “Telling it as it is and honestly facing” racism present within the Mennonite community.11
The connection I make between Pannell and the trope of the Magical African-American Friend has less to do with the nature of Pannell’s specific interactions with both Black and White Mennonites than it does with a larger pattern into which his interaction with Mennonites fits.
Consider the following list: Hubert Brown, Curtis Burrell, Rosemarie Harding, Vincent Harding, Warner Jackson, James Lark, Rowena Lark, Joy Lovett, Stan Maclin, Charles McDowell, Dwight McFadden, John Powell, Ed Riddick. Every one of these high-profile African-American individuals appeared on a national Mennonite platform between 1950 and 2000 either as a speaker, author, evangelist, or church official. Every one of them then left the church for at least a stretch of time or disappeared from national attention.12 In the case of Pannell, he had never officially become Mennonite.
So this is my question. What does this pattern tell us about the White Mennonite church during the second half of the twentieth century? Each one of the individuals listed here is worthy of much fuller attention than what this column can offer. The reasons for their specific departures from the Mennonite world range from the most problematic of personal failings to decisions to pursue alternate career paths. But what troubles me as I review this list and ponder the tenure of William Pannell in the Mennonite world is that, like MAAFs, high-profile Black Mennonite leaders have rarely found a long-term home in the church.
And, the historical record would suggest, there is a through line in the personal narratives behind these names that speaks of White Mennonites being willing to be challenged for a period of time but only, in the words of Pannell, in “relationship to a suitcase.”13 Here is what Pannell wrote back in 1968. His words are worth quoting in full:
It took considerable time, several years in fact, before I began to realize that there were any number of people whose acceptance of me was conditioned by my relationship to a suitcase. A singing Negro has always been welcome as long as he is a vagabond, and has no intention to settle with his family. Again this is an overstatement since many would have been delighted if I would have stayed. But they too disappoint me when I discover their unwillingness to fight for my right to stay against those entrenched local forces of bigotry. They handcuffed me to my suitcase by their silence.14
He wrote these words now more than fifty years ago. The Mennonite community today counts a host of African-American leaders who have stayed and are leading the church: Michelle Armster, Leslie Francisco, Glen Guyton, Cyneatha Millsapps, Regina Shands Stoltfzus. There are many others.
Yet, for those of us who are White and Mennonite, the history of Black Mennonite leaders who have left after performing important leadership roles in the church – often at significant psychological and spiritual costs to themselves – is a cautionary tale, one that points to how easily even the best of intentions to welcome and embrace can all too quickly fall into the same traps of paternalism, exclusion, and stereotyping that are at the root of the highly problematic and ultimately racist portrayal of Magical African-American Friends.
In a community that continues to find it far easier to speak of and respond to racism in interpersonal rather than systemic terms, the trap of the MAAF will be one that we will have to work hard to avoid.
John S. Weber, “The History of Broad Street Mennonite Church 1936 – 1971” (Senior Thesis, Eastern Mennonite College, 1971), 46. ↩
John E. Fretz, “Hard to Face It as It Is,” The Mennonite, March 2, 1971, 150. ↩
John Powell, for example, returned to the church, fulfilled a variety of leadership roles, and continues to write a column for Mennonite World Review. James and Rowena Lark started a church in Fresno, California, in the mid-1960s that did not have a Mennonite affiliation. ↩
William Pannell, My Friend, the Enemy (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1968), 55. ↩
What ‘Anabaptism’ means in an early modern document is often ambiguous – a problem which is only compounded when looking at secular bureaucratic sources. Who did early modern authorities think they were dealing with, or talking about, when they issued mandates or negotiated tolerance?
The study of early Anabaptism in Emden is stymied by a paucity of documents. More thorough record-keeping, or record-storing, coincided with the later influx of Dutch Reformed refugees in the 1550s.1 One of the earliest extant documents is a letter dated 12 May 1534, in the midst of the crisis of the Kingdom of Münster but concerning baptisms happening within Emden itself.2 Sent by East Frisian Count Enno II and addressed to the chief magistrates of Emden, it offered an “admonishment” against the continued existence of Anabaptists in the city.3 The letter uses the catch-all term of “wider doper,” but does not identify any leaders of, or even adherents to, this movement. This general reprimand thus suggests either that the leaders’ identity should have been obvious to the magistrates, or that perhaps Enno had only a vague understanding of the matter.
A hybrid document concerning the nearby city of Oldenburg, however, indicates that individual charismatic leaders were indeed traveling through the surrounding area during the 1530s, even if they were not immediately identifiable to authorities. A nineteenth-century excerpt and copy of an eighteenth-century edition of a text, this document was originally assembled by seventeenth-century theologian Gottfried Arnold. This nesting doll-like document nevertheless presents “David Joris’s singular life,” described in the nineteenth-century introduction as originating from a “very old Dutch-language written manuscript.”4 Arnold’s work was undoubtedly some sort of pastiche, as the excerpt included in this document is actually the sixteenth-century “Anonymous Biography of David Joris,” available in translation and edited by Gary K. Waite.5 Waite suggests in the introduction to this piece that the author may well have been Joris himself.6
Joris’s biography describes an Oldenburg still in turmoil following the violence and upheaval of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster. A number of refugees from Münster had found some toleration in Oldenburg, which Waite attributes to an ongoing feud between the Bishop of Münster and the rulers of Oldenburg.7 Joris was ministering to the local Anabaptist and spiritualist congregation, and pushed his claim on authority through an interpretation of signs and mystical interventions that occurred during their discussions – including an incident where a Bible belonging to the Münsterites fell off a table.8
Joris’s reputation would certainly grow in East Frisia. A letter from Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, again addressed to the chief magistrates and city council of Emden, directly addressed the disruption and unrest that imperial authorities expected from Anabaptists in general and Jorists in particular.9
Dated 15 October 1543, it began by greeting the relatively recently widowed Countess Anna von Oldenburg, who assumed the regency of East Frisia following her husband Enno’s death in 1540. The imperial letter expressly demanded the “confession of Anabaptists and other agitators,” which the emperor believed Anna had the power to arrange and compel. Charles identified the ‘ringleader’ as David Joris himself, and requested Joris’s writings, along with the names of other prominent members and journeymen.10 This letter thus establishes the fragmenting groups of ‘agitators’ under charismatic leadership as a phenomenon legible to authorities. Although shielded by official inaction, the followers of Joris as well as other Anabaptists and dissenters existed on the margins of legal residence.
The specifics of naming and differentiating amongst these marginalized religious groups became almost immediately important. Menno Simons arrived in Emden in late 1543 or early 1544 and advocated on behalf of his followers in front of the newly appointed Zwinglian pastor, Jan Łaski. Menno and Łaski had a number of “semipublic” discussions and debates over theological points, and despite significant differences Menno and his followers continued to enjoy some sort of toleration in Emden. Łaski was the first to use the term ‘Mennisten,’ in 1545, apparently as part of a larger scheme to separate these more moderate Anabaptists from their potentially violent brethren.11 When his attempts to debate and persuade these ‘Mennonites’ failed, however, Menno and his followers were ordered out of East Frisia – though many remained.12
By 1556, however, perhaps not coincidentally corresponding with the largest influx of Dutch Calvinist immigrants and the pressures of the Interim, Countess Anna found herself at least performing an insistence on tighter residential controls. In an edict dated 10 January 1556, Anna identified both David Joris and Menno Simons as leaders within the larger frame of Anabaptism.13 Within the text of the edict itself she separates out the “Mennonites, Davidites, Batenburgers, and other damned sects” who were ordered to leave within fourteen days or face punishment.14 The inclusion of the Batenburgers – a violent remnant of the Münsterites who most probably were no longer extant – is curious, and again highlights the problem of bureaucratic knowledge. The boundaries between these groups were recognized by authorities, but only in so far as they cohered as outsiders who were variously tolerated in the city of Emden.
For secondary reading on Emden, see especially Andrew Pettegree, Emden and the Dutch Revolt: Exile and the Development of Reformed Protestantism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), as well as a recent chapter by Timothy G. Fehler, “Coexistence and Confessionalization: Emden’s Topography of Religious Pluralism,”in Topographies of Tolerance and Intolerance: Responses to Religious Pluralism in Reformation Europe, ed. Marjorie Elizabeth Plummer, and Victoria Christman (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 78-105. ↩
Ibid., 3: “Wir schreiben hieneben der Edler unserer lieben Andechtigen Anna gebornen zu Oldenburg und Grauin zu Ostfrisen wittib Das Sy uns die vrgicht der widerteuffer vnd anderer Anfruerischen […] Aber volgendenen widerums auskomen sein mit sambt amer verzaichnus der Namen Irer Mitverwandten vnd gesellen, desgleichen Ires Haubts vnd Redelfuerers Joristen Glaßmachers Buecher zuschicken solle Inhalt vnsers schreibens.”↩
George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), 732-734.↩
NLA Aurich, Rep. 4 BII d Nr. 1, 2: “Vnnd wi dan befindenn, dat bouen alle vnnse vorigenn Mandata vnnd vtgegangene gebot breue, der Wedderdoperie also Menno Simons vnnd David Joris vnnd anderenn secten anhegiche”↩
Ibid., 2: “dat so alle vnnd jder [illeg.] sienn Mennonisten, Davidianen, Baterberger, vnd andere vordampn secten”↩
A Mennonite named Abraham Esau headed the Nazi nuclear program during much of the Second World War.1 Esau’s activities contributed to Albert Einstein’s decision to warn US President Franklin Roosevelt on August 2, 1939, that Hitler’s government was studying atomic chain reactions that might lead to “extremely powerful bombs.”2 The program Esau ran in the Third Reich constituted a prime justification for the United States’ secret Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic weapons. After the war, the North American-based Mennonite Central Committee helped rehabilitate Esau, who in turn downplayed Mennonite involvement in Nazism.
Abraham Esau was born in 1884 to a respected Mennonite family in eastern Prussia. His paternal grandfather was elder of the large Tiegenhagen congregation. He was raised by his father, a local bureaucrat.3 During Esau’s adolescence, Mennonites across Germany adopted nationalist ideals.4 Esau, perhaps more than anyone else, benefitted from the denomination’s new enthusiasm for higher education and military service. After receiving his doctorate in 1908, he performed noncombatant service as a radio physicist. He became involved in an ambitious state-sponsored project to confront British power by building a global wireless network to spread German news.5
Esau cut his teeth combining German expansionism with large-scale physics projects in colonial Africa. In 1914, on the eve of the First World War, he traveled to the German colony of Togo to install a massive radio station, which he subsequently destroyed in the face of invading French troops. French captivity deepened Esau’s nationalism, as did the postwar Treaty of Versailles, which gave much of his native Prussia to a new Polish state. In 1925, Esau joined the faculty at the University of Jena. There, he developed a physics research program. He discovered how to use radio waves for therapy, was nominated for a Nobel Prize, and became university president.
The rise of Adolf Hitler in 1933 proved fortuitous for Esau. Joining the Nazi Party in May, he strengthened his presidency at Jena within the new political order. The governor of Thuringia appointed Esau a State Councilor, giving him access to powerful Nazi leaders. Meanwhile, his knowledge of radio physics made him valuable to the Propaganda Ministry, for which he served as an advisor. By the end of the decade, Esau had relocated to Berlin, where he headed the Reich Physical and Technical Institute. As a prominent science administrator with impeccable political credentials, Esau eagerly followed new discoveries in the field of high-energy atomic physics.
Esau headed the Nazi nuclear program briefly in 1939 and then again from March 1942 to the end of 1943.6 In April 1939, he organized a conference on nuclear chain reactions through the Reich Ministry of Education, where he announced plans to collect all uranium in Germany. With the outbreak of the Second World War in September, Esau lost control to the Army Weapons Office, which grew the program during the next eighteen months. Upon determining that nuclear power would not arrive in time to help win the war, the Army relinquished oversight to the Reich Research Council, which Esau headed. He ran the project until falling from political favor.
Unlike the US Manhattan Project, Esau’s nuclear program was geared toward industrial applications of atomic energy, not bomb production. Nuclear science was certainly big business in the Third Reich. Esau oversaw a budget in 1943 worth $1,200,000.7 But this was hundreds of times smaller than the Manhattan Project, whose total cost reached $2 billion. Anxious not to overpromise at a time when Nazi leaders sought “wonder weapons,” Esau deliberately refrained from discussing atomic bombs with his superiors. This was not for lack of military commitment, however, but rather an effort to keep crucial war funds from being wasted on long-term research.
On January 1, 1944, Abraham Esau exchanged his title of “Plenipotentiary for Nuclear Physics” for “Plenipotentiary for High-Frequency Technology.” Infighting within the atomic program had earned Esau the enmity of Albert Speer, the Reich Minister of Armaments and War Production. Nevertheless, as Esau handed the atomic program to his successor, he could boast real victories, including the enrichment of uranium isotopes by means of a centrifuge, application of nuclear physics to biology and medicine, and success with particle accelerators. Esau remained in the good graces of Hermann Göring, head of the Air Force, who gave him control of radio matters.
Esau committed the war crimes for which he was eventually convicted not as a nuclear scientist but through his capacity as Plenipotentiary for High-Frequency Technology. The Third Reich had contracted with an electronics company in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands called Philips to produce hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of materials for the war effort. In the autumn of 1944, as Allied forces advanced, Esau ordered an SS captain named Alfred Boettcher to evacuate equipment from Philips in the Dutch city of Eindhoven to Nazi Germany. Boettcher transported goods valued around $28,000 on three large trucks across the border, engaging in war plunder.
As the Second World War came to an end in 1945, Abraham Esau was apprehended by a special team of American soldiers tasked with finding high-profile Nazi scientists and engineers. Like Albert Speer, the rocketeer Wernher von Braun, and others, Esau was interned and interrogated. In late 1946, Dutch state prosecutors requested that he be transferred to the Netherlands to be tried along with Alfred Boettcher for plundering the Philips electronics company. US officials agreed, deeming Esau less culpable than Speer and less valuable than von Braun. Esau was sent to the Dutch city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where he remained in prison for eighteen months.8
Esau’s first contact with North American Mennonites came while he was in Dutch prison. After the Second World War, an aid organization called Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) built a robust relief presence in the Netherlands, Germany, and other parts of Europe. This agency had a long history of transnational aid work, dating to the 1920s. It had briefly operated in the Third Reich and Vichy France between 1939 and 1942, until the United States entered the war. For several years, MCC concentrated on North American needs. But with the war’s end, it returned to Europe, where staff distributed food and clothing to those suffering in the wake of violence.9
Mennonite Central Committee recruited some personnel from congregations in Germany and the Netherlands, but its most influential staff were drawn from Canada and the United States. Two early members were Peter and Helene Goertz of Kansas. Peter Goertz was the academic dean of Bethel College, a Mennonite institution of higher education, from which he received leave to work in Europe with his wife during 1947 and 1948. Much of their activity concerned the 45,000 Mennonite refugees from Ukraine, Poland, Germany, and the former Free City of Danzig who were then spread across postwar Europe. Their most unusual case was that of Abraham Esau.
After more than a year of imprisonment in the Netherlands, Esau had become desperate to leave. He wrote letters incessantly, seeking to connect with his former scientific colleagues and to find anyone who could help him achieve freedom. When Esau’s daughter, then living in northern Germany, discovered that a Mennonite Central Committee office had been established in Kiel, she explained her father’s plight and asked if MCC could help. The Kiel office wrote to MCC in Amsterdam, where Peter and Helen Goertz received the request.10 On February 25, 1948, Peter traveled two hours by train to ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where he met with the imprisoned Esau.
Peter Goertz described his encounter with Abraham Esau in correspondence to friends and family in Kansas. Goertz reported that upon arriving at the prison in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, he spent twenty minutes speaking with the warden, who agreed to vacate his office so the two Mennonites could meet in private. They spoke for two hours. To Goertz’s eye, Esau had become a despondent man, in need of “spiritual uplift.” Esau’s demeanor seemed to brighten over the conversation, and he expressed his gratitude so fervently that Goertz himself felt moved. The experience left a deep impression. Back in Amsterdam, he wrote: “Such are rather exciting moments even for me.”11
Over the following months, Peter and Helene Goertz reportedly developed a real friendship with Esau, although from their correspondence, it is hard to escape the thought that the former Nazi scientist cynically played his Mennonite benefactors. Although Peter clearly knew of the charges against Esau, he nonetheless took the prisoner at his word, writing that he “was not a confirmed Nazi,” that he “had been forced to care for physics laboratories in the whole of Germany,” and that “he does not know why he is in prison.”12 Helene, like her husband, expressed awe for Esau’s academic record, describing him as “a great physicist from the German Mennonites.”13
The willingness of Peter and Helene Goertz to believe Esau’s claims of innocence was typical of Mennonite Central Committee’s treatment of other Mennonites from the former Third Reich. After touring several refugee camps, Peter wrote, “It is amazing to me how many of the men from the Danzig area, even among the Mennonites, joined the [Nazi] party.”14 Helene identified attitudes of racism and territorial irredentism among the same group.15 Yet neither they, their colleagues, nor MCC as a whole seem ever to have seriously questioned their project of helping fellow Mennonites. Denominational connections outweighed even known Nazi collaboration.
Abraham Esau received several more visits in prison from Peter Goertz, who along with Helene also visited Esau’s daughter in Germany. Peter supplied his imprisoned friend with scientific and religious reading materials. He charged at least one book on electromagnetism to the MCC relief fund.16 Esau was particularly pleased with another volume, The Story of the Mennonites by the US historian C. Henry Smith.17 Commenting that this book should be available to the tens of thousands of Mennonite refugees then scattered across Europe, Esau began translating the 800-page tome into German using pencils and notebooks that Peter Goertz brought from Amsterdam.
On April 27, 1948, a Dutch court in The Hague released Abraham Esau along with his colleague and fellow inmate Alfred Boettcher, the former SS captain, with no criminal conviction. Exactly why Esau and Boettcher were released is unclear. Possibly, one or more of the letters written by Esau and his daughter convinced someone powerful to intercede on the prisoners’ behalf. It is likely that Mennonite Central Committee played at least a minor role, if only by providing Esau with the ability to claim association with a well-known and respected relief agency. MCC at this time held remarkable legal clout with multiple Allied governments, including the Netherlands.
In any event, Esau and Boettcher immediately made their way, after leaving prison, to the MCC center in Amsterdam. Arriving on May 1, they stayed for nearly a month, until May 28, when the two men left for a camp on the Dutch border, eventually arriving back in Germany. While living in the MCC house, Esau and Boettcher became acquainted with many of the leading Mennonite relief workers in Europe, since they regularly passed through Amsterdam. Both visitors penned glowing thank-you notes. Boettcher was touched with the generosity of the MCC workers after his time in isolation, and he was glad to have learned more about Mennonite faith communities.18
Helene Goertz described the weeks Esau and Boettcher spent in Amsterdam in her letters. She referred to both men as “university professors” and considered them to be “proved innocent.” To Helene’s mind, Esau and Boettcher were victims of circumstances, who had nonetheless retained “their manners, their cultured ways, and their sense of humor.”19 The former Nazis washed dishes, carried baggage, and enlivened the atmosphere. Both plied Helene with flowers and fresh fruit. “Prof. Esau has been more than generous since you are away,” Helene wrote to her traveling husband. “Twice while I was sick he sent up some luscious strawberries and once a peach!”20
MCC rendered aid to Abraham Esau on the basis of his Mennonite identity, yet it is unclear that Esau was a practicing Mennonite prior to his contact with Peter and Helene Goertz. He had married a Mennonite (since deceased) and retained other family connections, but I have seen no evidence of any religious contacts between Esau and active Mennonite congregations during the Third Reich. A Mennonite Address Book published in Germany in 1936 does not include Esau’s name, despite printing membership lists for all the congregations to which he would likely have belonged.21 One Nazi-era article referred to him simply as from an “ancient peasant family.”22
Yet Esau represented himself to his MCC friends as a good and faithful fellow Mennonite. He attended church in Amsterdam with Helene Goertz, and he used religious language in his letters to her husband. “I thank God, that He has led me into your house and your family,” Esau wrote to Peter Goertz after leaving Amsterdam. He even portrayed his scientific and administrative activities in the Third Reich as consistent with Christian faith, writing: “I will resume the task which God will give to me with the old energy and in the same manner as before.”23 And all the while, he continued translating The Story of the Mennonites, completing ten pages every day.
Esau had nearly finished his German version of The Story of the Mennonites when he departed the MCC center in May of 1948. He left his completed notebooks with Peter and Helene Goertz. Upon arriving at his daughter’s home in northern Germany, Esau finished the work, and he gave the last part of his translation to MCC workers in Kiel, who then brought this document to the Netherlands. Finally, in mid-1948, Peter and Helene Goertz carried the full manuscript with them back to Kansas, where they deposited it at the Bethel College library. They reported Esau’s own hope that his translation would prove “of some profit for Mennonite circles in the world.”24
At the same time Abraham Esau was reconnecting with his Mennonite heritage, he faced critique from his former scientific colleagues. In the early postwar years, German nuclear physicists formed a remarkably solid front against perceived intrusions by occupying Allied forces. They abandoned old internal disputes and helped one another launch new carriers in the wake of the Third Reich’s collapse. Esau was unusual in being largely dismissed by this group. Physicists like Werner Heisenberg, who had won a Nobel Prize for describing quantum mechanics and had been Esau’s chief rival in the Nazi nuclear program, portrayed Esau as irredeemably tainted.25
Notably, it was the radio scientist Leo Brandt, not a nuclear physicist, who aided Esau’s reentry into Germany’s scientific culture. Brandt knew Esau from earlier radio research and now invited him to North Rhine-Westphalia. In 1949, Esau became a professor in Aachen and joined a new aeronautical research institute. Brandt also nominated Esau for West Germany’s highest federal service prize. But fellow scientists, including the Nobel Prize winner Max von Laue, intervened. Von Laue wrote that during the Nazi period, Esau cast himself as a “chief representative of National Socialism.” A former subordinate also testified that Esau had twice threatened to murder him.26
Upon his death in 1955, Abraham Esau left two remarkably distinct legacies. In the scientific world, he was remembered as an ardent Nazi, rejected after the war by many of his onetime friends. He was also a convicted war criminal, having been re-charged in absentia by a Dutch court and sentenced to time served for plundering the Philips company.27 By contrast, Esau was eulogized by prominent Mennonite intellectuals in Germany and the United States. In 1964, when Esau’s translation of The Story of the Mennonites finally appeared in print, the foreword by Cornelius Krahn of Bethel College praised him as “a man of uncommon creative capacity.”28
The German edition of The Story of the Mennonites sanitized not only Abraham Esau’s past but the broader role of Mennonites in the Third Reich. MCC expressed interest in the manuscript as a means of catering “to our German constituency,” and the US Mennonite General Conference took charge of printing it.29 Cornelius Krahn assembled a team of six readers, including Esau and three other former fascists, who proofed the typed chapters. These appeared in serialized form in a Canadian Mennonite newspaper beginning in 1951. The book’s final version included some additions, but it also entirely omitted a critical original chapter about the Third Reich.
It is appropriate that Abraham Esau, arguably the most powerful Mennonite in the Third Reich, also helped spark—quite unintentionally—the first efforts to publicly reckon with the church’s entanglement with National Socialism. In the same year that Esau’s translation of The Story of the Mennonites appeared, a young Mennonite named Hans-Jürgen Goertz received his doctorate in Germany on the history of radical theology. Goertz, who became a pastor of the Mennonite congregation in Hamburg, took issue with the book’s silence on the Third Reich. He translated the missing chapter and had it serialized in 1965 in a German-language denominational paper.30
Hans-Jürgen Goertz’s resurrection of the redacted chapter on Nazi Germany from The Story of the Mennonites helped ignite a slow-burning interrogation into the denomination’s troubled past. Run-ins with former Nazis as well as Goertz’s own ongoing interest in radical theology led to his landmark 1974 essay, “National Uprising and Religious Downfall,” which alleged that during the Third Reich, Germany’s Mennonites abandoned their principles for nationalism.31 This piece, which sparked still more debate and instigated the first book-length study of the denomination’s Nazi complicity, continues to inspire a process of research and response that is not yet complete.
The story of Hitler’s Mennonite physicist illuminates much of the arc of Mennonite involvement in German nationalism from the late nineteenth century into the postwar era. Abraham Esau’s denominational background primed him to fuse academia with state militarism, allowing him to helm the Nazi nuclear program during the Second World War. Afterwards, the North American Mennonite Central Committee treated Esau, like thousands of other collaborators, as innocent and deserving of aid. Esau, meanwhile, portrayed himself as a model Mennonite, thereby erasing the stain of his war crimes. Being Mennonite suddenly mattered to Esau in an entirely new way.
Mennonites in North America, Europe, and around the globe might reflect on this history of perpetration and denial. Why is it that European Mennonites like Esau found collaboration with Hitler’s genocidal regime so easy and desirable? How could North American Mennonites then so breezily cover for their coreligionists, without raising serious concerns about crimes they might have committed? Abraham Esau’s case may require special soul-searching, given his direct and significant role in the Nazi war machine, as well as his broader impact on the global rise of nuclear weapons. But he was also one among tens of thousands of Mennonite Nazi collaborators.
Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University and the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, to be released in paperback from Princeton University Press on May 28.
The author thanks Hans-Jürgen Goertz, Dieter Hoffmann, Bernd-A. Rusinek, Allan Teichroew, John Thiesen, Mark Walker, and Madeline Williams for their help with sources and interpretation.
The most complete biography of Esau is Dieter Hoffmann and Rüdiger Stutz, “Grenzgänger der Wissenschaft: Abraham Esau als Industriephysiker, Universitätsrektor und Forschungsmanager,” in ‘Kämpferische Wissenschaft’: Studien zur Universität Jena im Nationalsozialismus, ed. Uwe Hoßfeld, Jürgen John, Oliver Lemuth, and Rüdiger Stutz(Cologne: Böhlau Verlag, 2003), 136-179.↩
Albert Einstein, Einstein on Peace (New York: Avenel Books, 1968), 295. On the Manhattan Project, see Jeff Hughes, The Manhattan Project: Big Science and the Atom Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).↩
For works that consider Esau’s relationship to Mennonitism, see Horst Penner, “Abraham Esau: Der Große Physiker aus Tiegenhagen,” Mennonitisches Jahrbuch 14 (1974): 54-57; Horst Gerlach, “Abraham Esau: Ein Physiker und Pionier der Nachrichtentechnik,” Westpreußen-Jahrbuch 27 (1977): 57-66; Horst Gerlach, “Esau, Abraham Robert,” MennLex V, online.↩
Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880 (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010); Benjamin Goossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 18-95.↩
See Heidi Tworek, News from Germany: The Competition to Control World Communications, 1900-1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019), 45-69.↩
Information in this section is from Mark Walker, German National Socialism and the Quest for Nuclear Power 1939-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 17-206; Kristie Mackrakis, Surviving the Swastika: Scientific Research in Nazi Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 162-186.↩
Klaus Hentschel, ed., Physics and National Socialism (Basel: Birkhäuser Verlag, 1996), 321-322.↩
Bernd-A. Rusinek, “Deutsche und Niederländische Physiker,” paper given at the conference “Ambivalente Funktionäre: Zur Rolle von Funktionseliten im NS-System,” held November 9-10, 2001 in Osnabrück, Germany, online.↩
See Benjamin W. Goossen, “Taube und Hakenkreuz: Verhandlungen zwischen der NS-Regierung und dem MCC in Bezug auf die lateinamerikanischen Mennoniten,” Jahrbuch für Geschichte und Kultur der Mennoniten in Paraguay 18 (2017): 133-160; Goossen, Chosen Nation, 174-199.↩
Helene Goertz to C. Henry Smith, September 24, 1948, Cornelius Krahn Collection, Box 5, Folder: Correspondence Horst Quiring 1943-1949, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas, hereafter MLA.↩
Peter Goertz to Peter [Unknown], February 26, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.↩
Peter Goertz to Pat Goertz and Ruth Goertz, February 27, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.↩
Helene to Family Members, February 27, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.↩
Peter Goertz to Emil [Unknown] and Rachel [Unknown], November 15, 1947, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence October-December 1947, MLA. On MCC’s postwar refugee efforts, see also Benjamin W. Goossen, “From Aryanism to Anabaptism: Nazi Race Science and the Language of Mennonite Ethnicity,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90, no. 2 (2016): 135-163.↩
Helene Goertz to Emil [Unknown] and Rachel [Unknown], November 15, 1947, November 15, 1947, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence October-December 1947, MLA.↩
Peter Goertz to Dewey Yoder, April 15, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.↩
C. Henry Smith, The Story of the Mennonites (Berne, IN: Mennonite Book Concern, 1941).↩
Alfred Boettcher to Helene Goertz, May 30, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.↩
Helene Goertz to Pat Goertz and Ruth Goertz, May 8, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.↩
Helene Goertz to Peter Goertz, May 16, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.↩
Christian Neff, ed., Mennonitisches Adreßbuch 1936 (Karlsruhe, 1936).↩
Hentschel, ed., Physics and National Socialism, 324.↩
Abraham Esau to Peter Goertz, June 17, 1948, Cornelius Krahn Collection, Box 5, Folder: Correspondence Horst Quiring 1943-1949, MLA.↩
Abraham Esau to Peter Goertz, July 1, 1948, Cornelius Krahn Collection, Box 5, Folder: Correspondence Horst Quiring 1943-1949, MLA.↩
Klaus Hentschel, The Mental Aftermath: The Mentality of German Physicists 1945-1949 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 96.↩
Bernd-A. Rusinek, “Leo Brandt: Ein Überblick,” in Leo Brandt (1908-1971): Ingenieur, Wissenschaftsförderer, Visionär, ed. Bernhard Mittermaier and Bernd-A. Rusinek (Jülich: Forschungszentrum Jülich, 2009), 22-23; Bernd-A. Rusinek, “Von der Entdeckung der NS-Vergangenheit zum generellen Faschismusverdacht: Akademische Diskurse in der Bundesrepublik der 60er Jahre,” in Dynamische Zeiten: Die 60er Jahre in den beiden deutschen Gesellschaften, ed. Axel Schildt, Detlef Siegfried, and Karl Christian Lammers (Hamburg: Hans Christians Verlag, 2000), 120.↩
Bernd-A. Rusinek, “Schwerte/Schneider: Die Karriere eines Spagatakteurs 1936-1995,” in Der Fall Schwerte im Kontext, ed. Helmut König (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1998),44-45.↩
C. Henry Smith, Die Geschichte der Mennoniten Europas, trans. Abraham Esau (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1964), Einleitung.↩
Orie Miller to Cornelius Krahn, October 6, 1948, Cornelius Krahn Collection, Box 5, Folder: Correspondence Horst Quiring 1943-1949, MLA.↩
Hans-Jürgen Goertz, Umwege zwischen Kanzel und Katheder: Autobiographische Fragmente (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2018): 70.↩
Goertz’s original essay is reprinted with commentary in Marion Kobelt-Groch and Astrid von Schlachta, eds., Mennoniten in der NS-Zeit: Stimmen, Lebenssituationen, Erfahrungen (Bolanden-Weierhof: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein, 2017), 11-38. For historiographical context, see John Thiesen, “Menno in the KZ or Münster Resurrected: Mennonites and National Socialism,” in European Mennonites and the Challenge of Modernity: Contributors, Detractors, and Adapters, ed. Mark Jantzen, Mary Sprunger, and John Thiesen (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 2016), 313-328.↩