While I was completing my doctoral coursework, I read Steven Ozment’s When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe, in which he described the magisterial reformers’ exaltation of marriage as an opportunity for women to take up their roles as mothers of the house, a position of “high authority and equal respect” to that of the patriarch.1 While Lyndal Roper and others have criticized Ozment’s rosy portrayal of Reformation-era gender relations, which failed to account for the vast gulf between the rights and privileges enjoyed by husbands and those afforded to wives, there is no doubt that many sixteenth-century Protestant writings emphasized marriage and motherhood as the primary opportunity for Christian faithfulness offered to most women.2 As wives and as mothers, they could obey the Scriptures and bring up their children in the fear of the Lord. Catechizing their own children was the primary mode of spiritual authority available to them.
At the same time, for my Radical Reformation field, I was reading Adam Darlage’s article on sixteenth-century Hutterite women, which emphasized the communal nature of child-rearing in Hutterite colonies. Hutterite mothers were not expected to be their children’s primary spiritual teachers—instead, children were housed separately from their parents as soon as they were weaned and received both spiritual and practical instruction in junior and then senior schools run by the community.3 Reading these works in parallel made me wonder whether sixteenth-century Anabaptists had qualitatively different views of motherhood than their magisterial counterparts. On the one hand, the radical reformers, like the magisterial reformers, rejected celibacy as an ideal and encouraged marriage instead. And the Swiss Brethren and the Mennonites, at least, would not have objected to mothers viewing childrearing and raising their children in the faith as an important spiritual task. But, at the same time, Anabaptist women faced a far more imminent threat of martyrdom than most other Protestant women, and so motherhood was, at best, their second-most pressing spiritual challenge. Their obedience to Christ was more likely to involve hostile interrogations and the threat of death, and to be willing to suffer death or imprisonment for Christ was of necessity to be willing to leave one’s family behind and to entrust the raising of one’s children to someone else.
In another life, I might have written a dissertation on sixteenth-century Anabaptist ideals and realities of motherhood. In the end I didn’t, though I think someone should! But for now, I thought I’d begin by looking at depictions of motherhood in one of the best-known early modern Anabaptist sources: the Martyrs Mirror. The first depiction of motherhood in the Martyrs Mirror that came to my mind was the iconic image of Anna Jansz, who was drowned in Rotterdam in 1539, searching the crowd for someone to raise her son Isaiah. The engraving shows the baker who finally stepped forward and agreed to raise him. He also agreed to give him a letter she had written to him, and the text of the letter became part of the Dutch martyrological tradition that culminated in the Martyrs Mirror.4 Also interspersed throughout the text are letters from five other mothers about to be martyred—Soetgen van den Houte, Maeyken Boosers, Maeyken van Deventer, Maeyken Wens, and Janneken Munsdorp—written to their children, in a last attempt to provide them with spiritual guidance. Soetgen and the three Maeykens left behind children old enough to remember them, and even to write back, so their letters reaffirmed values they had already taught their children over the years. They were deeply conscious that, after years of trying to teach their children, they were now setting the ultimate example by dying for their faith. They hoped that their children, too, would choose to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Christ on the narrow path that led to life. They took great comfort in the children who wrote back to them, confirming their intentions to live faithful lives. Maeyken Boosers even sent her children’s letters back to them, as a reminder of the promises they had made to her.5 The content of the children’s letters, and the faith most of their children adopted as adults, is not known, but the Martyrs’ Mirror does relay the story of Maeyken Wens’ fifteen-year-old son Adriaen, who went to witness her execution along with his youngest brother Hans (whom Maeyken, in the most touching part of her letter, had instructed Adrien to hug now and again on her behalf). He fainted when the pyre was lit, and when he came to only ashes remained. He sifted through them, found the tongue screw her torturers had used, and kept it as a memento. By the time this account was published in the mid-seventeenth century, Maeyken had several surviving grandchildren who had been named in her honor.6
Anna Jansz and Janneken Munsdorp, on the other hand, were both writing to babies so young that their letters would be their children’s only memory of them. Anna instructed Isaiah to take the fear of the Lord as his father and wisdom as his mother, a phrase that surely resonated with others as the letter circulated, since Maeyken van Deventer repeated it to her children 34 years later.7 While the rest of Anna’s letter was mostly filled with apocalyptic language about the evils of the current age and exhortations to live a righteous life, Janneken’s letter gave voice more fully to the anguish of being separated from such a young child and the deep pain she felt at not being able to live long enough to raise her. She and her husband Hans had been married less than a year when they were both apprehended, and he preceded her in death when the authorities discovered she was pregnant, since it was customary to wait until after pregnant women had delivered their children to execute them.8 She recounted how difficult it was to experience pregnancy in prison, knowing this separation was imminent. “Now that I have abided the time, and borne you under my heart with great sorrow for nine months, and given birth to you here in prison, in great pain, they have taken you from me,” she lamented.9 She held on to a sliver of hope, almost despite herself, that God might yet miraculously deliver her and return her to her daughter, but she realized that this was not the most likely outcome. “Oh, that it had pleased the Lord, that I might have brought you up; I should so gladly have done my best with respect to it; but it seems that it is not the Lord’s will.”10 Since she could not bring her daughter up in the faith herself, she hoped for one of two outcomes: “that [God] will keep you, and you grow up in His fear, or that He will take you home in your youth.”11 In a letter to her sister, she confessed to a preference for the latter outcome, so that she might be reunited with her child even sooner.12
Janneken was not the only woman in the Martyrs Mirror to give birth while imprisoned and awaiting death. Five other women gave birth under similar circumstances: Christina Haring, a woman named Lyntgen, Lijsken Dircks, Mary Joris, and the unnamed wife of Adriaen Pan. Christina, Lijsken, and Adriaen’s wife were each executed after giving birth.13 Mary Joris died in childbirth, a fact that the account of her death interpreted as deliverance, and as for Lyntgen, “the pain of delivery so affected her, that she became utterly deranged in her mind; after this she laid for a long time at Amsterdam, in a little house, in which also died.”14 There is no doubt that this experience of pregnancy in the worst possible conditions, with the certain knowledge that only death and separation from their children awaited them, was deeply traumatic for these women.15
Mothers who nursed infants at the time of their arrest were sometimes able to keep the child with them in prison, though the authorities did not hesitate to use the child to punish the mother. The Martyrs’ Mirror recalls the story of Paul Vandruynen and his wife, who had a nine-month-old child with her in prison until the authorities took the child and had it baptized. Another woman,Claudine le Vettre, suffered increasingly harsh interrogations while nursing her infant in prison, and, when these tactics failed the authorities took the child away and gave it to a wet nurse in a last attempt to coerce her into recantation. This attempt was unsuccessful, but it was “the greatest affliction she suffered during her imprisonment.”16 Mothers of slightly older children likewise found separation from their families the hardest loss to contemplate as they faced martyrdom. A woman named Claesken, who left behind two daughters and a son, became indignant when her inquisitor accused her of being confused and insufficiently familiar with the New Testament. “Do you think,” she retorted, “that we run on uncertainties? We are not ignorant of the contents of the New Testament. We forsake our dear children, whom I would not forsake for the whole world, and we stake upon it all that we have. Should we run on uncertainties yet?”17 For Claesken, the fact that she and other Anabaptists were willing to do something as impossible as leaving behind their beloved children was proof that they had been imbued with the power of the Holy Spirit.18 In addition to the mothers I have detailed so far, the Martyrs Mirror mentions three more mothers of minor children who were imprisoned: Hadewijk of Leeuwarden, Levina of Ghent, and Grietgen de Raet. Hadewijk escaped and lived out the rest of her life in Emden, but Levina and Grietgen were both executed.19 Two mothers of Anabaptist ministers, Janneken Walraven and Sijntgen Vercoilgen were also mentioned, but it seems that their sons were already adults by the time they were martyred.20 It is, of course, likely that other women in the Martyrs Mirror left behind children who simply were not mentioned in the accounts of their deaths.
Finally, the Martyrs Mirror recounts five stories of mothers who were martyred alongside one of their children: the wife and son of a man named Arent Jacobs, Neeltgen and Trijntgen of Maastricht, Lijngten Joris and her daughter, who was named either Catharina or Trijntgen, the wife and daughter of a man named Hans de Ruyter, and Anneken Botson and her daughter Janneken. While most of these accounts are cursory, the story of Neeltgen and Trijntgen describes how the two women spoke encouraging words and strengthened each other’s resolve in prison.21 The story of Lijntgen and her daughter, meanwhile, shows how the authorities attempted to pit mother and daughter against each other in order to force a recantation. On the day of their execution, they brought the daughter out of earshot of the mother and tried to tell her that her mother had recanted and she should as well. Their ploy did not work and the two women were executed together.22
The Martyrs’ Mirror, of course, self-selects for women who, however much it broke their hearts to leave their children behind, ultimately felt that martyrdom was a higher calling than motherhood. They entrusted their children to God and went bravely to their deaths. If they wavered, if they even briefly considered recanting in order to return to their families, the sources have not preserved these doubts. Overwhelmingly, it seems, they felt that their greatest task as mothers was to set a good example of faithfulness for their children. If they denied Christ in order to be restored to their children, paradoxically, they would fail at this task. It would be interesting to see what less hagiographic sources reveal about women who recanted, and how many of them cited their children as a reason for doing so.
1 Steven Ozment, When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 54.
2 See Lyndal Roper, The Holy Household: Women, Religion, and Morals in Reformation Augsburg (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).
3 Adam Darlage, “Double Honor: Elite Hutterite Women in the Sixteenth Century,” Church History 79:4 (2010): 769.
Les Frères mennonites (Mennonite Brethren) established a mission in Québec in 1961 when they were expelled from the Congo.1 An evangelistic fervour in the province saw a handful of congregations rapidly emerge to the north-east of Montreal, bolstering the presence of the Old Mennonites, the Fellowship Baptists and the Baptist Union churches. Using evangelistic methodology, charismatic leaders Ernie and Lydia Dyck sparked the establishment of new congregations. These new churches quickly grew to embrace several hundred young people who had converted in the evangelistic crusades that emerged in the wake of the massive cultural shifts spawned by the Quiet Revolution, Vatican II and the feminist movement.2Historians and sociologists estimate that by 1984 there were 1000 men and women, mostly young, attending ten newly formed congregations.3
Print press became an important tool in furthering this mission. By 1980, the Mennonite Brethren Herald began to supplement their English and German bi-lingual publication with a monthly French insert, La publication françaisdu Herald.4 This journalistic enterprise gave voice to a new community. For historians, it provides a wealth of information about the development of the Mennonite church in Quebec. It is the voice of new converts who were growing into their identity as Christians and Mennonites. Initially it appears to have been an arm of the evangelism claiming Quebec, with its goal to edify and encourage new Christians. With news from the churches in Quebec, testimonies, inspirational messages and teachings for the Mennonite Christians in the province under the editorship of a young evangelistically-minded Quebecois leader Auguste Masson, it soon claimed its Quebecois identity with the name Le lien des Frères mennonites (The Mennonite Brethren Connection).5
Under new editorial leadership, Le Lien would become an important vehicle that allowed women’s voices to be heard.6 Claudette LeBlanc, who had converted under the influence of young evangelicals at the college in Ste-Therese, took the post after training at the Institute Biblique Béthel located in Sherbrooke. The mood of the paper quickly shifted as she gave opportunities for women to explore publicly what it meant to live as evangelical Christians in the fast changing culture of Quebec.7 The paper became a place where women could reflect on what it meant to be Christians in their context; it challenged readers on how they lived their lives as Christian women. Defending the increased volume of women’s voices, LeBlanc’s editorial comments in the February 1986 issue explained:
Un autre numéro sur les femmes, direz-vous! Pourquoi pas? Elles représentent souvent plus que la moitié de l’Église (53% chez nous) et leur rôle n’est pas encore clair pour tous. Il importe donc d’y rêfléchir ensemble.” (Another issue on women, you say! Why not? They often represent more than half of the church and their role isn’t yet clear for everyone. It is necessary to reflect on this together).8
Coinciding with the naming of Annie Brosseau, another young female convert and graduate of Institute Biblique Béthel as editor, by 1988 Le lien expanded its evangelical voice to introduce the francophone constituency to the work of Mennonite Central Committee.9 The introduction of “Le MCC au Québec,” with an extensive interview of Debby Martin Koop, MCC Canada’s recently appointed representative in Quebec, set the stage for a new face for Quebec Mennonites. It was historic in its setting the stage for MCC’s relationship with the Mennonite Brethren.10 This unique relationship between MCC and the Mennonite Brethren as it involved in Quebec, notable for women’s leadership, is well worth further exploration. To conclude, I hope to develop our understanding further as I prepare for my contribution to the MCC at 100 conference coming up soon in fall 2021. I also hope that others will discover for themselves the rich potential that le Lien holds for historical inquiry.
1. Claudette LeBlanc, “’Nous louons le Seigneur!’” le lien des Frères mennonites Vol. 6, no. 2 (juillet-août 1987), 1-2.
2. For a clear outline of the developments of evangelicalism in Quebec during these years, see Richard Lougheed, “The Evangelical Revivals of the 1960s – 1980s,” in French-Speaking Protestants in Canada: Historical Essays, 191-206, edited by Jason Zuidema (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2011).
3. Ruth Dyck, “Le progrès de l’évangel dans la ‘Belle Province’” (26 september 1980), 1; see also Richard Lougheed Mennos in Quebec (Kitchener, Ontario : Pandora Press, forthcoming).
4. Ruth Dyck, “Rendez-vous à Winnipeg,” Publication français du Herald, Vol. 1, no. 1 (le 8 août 1980), 1.
5. “La tournée du trio d’IBL,” Le Lien (le 8 août 1980,), 3; (25 mars 1983), 8.
6. I have explored elsewhere the rich female culture that developed during this time. See “Le Comité des femmes inter-églises, 1978-1998: a compass for the women of l’église des frères mennonites du Québec,” Journal of MennoniteStudies Vol. 37 (2019), 105-18.
7. Claudette LeBlanc, “Jésus en moi,” Publication français du Herald (le 26 septembre 1980), 4.
Toward the beginning of the 1985 film directed by Peter Weir, Witness, the 8-year-old Amish protagonist, Samuel Lapp, is in a Philadelphia train station with his mother. At one point Samuel approaches a man from behind whom he believes to be Amish based on the man’s dark clothing and broad-brimmed black hat, only to discover that he is not Amish, but a Hasidic Jew.
There are obvious similarities between Hasidim, members of Orthodox Jewish sects (often described as “ultra-Orthodox”) whose strong faith infuses their daily lives, and the Amish. The spiritual descendants of a Jewish revival movement in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe, Hasidim, like their Amish counterparts, marry only within their communities, have large families, and maintain a measure of distance between themselves and outsiders, a distance that is marked outwardly through distinctive practices of daily living, including how they dress and groom themselves. Aside from the fact that Hasidim are Jewish and Amish are Christian, there are many differences between the two groups. Hasidim, for example, submit to the spiritual authority of a dynastic leader, a rebbe, and observe strict, biblically based dietary laws. In Amish congregations, bishops wield much less authority and there are no restrictions on the food Amish may eat or how it is prepared. The ways in which Hasidim and Amish educate their children differ as well. Hasidic children are segregated by gender in schools, with boys receiving a mostly religious curriculum in Yiddish. Amish-run schools, which are conducted exclusively in English, do not separate girls and boys and teach secular subject matter only.1
A presumed linguistic connection between Hasidim and Amish is depicted, this time humorously, in another Hollywood film, The Frisco Kid (1979). The film’s main character is Avram Belinski, a hapless Polish-Jewish immigrant rabbi played by Gene Wilder who is making his way from Philadelphia to San Francisco. At one point, Belinski mistakes a group of Amish people for Hasidim and addresses them in Yiddish, which the (standard) German-speaking Amish do not understand, prompting one of them to ask Belinski, “Dost thou speak English?” (Click here to see the clip of this scene.)
A notable similarity between Hasidim and Amish has to do with language. Most members of both groups speak languages that are related to German, but only distantly, Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch. In what follows I will compare Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch with respect to language structure as well as how they are used.2
Although Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch are not mutually intelligible with German (or each other), both descend historically from varieties of southern German and diverged from German mainly through emigration. Yiddish is by far the older of the two languages. Its roots extend back to the ninth century, while Pennsylvania Dutch developed in the eighteenth century. Due to the lack of historical documentation for the oldest forms of Yiddish (the earliest written evidence for the language dates to the late thirteenth century), how it emerged as a distinct language is speculative. There is also a lack of scholarly consensus as to which southern German dialects Yiddish is most closely related to. A common view is that Yiddish developed in Jewish communities in the Central Rhine Valley, part of the West Central German dialect area, the regions marked 20 and 21 in the map below.3 Others place the Yiddish linguistic homeland farther east and south, in Bavaria (regions 33, 34, and 35), which belongs to the Upper German dialect group.
Another complicating factor in identifying the German roots of Yiddish is the considerable variation across the varieties that were spoken historically in Central and Eastern Europe. Yiddish dialects fall into two major groups, Western and Eastern. Western Yiddish, which has been moribund for some time, was spoken mostly in German-speaking Central Europe. Eastern Yiddish, which was the native language of most Jewish immigrants to the US in the late nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth centuries, including the Hasidim, was coterritorial with non-Germanic languages, mostly Slavic languages, Hungarian, Romanian, and Lithuanian. Within Eastern Yiddish there is considerable dialectal variation.4
The early history of Pennsylvania Dutch is much better understood, mainly because of its shorter time depth. The language developed through the immigration of German speakers to colonial Pennsylvania, most of whom hailed from the Palatinate, which is located partly in the Central Rhine Valley, hence there are many similarities between Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch. The German dialects that Pennsylvania Dutch most closely resembles today are in the region marked 20 in the map above.
As with Yiddish, there are dialects of Pennsylvania Dutch, though the differences across them are not nearly as great as within Eastern Yiddish. Pennsylvania Dutch dialects differ from one another mostly in vocabulary; the grammar and pronunciation are remarkably uniform. The original variation within Pennsylvania Dutch was geographically determined. In the heartland of the language, the counties located in the so-called Dutch Country of southeastern Pennsylvania, the clearest differences were between the varieties in Lehigh and eastern Berks counties and those used in Lancaster and western Berks counties. Amish and Mennonite sectarians, who collectively comprised only a small minority of the Pennsylvania Dutch founder population, came to be concentrated in Lancaster County. Today, most Amish Pennsylvania Dutch speakers live in the Midwest and their form of the language differs somewhat from what their coreligionists speak in Lancaster-affiliated communities, a natural consequence of change over time, however all Amish varieties of Pennsylvania Dutch are completely mutually intelligible.5
There are no absolute criteria according to which linguistic varieties are called “languages” or “dialects” and there is often disagreement among linguists and native speakers alike as to how to label specific varieties. Coincidentally, the most famous comment on the difference between languages and dialects was popularized by the linguist Max Weinreich, whose work on the history of the Yiddish is unparalleled. The quote, which Weinreich heard from a Yiddish speaker who attended one of his lectures, is “a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot” (A language is a dialect with an army and navy). What this essentially means is that when two linguistic varieties sharing a common ancestor have become autonomous from one another (e.g., administratively), it is reasonable to classify them as separate languages. And certainly, if it is difficult for speakers of the varieties in question to understand one another due to differences in vocabulary and grammar, that would move the needle further away from calling them dialects of a common language. In the case of Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch, their external (sociolinguistic) and internal (structural) distance from German is clear: both are best regarded as languages separate from German, as, for example, Dutch and Luxembourgish are.6
The linguistic distance between Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch and German can be shown by comparing how the same text is rendered in all three languages. Below are translations of the first five verses of Genesis. The Yiddish version is transliterated; written Yiddish uses the Hebrew alphabet. The Pennsylvania Dutch version is based on the Midwestern Amish variety of the language and is written in an orthography similar to English.
1Am Anfang schuf Gott Himmel und Erde. 2 Und die Erde war wüst und leer, und es war finster auf der Tiefe; und der Geist Gottes schwebte auf dem Wasser. 3 Und Gott sprach: Es werde Licht! und es ward Licht. 4 Und Gott sah, daß das Licht gut war. Da schied Gott das Licht von der Finsternis 5und nannte das Licht Tag und die Finsternis Nacht. Da ward aus Abend und Morgen der erste Tag.
1in onheyb hot got bashafn dem himl un di erd. 2un di erd iz geven vist un leydik, un fintsternish iz geven oyfn gezikht fun thom, un der gayst fun got hot geshvebt oyfn gezikht fun di vasern. 3hot got gezogt: zol vern likht. un es iz gevorn likht. 4un got hot gezen dos likht az es iz gut; un got hot fanandergesheydt tsvishn dem likht un tsvishn der fintsternish. 5un got hot gerufn dos likht tog, un di fintsternish hot er gerufn nakht. un es iz geven ovnt, un es iz geven frimorgn, eyn tog.
1Am ohfang hott Gott da himmel un di eaht kshaffa. 2Nau di eaht voah gans veesht un leah. Es voah dunkel ivvah’s deef vassah, un Gott sei Geisht voah ivvah’s vassah. 3Un Gott hott ksawt, “Loss di helling gmacht sei,” un’s voah hell. 4Gott hott ksenna es di helling goot voah, un hott di helling fadayld fumm dunkla. 5Gott hott di helling “dawk” kaysa, un hott’s dunkla “nacht” kaysa. Un’s voah ohvet un meiya, da eahsht dawk.
I mentioned above that one difference between the use of Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch among Hasidim and Amish is that the former language is used as a medium of instruction in Hasidic parochial schools. In the teaching of religious subject matter, which is the primary focus in the education of Hasidic boys, pupils study sacred texts in Hebrew and Aramaic but discuss their content in Yiddish. One common way that scripture is taught is by reciting the original Hebrew phrase by phrase, interspersed with literal Yiddish translations.
Below is a recording of a contemporary Hasidic man reciting the biblical passage above in Hebrew and Yiddish. The Hebrew original is given in bold, with the Yiddish in roman script.10 The differences between the Hasidic and Standard Yiddish versions here are due to dialectal variation. The standard variety commonly used when Yiddish is formally taught in non-Hasidic institutions is based largely on the Eastern dialects that were historically coterritorial with Lithuania. Most modern Hasidic varieties of Yiddish derive from dialects that used to be spoken farther south, in an area where Hungarian, among other languages, was also spoken.
Hasidic Hebrew and Yiddish
1berayshes – in unhayb, buru eloykim – hot der aybershter bashafn, es hashumaim – dem himl, veays huurets – in di erd. 2vehuurets – in di erd, hoysu – iz geveyn, soyhi – pist, vuvoyhi – in vist, vekhoyshekh – in tinkl, al pnay sehoym – hekhern upgrint; veriekh eloykim – in der gayst finem aybershtn, merakheyfes – hot geshveybt, al pnay hamoyim – hekhern vaser. 3vayoymer eloykim – in der aybershter hot gezugt, yehi oyr – es zol zaan lekhtik, vayhi oyr – in es iz gevorn lekhtik. 4vayar eloykim – in der aybershter hot gezeyn, es huoyr – di lekhtikayt, ki toyv – az zi iz git, vayavdayl eloykim – in der aybershter hot upgeshaydt, bayn huoyr – tsvishn der lekhtikayt, ibayn hakhoysekh – in tsvishn der tinklkayt. 5vayikru eloykim – in der aybershter hot gerifn, luoyr – tsi der likhtikayt, yoym – tug, velakhoyshekh – in tsi der tinklkayt, kuru – hot er gerifn, loylu – nakht, vayhi eyrev – es iz geveyn uvnt, vayhi boyker – es iz geveyn in der fri, yoym eykhud – deym ershtn tug.
In the past, both Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch were once widely spoken by people not affiliated with Hasidic or traditional Anabaptist groups. So-called secular Yiddish speakers advanced the frontiers of the language during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in many ways. Yiddish became a vital vehicle for communication in several public spheres, including literature, politics, and scholarly research, and there were countless periodicals produced in Yiddish whose content in many cases was not connected to the Jewish faith. The Holocaust dealt a critical blow to the language. Perhaps as much as one-half of the world’s Yiddish-speaking population was murdered by Nazi Germany. Although Yiddish continues to be spoken by non-Hasidic Jews today, many of whom identify as Yiddishists, ardent advocates for the language and culture, the Hasidim far outnumber these more secular speakers.
The counterparts of secular Yiddish speakers in Pennsylvania Dutch–speaking society are known among scholars as “nonsectarians,” or more popularly the “Church People” or “Fancy Dutch.” Nonsectarian Pennsylvania Dutch are the descendants of non-Anabaptist German-speaking immigrants to rural Pennsylvania during the colonial era who had little contact with Amish or Mennonites from the early nineteenth century on. They became the main standard bearers of a rich folk culture that included several thousand texts, including literary works. But unlike Yiddish, Pennsylvania Dutch was always used almost exclusively by rural dwellers of modest educational background. Among those Pennsylvania Dutch people, sectarian or nonsectarian, who aspired to move “up” socially or who chose to marry non-Pennsylvania Dutch-speaking partners, the shift to speaking English only was in most cases rapid. Today, the vast majority of active speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch are members of Amish and traditional Mennonite groups, who choose to live in rural areas and set limits on the degree to which they interact with the larger society, thereby creating a social space within which their heritage language remains vital.
Despite their status today as the main speakers of Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch, neither Hasidim nor Amish engage in conscious efforts to cultivate, promote, or celebrate their heritage languages. Language maintenance is a secondary phenomenon of how both groups live out their faith. For their part, Hasidim adhere to a teaching that observant Jews should avoid innovation in their names, language, and clothing, which is derived from a belief that the preservation of these cultural practices by the biblical Israelites contributed to their redemption from slavery in Egypt. The quote below is from a Hasidic man interviewed by a Yiddish-speaking linguist, Isaac Bleaman, and is included in Bleaman’s 2018 doctoral thesis comparing the sociolinguistic situations of Hasidim and Yiddishists in New York.11
The rabbis are always saying you’re not allowed to change your language. It says in Midrash [biblical commentaries] on account of three things the Jews could leave (Egypt) . . . Shem [name], lushn [language], and malbesh [clothing]. Shem is the name, they didn’t make their names goyish [non-Jewish]. Lushn and malbesh . . . So the Hasidim will interpret lushn to mean language, to mean how the way that your parents spoke. So you must continue to speak . . . if your mother speaks Yiddish, you must also speak Yiddish and if you change, then you have a problem.12
An additional important factor underlying the maintenance of Yiddish among Hasidim has to do with Hebrew. Among observant Jews generally, Hebrew, which is a Semitic language unrelated to Germanic Yiddish, has unique significance as the sacred language of scripture that has been a constant throughout the entire history of the Jewish people. Some Jewish thinkers have even declared that Hebrew was the original language of humanity: “The language created by God, which He taught Adam and placed on his tongue and in his heart, is without any doubt the most perfect and most fitted to express the things specified.”13 Most Hasidim feel that Hebrew, as the holy tongue, is unsuited for everyday communication, making Yiddish, which is still a uniquely Jewish language, an appropriate vernacular for in-group communication. Yiddish also serves as a marker of the spiritual-cultural boundary between Hasidim and outsiders, both other Jews and non-Jews.
Amish and other traditional Anabaptists do not subscribe to an explicit, scripturally based ideology that justifies the maintenance of Pennsylvania Dutch, however its continued use is viewed as a tangible connection to their spiritual heritage.14 Amish people affectionately refer to Pennsylvania Dutch as their Mudderschprooch (mother tongue), which evokes that it is the language they first learn to speak at home and what their forebears spoke. The similar affection among Hasidim for Yiddish is reflected in their description of it (but not Hebrew) as their mame-loshn, which also means ‘mother tongue’. Like Yiddish, Pennsylvania Dutch performs a boundary-maintaining function for Amish and other Plain people, as it has now become a language that is effectively their own.
The meaning of Mudderschprooch is extended by the Amish to include German; the Pennsylvania Dutch word Deitsch means either ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ or ‘German’. Just as the Hasidim feel that maintaining Hebrew is essential for the practice of their faith, German has a similar status among the Amish, though the Amish do not believe that German is an inherently holy tongue. They know that German was not the original language of the Bible, yet it is at the center of their devotional life. They use Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible and prayer books and hymnals that are in an archaic form of standard German called by linguists “Amish High German” or “Pennsylvania High German.” The Amish do not proscribe the use of German for non-religious purposes, but their everyday communicative needs are met by Pennsylvania Dutch and English. As members of North American society, the Amish recognize that English is essential for their economic survival and it is the main language they read and write. For their part, Hasidim also speak, read, and write the languages of the larger communities in which they live, however their proficiency in Yiddish as a written as well as an oral medium distinguishes them from the Amish, who rarely read or write Pennsylvania Dutch.
The ideology that calls Hasidim to signal their Jewish identity overtly in names, language, and clothing has a clear parallel among the Amish and other Plain Anabaptists. Although Amish people do not have given names that are different from those of their non-Plain neighbors, their speech and dress and grooming set them apart. The reflections of an Old Order Mennonite minister are apt here, linking distinctive verbal behavior and appearance to the cardinal Anabaptist virtue of humility.
In my opinion, though the Deitsch we have is not a written language, it is enough to help keep us together as a people. God confused the languages, and it served a good purpose. Now maybe we should not strive for a unified language. I often think how an old sister counseled, soon after I had joined the church, that “children should also learn a little something about bearing their cross, with their clothing style.” I think also it is thus with the language. It is good for them to endure a little ridicule.15
Both Hasidim and Amish “endure a little ridicule” for how they live out their faith, but their demographic success – their growth rates are exponential due to large average family sizes and low attrition – is remarkable. And as the Hasidic and Amish populations increase, the futures of both Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch look bright.
1. The scholarly and popular literature about Hasidim and Amish is vast. Two book-length treatments of each group to be recommended are Hasidic People: A Place in the New World by Jerome R. Mintz (Harvard University Press, 1992) and The Amish by Donald B. Kraybill, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, and Steven M. Nolt (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).
2. To date, there has been one article devoted to comparing Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch, “A Lexical Comparison of Two Sister Languages: Pennsylvania German and Yiddish,” Pennsylvania Folklife 29: 138–142, by John R. Costello (1980). Thanks to Edward E. Quinter, Allentown, PA, for bringing this article to my attention.
4. As is true of the scholarly and popular literature on the Hasidim, there are scores of publications on Yiddish. One recent title is Yiddish: Biography of a Language by Jeffrey Shandler (Oxford University Press, 2020).
5. For an overview of the history of Pennsylvania Dutch, including its status among Amish and other Plain people, see Pennsylvania Dutch: The Story of an American Language by Mark L. Louden (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016).
8. Source: Torah, Nevi’im, u-Khetuvim by Solomon Blumgarten (Yehoash Farlag Gezelshaft, 1941). Blumgarten’s translation of the Book of Genesis (Breyshis, in Hebrew) is accessible here. The sound clip is excerpted from a video recording of Samuel Kassow, a native speaker of Yiddish and professor of history at Trinity College. The recording was produced by the Yiddish Book Center, based in Amherst, MA, which is a premier organization for the documentation and dissemination of Yiddish language and culture: https://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/. I am grateful to Isaac Bleaman for bringing this video recording to my attention. Note that Kassow pronounces the words es iz ‘it is’ as “shi”, which is a feature of his Northeastern (Lithuanian-Belarusian) Yiddish dialect: es iz > siz > si > shi. He also pronounces oyfn ‘on the’ as “afn”.
9. Source: Di Heilich Shrift, which was produced by a committee of native speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch from Ohio who were of Amish background (Wycliffe Bible Translators, 2013). The complete translation is accessible here. I produced the sound clip of this excerpt myself.
10. I am indebted here again to Isaac Bleaman, who is a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley and a fluent Yiddish speaker (https://www.isaacbleaman.com/). An anonymous Hasidic friend of Isaac’s kindly created this sound clip for this blog post and Isaac produced the transcription.
11. “Outcomes of Minority Language Maintenance: Variation and Change in New York Yiddish” by Isaac L. Bleaman, Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 2018, pp. 55–61.
12. Bleaman 2018, p. 57. This quote is translated from Yiddish.
13. This quote is from TheKuzari, a seminal philosophical text by the Spanish Jewish poet and thinker Judah Halevi (d. 1141), as cited on p. 71 of “Holy Land, Holy Language: A Study of Ultraorthodox Jewish Ideology” by Lewis Glinert and Yosseph Shilhav, Language in Society 20: 59–86 (1991).
14. A thoughtful essay on the ecology of Pennsylvania Dutch, German, and English in Amish society is “What Is a Language?” (Family Life, February 1986, pp. 12–16), which was written by Benuel S. Blank, an Amish man. The essay is accessible here.
15. Amos B. Hoover, German Language: Cradle of Our Heritage, Ephrata, PA: Muddy Creek Farm Library, 2018, pp. 52–54. The original quote was in Pennsylvania Dutch. See also my post on this blog from January 20, 2021, “Humility and the Pennsylvania Dutch Language.”
In her new book The Making of Biblical Womanhood, historian Beth Allison Barr disassembles the concept of “biblical womanhood” popular in a portion of evangelicalism. Mixing memoir and scholarship, Barr’s text also chronicles her personal journey away from complementarian theology. Studying history, Barr states, convinced her of the fallacy of complementarianism and biblical womanhood.1 The publication of Barr’s book prompted me to return to a figure I examined for Barr’s class during my first semester of doctoral work: Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus.
A twentieth-century Mennonite broadcaster and pastor, Brunk Stoltzfus had a life and ministry that encompassed dramatic shifts in the Mennonite Church’s understandings of women’s roles and leadership. In Barr’s class and a subsequent blog post, I examined the function of gender, authority, and the Holy Spirit in a sermon preached by Brunk Stoltzfus as well as a message delivered by her brother, the notable evangelist George R. Brunk II. Inspired by Barr’s declaration about the power of historical argument, I wanted to revisit Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus to see how she utilized history in making her case for women’s leadership in the Mennonite Church. Of particular interest to me was how Brunk Stoltzfus’ used Anabaptist history. Since her papers have yet to be deposited into an archive, I relied on Brunk Stoltzfus’ contributions to the Gospel Herald from 1963 to 1995 as well as her memoir, A Way Was Opened. My preliminary findings show that Brunk Stoltzfus vocalized her support for women’s leadership most ardently during the 1970s and ’80s, when the topic proved a matter of intense discussion within the Mennonite Church. Additionally, I discovered that, while she preferred arguing from Scripture, Brunk Stoltzfus did occasionally rely on historical evidence.2 Before continuing into my examination of Brunk Stoltzfus’ use of history, I want to contextualize my findings with a brief sketch of her life and ministry.
Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus’ family and talents primed her for ministry. The eighth child of George R. Brunk Sr. and Katie (Wenger) Brunk, she was born on March 15, 1915. A fundamentalist with inclinations toward the holiness movement, George R. Brunk Sr. built a career as a Mennonite pastor and bishop in southeastern Virginia.3 Believing that “women, including his daughters, should [not] strive for incompetence because they were female,” Brunk Sr. trained his daughter in oratory and composition.4 Ruth Brunk married Grant M. Stoltzfus on June 17, 1941. While her husband edited the Mennonite Community periodical and began graduate work, Brunk Stoltzfus started the radio ministry “Heart to Heart” in 1950. She was the first Mennonite woman with a regular program.5 Initially broadcast by WCVI in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, and later Mennonite Broadcasts, “Heart to Heart” addressed the topic of marriage and family. In 1958, Brunk Stoltzfus handed over control of her program, and she and Grant formed Concord Associates, a Family Service Ministry that produced literature and media on the topic.6 They crisscrossed the nation speaking about marriage and family until Grant’s sudden death in 1974. Then Brunk Stoltzfus continued to deliver workshops solo. This platform and reputation increasingly drew her into discussions around women in ministry in the Mennonite Church.7 After her stirring defense of women in ministry at the 1981 Mennonite General Assembly, Brunk Stolzfus started to receive invitations to serve as an interim pastor or on pastoral teams.8 In 1989, Virginia Mennonite Conference recognized Brunk Stoltzfus’ calling by ordaining her at age 74. As the first women to be credentialed in the conference, her ordination caused controversy in both the conference and her extended family.9 Upon her retirement in the early 1990s, Brunk Stoltzfus remained active in matters of church and family. The self-described “radical evangelical Anabaptist” died on December 2, 2008, age 93.10
Brunk Stoltzfus used Anabaptist history to argue for women’s leadership in two distinct ways. First, she drew upon Anabaptist history to spur people toward active response in a present moment. Asked by Gospel Herald editor Daniel Hartzler in 1975 to encourage readers prior to that year’s Mennonite General Assembly, Brunk Stoltzfus appealed to readers – regardless of gender – to give their full allegiance to Christ in active discipleship.11 After urging support for conscientious objection and opposition to war, she highlighted the role of women in evangelism in Anabaptist history and the Bible:
We are little credit to our foremothers. In early Anabaptist days when men and women were baptized, it meant that they were also ordained to preach, teach, and baptize others. (It was more important to get the Gospel out than to fuss about which sex does it!) In Bible times women were wives, mothers, prophetesses, judges, managers, sheep tenders, employers, builders of cities, buyers of real estate, salespersons, teachers, deaconesses, co-laborers in the gospel [.] Jesus commended Mary, the meditative type, who put the kingdom before dishes. Isn’t it about time we stopped forcing all women into one mold?12
Brunk Stoltzfus read the baptism of early Anabaptist men and women as ordination for the work of the Christ and the Church. The commission compelled action, and she wanted her readers to feel that same urgency and allow all people to fulfill roles best suited to their gifts and callings regardless of gender.
Brunk Stoltzfus continued to find resonance between early Anabaptist baptism practices and women’s leadership. In her memoir, she recalled reflecting on a conversation she had on women in ministry with New Testament scholar Willard Swartley in the early 1980s: “[I told him] that we women leaders, like the early Anabaptists who baptized each other, should ordain each other. Willard had said, ‘But please let us men be present.’”13 For Brunk Stoltzfus, early Anabaptism’s defiance of political-ecclesial authority could provide a precedent for ordaining women in the Mennonite Church. By 1988, she faced the dilemma of whether she as an un-ordained women could baptize a college student in her congregation. Since neither were ordained, the agreement to baptize the young women with the congregation’s commissioned male pastor met with mixed reactions from Virginia Conference pastors and leaders. “Like the early Anabaptists, who baptized each other,” Brunk Stoltzfus recalled, “we served as representatives of the congregation [and thus could offer baptism].” Ultimately, she poured water in the male pastor’s hands as he performed the baptism.14 Within Anabaptist history Brunk Stoltzfus saw a freedom to follow the Spirit and encouraged others to respond to it as well.
Second, she found in twentieth-century Anabaptist history examples of women’s leadership. Brunk Stoltzfus spoke at the 1978 Women in Ministry symposium in Akron, Pennsylvania, on the topic of “Women in Ministry Among the Mennonites in my Lifetime.” Dutch Mennonites, she noted, started permitting female pastors at the beginning of the twentieth century.15 In addition, the title of her talk suggests she saw enough change and continuity in the Mennonite practice to make it a topic of interest to conference participants. Looking back in her memoir, Brunk Stoltzfus remembered, “I had an unusual audience response. It was like a good movie as we laughed and cried together…I received more affirmation than any other time in my life, and it felt good.”16 Her observations about contemporary Anabaptist history along with her personal experiences resonated with conference attendees. Brunk Stoltzfus showed that, in various eras of Anabaptist history, evidence existed to support women in ministry.
On occasion, she also relied on other religious history to make her case for women’s leadership. Rebutting some comments about the 1978 Women in Ministry conference, Brunk Stoltzfus quoted the nineteenth-century evangelist and educator Charles Finney. He stated, “No church that is acquainted with the Holy Ghost will object to the public ministry of women.”17 Such a statement meshed with Brunk Stoltzfus’ biblical and theological argument that the Holy Spirit equipped women and men to serve as church leaders or in other capacities that matched their gifts.18 Finney’s status as a revivalist lent credence to Brunk Stoltzfus’ claim that historically male leaders supported females exercising leadership in the Church.19 Precedent for women’s leadership existed outside the Mennonite Church.
My initial investigation into Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus’ use of history reveals that it influenced how she spoke and acted to advance women in ministry. In the future, I hope to further explore her conceptions of gender throughout all of her ministry to see how they shaped perceptions of family and gender in the Mennonite Church. A poem Brunk Stoltzfus’ wrote as part of her presentation at the 1978 Women in Ministry provides a fitting summary and a glimpse into how she understood gender, family, and ministry:
Who killed woman’s gift? “I ,” said the man of terror With his mix of truth and error. “I’d rather not hear a word of truth “Than to her it from a Jane or Ruth. “I killed woman’s gift.”
Who saw her gift die? “I,” said the woman who only knits. “These ministering women give me fits. Why can’t all women be of the same mold “And just look out the window “When they are old? “I saw her gift die.”
Who’ll be the chief mourner? “I,” said the freeing man “I never favored the put-down or ban. “Women should not wait till their 63 “To see if the church will set them free. “I’ll be the chief mourner.”20
1. Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2021), 9-10.
2. An excellent encapsulation of Brunk Stoltzfus’ biblical case for women’s leadership is found in “Jesus and the Role of Women,” Gospel Herald, Vol. 79, May 20, 1986, 342-43.
3. Nathan Emerson Yoder, “Mennonite Fundamentalism: Shaping an Identity for an American Context” (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Notre Dame, 1999),125-43.
4. Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened: A Memoir, ed. Eve MacMaster (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2003), 41.
6. “Field Notes Continued: Grant and Ruth Stolzfus,” Gospel Herald, Vol. 51, April 8, 1958, 336. In her memoir, Brunk Stoltzfus said this media ministry included “radio, newspapers, conferences, and literature […such as] ‘Mother’s Pledge’ and ‘Pledge for Husband and Wife.’” Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 118.
7. Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 197-98, 209, 215, 277-78.
8. From January to June 1982, she served at Bancroft (Toledo, OH) Mennonite Church, and a few months later filled the interim role at Grace Mennonite Church in Pandora, OH, until June 1983. In 1985, First Mennonite Church in Richmond, VA, called Brunk Stoltzfus to be part of their pastoral team. She served for two years.
9. Notable protest to Brunk Stoltzfus’ ordination came from her older brother, George Brunk II. He built his reputation in the 1950s as “the Mennonite Billy Graham.” In 1989, George II expressed to Virginia Conference leadership that, if they went forward with his sister’s ordination, he would withdraw his membership and credentials in protest. When leadership chose to proceed, George II departed Virginia Conference and formed his own congregation, Calvary Mennonite Fellowship.
15. “Mennoscope: Women, Men, and Power,” Gospel Herald, Vol. 71, September 26, 1978, 744; “Women Call for Greater Involvement, Akron,” Gospel Herald, Vol. 71, November 14, 1978, 906. Other speakers at the conference included: Williard Swartely, who helped make the case for women in ministry using biblical studies in his 1983 book Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women; Emma Sommers Richards, the first woman ordained in the Mennonite Church (1973); and Dorothy Yoder Nyce, who in 1983 collected sermons by Mennonite women including Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus and published them in Weaving Wisdom: Sermons by Mennonite Women. Dutch Mennonite congregations began having female pastors in 1911. Harold S. Bender, Nanne van der Zijpp, Cornelius Krahn, Marilyn G. Peters, Anneke Welcker and M. M. Mattijssen-Berkman, “Women” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, 1989, accessed May 4, 2021, https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Women.
17. “Readers Say,” Gospel Herald, Vol. 71, December 19, 1978, 744. I have yet to determine where Brunk Stoltzfus read this quote, or from which source this statement originally appeared.
18. For example, see: Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus, “Gifts of the Spirit…to US,” in Weaving Wisdom: Sermons by Mennonite Women, ed. Dorothy Yoder Nyce (South Bend, IN: Womansage, 1983), 33-36.
19. As president of Oberlin College, Finney advocated for women’s public ministry and presence in theology classes, but did not support women as pastors. Andrea L. Turpin, A New Moral Vision: Gender, Religion, and the Changing Purposes of American Higher Education, 1837-1917 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016), 77, 79-80, 87.
20. Titled “Who Killed the Women’s Gift,” Brunk Stoltzfus modeled it on the nursery rhyme, Who Killed Cock Robin? Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 209.
Over the course of his career, Gary Waite has published widely on Dutch Anabaptism, witchcraft, Jews and Muslims in Early Modern Europe and taught courses on the same at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. In March, I had a conversation with him, excerpted below, about how he sees these topics reflected in the modern QAnon movement.
On Anti-Semitism in Premodern Europe and in QAnon
GW: As an historian of anti-Semitism and its development, I see all of these things interconnecting in QAnon. It’s not that the members of QAnon or whoever is the leader of QAnon is aware of all of these predecessors, but they’re clearly continuing to shape how these people are thinking. And some of the some of the stuff in the Q Anon is hundreds of years old and goes back to the medieval anti-Semitic tropes of a vast global conspiracy of Jews plotting the overthrow of Christendom.
CM: Now with space Laser Tech.
GW: Now with space lasers and drinking the blood of children. They’ve just made it a more modern version with this extract from children’s blood that the celebrities of Hollywood, i.e., the Jewish conspiracy group, are supposedly consuming to extend their lives.1 Jews were accused of ritual murder of Christian infants starting in the twelfth century in England and spreading from there to the continent and continuing on into the twentieth century. In case after case after case, a Christian child may go missing or someone says a child’s gone missing, it may not actually be a real child, and the Jews are rounded up and tortured into confessing that they have kidnapped his child, that they do this globally as an organized conspiracy against Christendom. They pick one place in Europe every year to kidnap a Christian child and that child stands in for Christ. And according to these Christians, that child represents Christ by virtue of its innocence, and therefore the Jews want to kill Christ over and over again. But they also want the blood of the infant for their various nefarious things, so they bleed it to ritually murder the child, and then they are almost always caught afterwards. Even the use of the of the blood is very similar to what I see in the QAnon propaganda, that fear that children are being kidnapped for their blood to extend the life of the drinker. It’s the same kind of argument made against Jews that they needed it to, not so much extend their life, but to remove the odor that they were apparently born with, to remove the horns that Jewish males were supposed to be born with and that sort of thing. Just absolutely bizarre beliefs that were taken seriously by Christians and led to the deaths of countless numbers of Jews and the destruction of Jewish communities. The expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 was based largely on ritual murder accusations. The last known ritual murder accusation in Europe was in 1948 in Poland. So it even survived the Second World War and the Holocaust.2 So that’s just one strand.
How did that get to modern America to such an extent that parents, all these adults who joined QAnon think there’s a grand conspiracy against their children, even though the children aren’t disappearing in the numbers that are alleged? Well, it’s become part of—I won’t say subconscious, but I think it’s just wrapped up into the fabric of European/North American discourse and beliefs. It’s in fairy tales and it’s also there in a lot of Christian preachers who disseminate this kind of conspiratorial thinking. It’s kept alive in the propaganda of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century, in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which still is a best seller in parts of the world. So all this stuff resides below the surface, all this anti-Semitism and all this conspiratorial thinking, and it just keeps popping up almost every generation we see a new variant, and this is just the latest one.
There’s also elements of racism in Q Anon. It arose when there was a black president in power and a lot of what’s been happening is a reaction against having a person of color in the highest office of the land. And of course—and this is one of the points I make in one of my books on Christian views of Jews and Muslims in the seventeenth century—one of the major determinants of how a population responds to others such as Jews or Muslims is the attitude and the statements made by those at the top, the political elite.3 And in the Dutch case, the Regents and magistrates of the realm said, “yeah, it’s okay to have Jews, they’re fine as long as they don’t cause any trouble, and we’ll start negotiating with Muslims” and they set a tone of acceptance of religious diversity, which included Mennonites and Catholics even to a point, and various others. Refugees started flooding into the Dutch Republic because of this and the magistrates said: “we will treat everyone equally, even though they are not all citizens, we will treat them as if they are.” And they said that about Jews. Jews could not be citizens, “but we will treat them as if they are,” and that really set a tone. So when I went through all of the propaganda and pamphlets and the news sheets and so on of the period, I found very little of the kind of anti-Semitism that you can see from the English side or the German side, and it’s the leadership at the top. And when you get a guy like Trump who believes in conspiracy theories, who’s got a racist, white supremacist streak through him, who loves to cater to the worst of American fears and anxieties, then of course you’re going to get all of these conspirators, white supremacists, racism suddenly coming back up to the surface where it had been suppressed beforehand. It’s people’s desire to know the future, to have someone to lead them in a way that they can feel confident in the future.
And the pandemic…Disease outbreaks almost invariably lead to targeting of others, typically the Jews. I just lectured this week on the Jews being targeted as responsible for disease outbreak in southern France in 1321, and the King of France used that to get money from the Jews. Then when the plague strikes in 1347, 1348, suddenly it’s the people who are saying the Jews are responsible and without any kind of organization they go to the Jewish communities and they burn them down. So this notion that others are to blame whenever there’s an epidemic of any kind is still with us, and I think that has really exacerbated everything. And it’s interesting, it’s nerve wracking to be an historian watching this stuff happening on the news every night. It is really, really strange. I like to study the past. I don’t want to live the same kind of stuff that I study though.
On QAnon and Early Modern Fears of the Devil and Witches
GW: I think Q Anon comes out of that particular form of American evangelicalism, which emphasizes the literal interpretation of prophecies and the Scriptures themselves, and especially the devil, or Satan…I know most modern people don’t believe the devil is real, but I think a lot of people still fear that there is this malign figure. And as Elaine Pagels wrote years ago in her book, The Origin of Satan, the devil was created by Christians in the way that we know him—there was Lucifer and Satan before in the Old Testament—but the devil that the Christians developed and that really became big in the later Middle Ages and in the early modern period is a creation of the need of Christians to target another group, the Jews, to prove to the Romans that it’s the Jews that deserve to be punished in AD 70 because of their father, the devil, and that Christians are distinct from it.4 And the devil plays that role. The devil allows one group to create a self identity that we are of the good, we are of God, you are of the devil. There seems to be a need for people to have these binary opposites so that we’re good and they’re evil, and so the groups that emphasize the reality of the devil—if you believe that the devil is real, as I said before, just about anything can be possible.
CM: And it allows you to say, if you have, you know family members or people you really love on the other side, it allows you to say “it’s not that they’re fundamentally evil. They’re taken over. It’s not them, it’s Satan.” And you need to try to rescue them.
GW: There were, even in the early modern period, as you know with the witch hunts, they identified two sets of victims of the devil—there were several, but two relating to witchcraft. One were witches who made a voluntary pact with the devil and therefore didn’t deserve any mercy. But there were those who were possessed by demons involuntarily, and therefore they were treated differently. So there were a lot of times when the jurists and the preachers and the medical personnel were trying to distinguish, is this person possessed by demons, and therefore we treat them with an exorcism? Or is this a person who’s made a pact with the devil? And we would like to think we don’t ask those questions anymore, but we do. In the Atlantic magazine just recently there was a long article on the rise of demonic possession and how the demand for exorcism in the United States is on the increase.5 And then this pandemic has simply escalated those anxieties that there is some malign thing out there that is causing this and we need to do something to protect ourselves and our children. And QAnon—every time I see all their signs saying that there are pedophiles who are drinking the blood of children I say here we go again, because in the witch hunts it was fears of what was happening to children, mysterious deaths of children, kidnapping of children, that led to parents and the authorities taking this very, very seriously, when otherwise they wouldn’t take these accusations seriously. I mean, these are learned people who, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries actually came to believe that women were getting on broomsticks—I know this is part of the stereotype, but this is this is in court records and learned discourse—and flying to a distant Sabbath meeting (there’s the Jews again) to worship the devil and to cause harm to children.6 It is such a powerful force, this parental drive to protect children, that all you have to do is say “they are kidnapping your children, we need to do something and you can get people involved who would not normally believe this stuff because their children are at risk. You saw that with the ritual murder panics of the 1980s and 90s.7 It was like the witch hunts had come back, that there were these groups of Satan worshippers who were kidnapping children and ritually murdering them in front of other children and worshipping the devil. And you would say nobody would believe that, except dozens, hundreds of social workers, prosecutors, police, and so on did believe it. Because of the fear that this is involving children. So using leading questions they got children to answer in the right way that yes, they saw a child being ritually murdered and people were arrested and put on trial and jailed, including Canadians—Richard Klassen out in Saskatchewan about fifteen years ago won a wrongful prosecution suit against the government of Saskatchewan based on the testimony of children.8 And so when I look at that and then I look at the early modern witch hunts and the role of children in making confessions, it’s like we haven’t changed. The dynamic remains that if our children are threatened, it doesn’t matter if there’s any truth to the matter, we will go and defend them.
And in all the cases in the Satanic ritual abuse cases, in the investigation reports after the fact…they could not find any evidence that any of the children had actually gone missing. There’s no correspondence between missing children and the alleged events, no evidence that any children were being killed. And the same thing was happening in many cases in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. My favourite example is the Spanish Inquisition’s one and only witch panic, started around 1610 when two of the three Spanish inquisitors got involved in listening to women who were saying that they had been to a witches’ Sabbath just across the border in France. And that snowballed as these two inquisitors took seriously the testimony not just of adults but increasingly of children. And they would interrogate the children in such a way, ask them leading questions. Of course the children are going to respond to that. And so they ended up with hundreds of children as part of this ongoing investigation, and everybody is concerned that their children are being taken to the witches’ Sabbath to be sacrificed to the devil. The third inquisitor, Alonso de Salazar Frías, joins them finally. This team was supposed to always be three inquisitors in a local investigation, and so he finally joins. At the start he was supporting it and then he began to rethink and said “wait a minute, what is the evidence here?” And the Spanish Inquisition, to its credit, emphasized hard evidence. If you’re going to convict someone of a crime like witchcraft, you need evidence. What kind of evidence do you have? A confession in your own words is it. Eyewitnesses? Well, the only eyewitnesses to someone going to a witches’ Sabbath would be somebody already at the witches Sabbath, therefore you’re a witch, therefore your testimony does not count. So there’s always a problem. So he said, “no, I’m going to conduct my own investigation.” He went back to the facts, he reinvestigated thousands of confessions and depositions, he went and he talked to all of the children, but without the leading questions, and he finally wrote up a report that he sent to the Suprema, the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition, saying “there’s not a single shred of evidence that there’s been any act of witchcraft or any abuse of children in all of this, I recommend we put a halt to it.” The Suprema agreed, and in 1614 it said release all the prisoners. There were about two thousand people waiting trial and burning on these charges and because this one guy had doubts about it and pushed against his fellows at great personal risk he saved them all.9 And that’s one of the things that I’m afraid has gone by the board with the whole fake news business and this whole not trusting experts and not trusting the media. How do you say “show us the evidence”? I’ve watched reporters asking QAnoners: “Where’s your evidence for all this?” Well, their answer is: “is there evidence that it’s not happening?” And this is how they work. So no, your belief in a conspiracy is not evidence, and yet, we’ve lost the ability to say we need hard facts, because facts are no longer taken at face value like they used to be just two years ago, four years ago, before Trump. So that’s a real problem.
On Connections Between QAnon, Apocalyptic Movements, and Early Anabaptism
GW: Another element [of QAnon] is this belief in prophecy. Q keeps making these prophecies as to when Trump will be revealed and there will be a great reckoning and each time it fails. As a scholar of sixteenth century Anabaptism that, of course, resonates with me because you’ve got all these Anabaptists who were caught up in this belief that Christ was coming any moment and they picked the dates and they set the location and they all waited and it didn’t happen. And so some of the members left—such seems to have happened with QAnon—and others remained and just revised the interpretations and the prophecies. And so these kinds of prophetic moments when you’ve got these expectations that build up and people devote themselves to it to such an extent, they can’t just walk away. It is very hard for someone who says “I believe in all this stuff: that Q is real, that Trump is the Messiah-President, that he’s going to be returned to power, and they invest in it so much that they go marching. They go to Congress, they invade the buildings, they do violence. And then to just say, “oh whoops, I was wrong . . . ”? The same thing happened with the Anabaptists. Psychologically it’s very difficult.
CM: I think there’s a real family relationship element to it as well. If you’ve torpedoed your marriage for this, or if your kids aren’t speaking to you anymore because of this, if it’s caused a real rift in your family, then that’s another dimension where it’s much too hard to say “I was wrong” and try to get back.
GW: That certainly happened with the Anabaptists. It divided families and you make these decisions to join and to follow, and then whoops, and you’ve lost your family, you’ve lost your livelihood, you’ve lost your property, you’re in jail or you’re running from the authorities. You see that for example in the group that was around David Koresh, the compound in Waco, Texas, there are still people who believe that he was the Messiah. And so one of my thoughts as I’m watching QAnon is I think we’re watching the rise of a new religious movement. It’s got all the same kinds of expectations and hopes and dreams, zeal, everything that you need and a Messiah-like figure and a Prophet who’s behind the scenes… So I’m expecting that Q will remain in some fashion as a new religious movement of some kind. The Americans are pretty good at creating these new religious movements. One of the examples that I use in teaching is the Great Disappointment in the 1840s in the States, with the Millerites. Miller was an evangelical Christian who believed that he could figure out precisely when Jesus was returning through close interpretation of Scripture. And so he got it down to a particular date and place and by the thousands the Millerites came out to watch for Jesus’ return. It didn’t happen. So many left, and Miller himself and others stayed and revised their interpretations. A lot of people were angry—if you look up the Great Disappointment, as this was called, you’ll see a lot of popular print stuff that was made satirizing these poor folk. Well, that Millerite movement is the foundation of the Seventh Day Adventist Church.10 And David Koresh was a member of a branch group called the Branch Davidian sect of the Seventh-day Adventists. So even with all of the failed prophecies—and you could talk about the Jehovah’s Witnesses prophecies here—people will continue to believe because, as you say, they’ve invested so much of their personal lives, so much of their identity in this group and in these beliefs. It’s very hard for people to walk away. So you’ve got the Great Disappointment in nineteenth century and then you have the David Koresh group. . . . The Mormons started as an end of the world group, the Church of the Latter Day Saints.
CM: I find myself thinking a lot about the aftermath of Münster and how the Melchiorites disperse after that, and particularly thinking of the fairly large numbers who were successfully brought back into their regional churches in part due to, in the end, the concerted efforts of Tasch and Eisenberg, who had been Melchiorites and then decided to work somewhat covertly with the regional churches to facilitate this return. And of course, Lienhard Jost also then returns to the established church in Strasbourg. And I’m curious to know, when you study new religious movements, if you can think of other examples of this sort of successful reintegration and what some elements of that look like.
GW: Well, certainly it happened. It happened in in the Dutch side too. . . . You know this is one of the frustrations as historians working the Anabaptist field. We all know that so many people disappear from the record because they’re no longer part of the group. They’ve left it and therefore they’re not being arrested anymore, and that’s good for them. I wouldn’t want to have brought them back into the courtroom just so I would have a record of their beliefs. Certainly in the Dutch scene David Joris played a major role in keeping some of the Münsterite Anabaptists within the movement, but he did so by moving them away from a sectarian or confessional identity and moving them towards spiritualism, which says religion is interior, the letter of Scripture isn’t as important as the spirit within, that sort of thing.11 But his movement was actually more long lived than we had thought even just a few years ago. There’s a new book out on the Reformation Movement in the region east of the Dutch border in Germany, where Joris was very active, and his name and his ideas are stamped throughout.12 And even with the Dutch Mennonites, who are Menno’s heirs, he kept fighting against this David Jorisism, the spiritualism, but he never succeeded, and so there’s an element of that that runs right through the Dutch Mennonites into the 17th century. There’s a sort of a two-word debate. For most people, I would say for most of these new religious movements, once there’s the crisis, once there’s the great disappointment, once there is the failure of prophecy, a lot of the followers sort of disappear from the record. We don’t know where they went. It’s those who remain within it and help shape it into something else that we know that they are there. How many of them go back to a mainstream church or two? I don’t really know.
Menno Simons worked diligently to bring these disillusioned Anabaptists into his orbit, and he succeeded. He and the other fellow preachers, Dirk Phillips, Adam Pastor and so on did get a lot of these people back into the Mennonite Church, which is the heir to the Anabaptists. But they didn’t succeed entirely. There are a lot of people who just abandon anything like Anabaptism. Ben Kaplan, for example, has shown that around 1600 in the Dutch Republic a large minority of people and in some places a majority people did not belong to any church.13 And I think this is part of this whole disillusioning experience of the real bloodshed and violence of the Reformation in the Netherlands. And not just the Anabaptist persecution and Anabaptist Münster, but also the Catholic versus Calvinist battles and the Civil War. And so there were a lot of people who just said “not joining any of them.” And this is noticed by observers who came to the Dutch Republic. The Reformed Church is the public Church of the Realm, but not a formal state church. You don’t have to join it to be a citizen, to be a resident of the realm. The result is a lot of people decided not to. And so I think that there can be several different responses. Some people are successfully reintegrated into a more mainstream kind of church, a lot of people just drop away, and some people take an intentionally distinctive approach to religion. And in the Dutch Republic that was spiritualism, which really had a powerful impact on the mentality of people after the turmoil of the Reformation and Civil War.
CM: And even the more sectarian churches that do survive like the Mennonites, it’s a form of reintegration into society in a way to have developed a symbiotic relationship with the governing authorities rather than to view them as enemies to be overcome as soon as possible.
GW: Yeah, you need to make nice with the government and the Anabaptists found that a very difficult adjustment to make. And there’s always a sense that we are the persecuted people of God. It’s still a major force among some evangelical churches and other churches today. How do you know that you are God’s chosen people? Well, if you’re being persecuted, then that’s one of the signs as Jesus said. Problem is, if you’re not being persecuted, you have to find ways in which you can say that you are being persecuted. So saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas means we are being persecuted for faith—no you’re not!
The Mennonites did very well [in the Dutch Republic].14 You couldn’t be a Mennonite and be a citizen, and that’s okay. They didn’t mind that, they were happy to be an ignored minority. But they had all the economic rights and they could take on business. Some of them became fabulously wealthy. I’ve seen some of the houses. Piet Visser has taken me on tours and it’s just incredible the wealth that these heirs of the Anabaptists achieved. They would join with the merchants of the East India Company, but their ships could not have cannons on them because they’re pacifists. But they would sail with the Dutch Reformed who had plenty of cannons on their ships. And some of them became fabulously wealthy. You’ve got artists galore, you’ve got writers of great fame in the Dutch Republic who are of this Mennonite heritage. By 1600 the Mennonites were a significant part of the population and really influencing things. Some cities, some towns in the Dutch Republic, in particular North Holland in the Waterland area are almost entirely Mennonites and the economic prosperity is just incredible. But that leads to the new problem. They then become the social equals of the elites. Why not just marry into the elites? Why not just join the elites? Why not just reconvert to the Reformed Church then you can have all the full formal memberships and citizenships and so on. And that’s what most of them did. So by 1700 the Mennonite population had really shrunk not by persecution, but by assimilation, by social, cultural, economic motivations that it’s actually nicer to just join with this side. So I imagine some of that will happen. I have no idea what’s going to happen with the QAnoners now that as far as I know all of their prophecies have failed. What are they gonna do next? Go back to your churches, I would think but I’m waiting to see is it going to continue? Are they going to start a separate or distinct quasi denomination or religion? I don’t know. This could be the beginnings of a new Mormonism or a new Seventh Day Adventism or something of that nature, that has elements of Christianity, but with this new Q conspiracy Donald Trump is Messiah thing.
6 For more on early modern witch hunts, see Gary Waite, Heresy, Magic and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003); Gary Waite, Eradicating the Devil’s Minions: Anabaptists and Witches in Reformation Europe (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007).
7 See Jeffrey S. Victor, Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend (Chicago: Open Court Press, 1993).
9 See Gustav Henningsen (Ed.), The Salazar Documents: Inquisitor Alonso de Salazar Frías and others on the Basque Witch Persecution (Leiden: Brill, 2004).
10 See David L. Rowe, God’s Strange Work: William Miller and the End of the World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).
11 On David Joris, see Gary Waite, David Joris and Dutch Anabaptism (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1990); Gary Waite (Ed.), The Anabaptist Writings of David Joris, Second Edition (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2019).
12 See Karin Förster, Das reformatorische Täufertum in Oldenburg und Umgebung (1535-1540): Unter des besonderen Berücksichtigung des Täufertheologen David Joris (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2019).
13 See Benjamin Kaplan, Reformation and the Practice of Toleration: Dutch Religious History in the Early Modern Era (Leiden: Brill, 2019).
14 For more on Dutch Mennonite assimilation over time see Alastair Hamilton, Piet Visser, and Sjouke Voolstra (Eds.), From Martyr to Muppy (Mennonite Urban Professionals): A Historical Introduction to Cultural Assimilation Processes of a Religious Minority in the Netherlands, the Mennonites (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1994).
Mennonites experienced dispossession throughout the early modern period, including a late, violent, and dramatic expropriation in 1694. The noble von Bylandt family had favored the Mennonite community in the city of Rheydt, which lay within the duchy of Jülich and was ultimately ruled over by the Elector Johann Wilhelm of the Palatinate. The situation became tenuous, however, after a fire destroyed approximately fifty houses within the city in May 1694. The Mennonite community, relatively rich and stable due to their success in the local textile industry, was accused of starting the blaze. In 1705 Johan Scheiffart, an official involved in the dispossession, was “asked if he knew that this Sect had the teaching to make secret blazes [heimlicheFeuersbrünste], in such a way that it would burn the goods of their neighbors?” He was forced to concede that this had been reported to him by others in Rheydt, but could not recall why.1
The expelled Mennonites of Rheydt narrated their own story more clearly. An extraordinary document, known as the Instrumentum Publicum, was presented to a notary on the evening of February 9, 1696, in the house of Peter Janssen within the city of Krefeld.2The Mennonites had prepared the document themselves and then presented it to the imperial notary public, Herman Marthens, and some “Gentleman witnesses.”3 These men confirmed and attested to the contents of the document, a species facti that allowed Mennonites to tell their side of the story. The document covered events between July 16, 1694, and August 28, 1694, and the Mennonites began by asserting their absolute innocence and civil obedience within the city of Rheydt. Their own coexistence within Rheydt had been exemplary, which they supported with descriptive words of obedience (“peace,” “tranquility”) and evidence of their consistent payment of taxes and fees.4
According to the Instrumentum Publicum, the violence of the Elector’s commissioners broke both this peace and their longstanding economic settlement. Those explicitly in the service of Elector Johann Wilhelm were Baron van Bongart of Paffendorf, Doctor Heyden and Doctor Scheiffart; others, however, such as “Captain of Horse, Mr. Wedding” and Paulus Katz of Jüchen lent their aid to the violent dispossession despite the fact that they were not electoral agents. These leaders arrived in Rheydt with “large number of armed peasants,” clearly ready for a fight.5 The unnamed peasants interrogated the inhabitants of Rheydt about the Mennonites and where they lived. They pounded and broke down doors, and even struck a Mennonite man with a pistol: he was “so severely wounded that blood streamed over his clothing.”6 The peasants dragged Mennonite men, women and children together and left them to be “guarded” by the Commissioners’ forces, with the exception of a few nursing infants allowed to remain with servants or neighbors. While this group of Mennonites huddled together, four peasants from within Rheydt tried to shake them down for any valuables on their person or in their pockets.
Lord Doctor Scheiffart then interrogated prominent members of the community, and focused specifically on any “money or bonds” that they may have owned.7 This line of questioning went on all afternoon and into the evening, while, simultaneously, the rest of the Commissioners dealt with the issue of Rheydt Castle. Baron von Bylandt was absent but the “fortress” appeared impassable, as it was “fortified with ramparts and moats and the gates of which remained closed.”8 The commissioners convinced Herr Gangelt to appear before them, and then compelled him to lower the bridge and allow the Elector’s forces access to the area inside – access to those Mennonite homes that had been particularly protected by von Bylandt’s favor. After this chaotic day of invasion and interrogation, the commissioners split the community into two main groups. About thirty of those within the city who had been interrogated, and who had their valuables pillaged by the Commissioners and their followers, were put in restraints and marched from Rheydt to Jüchen, a distance of about ten kilometers.9 Of those within the castle compound, many of the men appear to have escaped during the delay; the women and children left were threatened by peasants and commissioners for another week or so, at which point thirteen or fourteen of them were chosen to be marched and held in Jüchen along with the others.10
Imprisonment in Jüchen lasted for two weeks. Guarded and detained, the Mennonite community was first interrogated by Scheiffart within a few days of their arrival. He accused them of possessing “an accursed and damnable faith,” and threatened them with death if they did not convert to Catholicism. Further interrogations followed, largely individually, in the Jüchen home of Paulus Katz and in the presence of multiple of the Elector’s Commissioners. Mennonites were threatened with the 1529 mandate proclaimed at Speyer which specified death by fire or, in special circumstances, by the sword. Moreover, it was not just Mennonites threatened with the outstanding imperial ban; others associated with the Rheydt Mennonite community were similarly rounded up and intimidated. Johann Floh, a local textile merchant who had possessed a special letter of protection for nearly fifty years, had married a non-Mennonite woman who had a child from a previous marriage. This child, Peter Schloter, was now 43 years old and mostly likely worked in the same bleaching business that his stepfather had fought to protect decades earlier. This association, however, gave the Elector’s forces the pretext to arrest him outside of Gladbach and bring him to be imprisoned and interrogated alongside the Rheydt Mennonites in Jüchen, despite the fact that he was “of the reformed religion.”11 Another man, Peter Tomps, was also reportedly part of the Reformed faith, but this did not spare him from either threat or interrogation.12 These interrogations were repetitive and often nakedly avaricious. In one instance commissioners questioned each member of the community, and asked on “whether they still had outstanding money, cotton thread and pieces of linen on the looms and where the weavers lived.”13
Indeed, while these ordeals played out in Jüchen agents of the Elector were hard at work converting Mennonite possessions into cash. The houses, initially pillaged on July 16 for cash and small valuables, were in the next twenty days “stripped” of all furniture and “the floors, ceilings and tiles were destroyed and the boards carried away.”14 The commissioners made detailed lists of possessions for each family, with expected values totaled. Everything of value was sold at markets in Jüchen, Rheydt and Gladbach. The loss of possessions was swift, but this was not the end of the Elector’s attempt to squeeze money out of the Mennonite community. In the course of the interrogations, the attitude of the commissioners hardened into an explicit extortionate threat: pay 12,000 imperial Thalers or face execution.15
It is unclear whether the Elector and his commissioners demanded such a sum because they believed the Mennonites to have hidden some of their own money elsewhere, or if they had prior knowledge of the communication networks that existed among Mennonites in the area – and that therefore the Rheydt Mennonites might be able appeal to the nearby the Dutch Mennonite community.16 In any event, this was an exceedingly large sum of money, even for a community whose goods and property had not just been confiscated by the same extorting power. Smaller sums were suggested by the imprisoned Mennonites (1,200 Thalers as a first offer, then 4,000) before the still exceedingly high price of 8,000 Thalers was agreed upon.17 Yet, when the Mennonites agreed to this sum they believed themselves to have been granted access to any of their own furniture or goods still remaining, and this did not come to pass. They had no personal assets at all, and a bill of 8,000 Thalers due to preserve their lives. The imprisoned Mennonites hoped to write to their Dutch co-religionists, they claimed, but before the money could be collected they were threatened again. Baron von Bongart, a commissioner involved since the beginning, returned from the Electoral seat of Düsseldorf with two orders of execution. Two men of prominent families, Jan Klaasen van Aachen and Godschalk van Elten, were to be put to death.18 This did not immediately occur, however, and instead the whole of the community was moved again on August 1, 1694. Roughly bound together, the Mennonites were marched to Paffendorf, about twenty-one kilometers away from their former place of imprisonment in Jüchen.
In Paffendorf, events turned violent. Peter Schloter was “found…dead with his head cut off; …the dead body was dragged out like a dead carcass (or carrion) to the place of execution and left under the gallows under the blue heavens until the [next] day and was kept with a guard, but was afterwards hanged like a dog with the limbs aloft on the gallows standing there.”19 This gruesome scene was used to further intimidate prominent Mennonite men; three of them were brought to the gallows, threatened with similar treatment if any of them tried to escape, and then again threatened with this punishment if they did not recant their faith or pay the 8,000 Thaler within three days. The gallows were also used to intimate Gertrude Fieten, “of the Reformed religion” and a servant who had been imprisoned in an effort to gain information on her rich Mennonite master’s property.20
The conditions in Paffendorf were dire for everyone, however, and stretched on for weeks despite the fact that both William III of England, in his capacity as the Duke of nearby Mörs, and Lord Bildebeq of the Dutch States General were petitioning forcefully throughout August.21 Yet these outside intercessions bore no immediate fruit. On August 28 the Mennonites were compelled to pay those 8,000 Thaler – plus 800 Thaler in “expenses” related to their own imprisonment – with the threat that the fee would double to 16,000, and the imprisonment conditions worsen, if this payment did not come through.22
By September of 1694, then, the Mennonites of Rheydt had lost their property, all savings and anything of value, and had been officially exiled from the territory: “the prisoners were finally set free and conducted to the frontier of the country [where] they were banished and exiled with forfeiture of person, life and property should they return.”23 Though negotiations over the property, debts associated with the property, and their restitution continued for years, the Instrumentum Publicum ends here. Many of the impoverished and exiled Mennonites ended up in the city of Krefeld, forty-eight kilometers north of their last place of imprisonment; a city where much of the money for their release had been raised, and where a group of formerly-Rheydt Mennonites would come together two years later to produce this extraordinary document. The names of these twenty-six Mennonites close out the document. Though the Mennonites now residing in Krefeld printed their side of the story in early 1696, it was not until the latter half of 1697 that they won any recompense.
1 Quoted in Karl Rembert, Die “Wiedertäufer” im Herzogtum Jülich (Berlin: R. Gaertners Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1899), 410, in a footnote beginning on 409 (fn. 2).
2 The original document was printed in Krefeld in 1696. A Dutch copy was made in 1771 by Godschalk Godschalks, and the original version was “found by an unknown person in an old library” in Krefeld and printed in 1803; Ernst Weydmann, “Über die Vertreibung der Mennoniten aus Rheydt und deren Einwanderung in Crefeld im Jahre 1694,“ in Mennonitische Blätter(1891): 21-6. All quotes here are taken from the English translation, made by N.B. Grubb, and checked against the German version printed as an addendum to Ludwig Schmitz-Kallenberg, Geschichte der Herrschaft Rheydt (1887). I use the names found in the German version, however, as the English version was translated from the Dutch and has retained names modified for a Dutch audience. N.B. Grubb, Pro Copia Instrumentum Publicum, Concerning That Which was Considered in Facti, by the Lord Commissioners of the Palatine Electoral Prince in Reference, To the Protestant Mennonites at Reijdt in the Year 1694, and what Transpired (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 1909). German: Franke, “Instrumentum Publicum wegen desjenigen, was bei denen Churfl. Pfaltzischen Herren Commissarien gegen die Protestante Menoniste zu Rheydt in Anno 1694 in facta vorgenohmen und sich zugetragen,” edited by J. H. Franke; in Ludwig Schmitz (-Kallenberg), Rheydter Chronik. Geschichte der Herrschaft Rheydt, Erster Band (Rheydt: Verlag von D. Rob. Langewiesche, 1897), 265ff.
16 It seems probable that, as Elector Palatine, he would have been aware of the efforts of Dutch Mennonites on behalf of expelled Swiss Mennonites who settled in the Palatinate in the 1670s. For a general overview of that period, see Rosalind J. Beiler, “Dissenting Religious Communication Networks and European Migration, 1660-1710,” in Soundings in Atlantic History: Latent Structures and Intellectual Currents, 1500-1830, edited by Bernard Bailyn and Patricia L. Denault (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 215-216.
18 Grubb, 13-14; Franke, 270. They were to be executed by the sword and the rope respectively. The meaning of these execution methods is unclear, but perhaps reflected differentiated status.
19 Grubb, 16; Franke, 271-272. The death of Peter Schloter is a bizarre episode that hangs in the middle of the story without much explanation. Much remains unclear, but his death was used by the commissioners to put fear into a population that they had detained for economic reasons. A report from the Elector to his commissioner Baron van Bongart of Paffendorf mentioned another Mennonite death while in prison, this time in November 1694. It was reported to be a suicide and they released the body to the family to be buried. See LNW-Rheinland, Jülich-Berg Nr. 257, 107r: “Ihr sollet den Jenigen Menschen, so Juengstens in der gefangnuschaff in seiner kranckheit sich selbsten ermordet, vnd ein Menonist zue seyn vermeinet worden, dessen bey euch derentwillen sich angebanden befreunden: oder anderen ohn verlangt außfolgen, vnd Ihne gleich wolen nach ihrem belieben begraben zulaßen”
20 Grubb, 19-21; Franke, 273-274. Her employer, Cornelius Floh, lived within the castle walls of Rheydt and had presumably been one of the men who escaped and left women and children behind. Floh was eventually compelled to pay 150 imperial Thalers to free Gertrude, who was kept in Düsseldorf for weeks longer than the rest. Floh’s account books were also part of this deal.
Along with the introduction of electricity, vehicles, and running water during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, during tumultuous times of community and colony reorganization in Chihuahua’s southern Mennonite colonies near the city of Cuauhtémoc, in Mexico’s Tres Culturas Region, one of changes that most deeply impacted daily life for Mennonite residents was the wide-reaching education reform that completely changed the educational landscape in the colonies over the course of fifty years, providing a greater level of educational access and diversity of school experiences within the Campos Menonitas, which still continues to impact education in all but the most traditional communities to this day.
Until the late 1960s, schooling in the Tres Culturas Region of Chihuahua followed the traditional Darpe Schule model beginning with Fiebla (basic reading and writing) around age six and continuing with Katekjisem (catechism) and Jesankbuak (hymnal), and ending with Bibel (Bible) around age thirteen with basic arithmetic also integrated throughout. In this model, which is still used today in the most traditional communities, instruction is given by one male teacher in High German in a one-room schoolhouse and involves recitation, dictation, and Langeviese singing and has an end goal of preparing students for baptism and daily life within the traditional Darpe community. Billy Froese, who attended a traditional Darpe Schule in the 1980s, described his experiences to the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project,
The girls are on one side, the guys are one side. That can also be a punishment. You go sit with the girls. And I at one time thought that was a punishment! But the fule Benkj” is the “lazy bench.” And if you’re not doing your work, up there beside the teacher, there’s a bench. This hard bench. And you go sit up there. Of course, there were spankings, stuff like that. But they had these big windows. And you had to stand in the window, facing the street [if you got in trouble]. I just remember the teacher coming to my desk and putting the pen in my right hand. Or the chalk. Whatever it was then. We had those little Tofels too. Those little chalk boards. And the chalk. So, he would start me off writing, and then he would leave. And I would just put it back in my left hand….My experiences, my most memorable experiences in the school aren’t positive. They’re interesting, but not so positive. It was usually getting punished.
Education reform occurred first in the Manitoba Colony and then was implemented later in the Swift Current, Ojo de la Yegua, and Jagueyes colonies. In each colony and each Darp within individual colonies, reforms were propelled by external and internal factors and often came in waves. Reforms were implemented at different times and to different degrees depending on the community and educational infrastructure, pedagogy and curriculum remains in flux across the Mennonite colonies in the Tres Culturas Region.
One of the largest external factors impacting reform, was the establishment of the Álvaro Obregón school in the Quinta Lupita community, located near the outskirts of Cuauhtémoc at the edge of the Manitoba Colony by Mennonite missionaries from Canada’s General Conference in the late 1960’s. The founding of the Álvaro Obregón school was followed in subsequent years by mission churches and schools from other Mennonite conferences as well as other from other denominations, such as the German Church of God. These schools had multiple instructors and classrooms divided by age, a wider range of subjects including geography and history, and instruction in Spanish. These schools became known as Konferensa (Conference) schools because of their association either directly or indirectly with General Conference missionaries and churches and enrolled students not only from their congregations, but also students from more traditional backgrounds whose parents were interested in educational options that were different from the traditional Darpe Schule.
At times, Konferensa churches, particularly with the assistance of missionaries of Canada, would build relationships with a much more traditional community and launch a school within the community primarily designed to serve traditional students, but with a more modern pedagogy and academically diverse curriculum, which included Spanish, like in Konferensa schools. With the introduction of Spanish into the curriculum, Mestizo teachers began working in Mennonite schools for the first time as Spanish language instructors and gained access and proximity to traditional communities that was previously unheard of. One of these teachers, Diana Sandoval Arballo, who began teaching in 1998 at a school launched in the Ojo de la Yegua Colony by Iglesia Anabautista Ebenezer, a Spanish-speaking Mennonite church in Cuauhtémoc whose congregation is about evenly split between Mestizo-Mennonite converts, ethnic Low-German Mennonites and Mestizo and Mennonite couples and their bicultural children, shared her experiences in 2018 with the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders: Cross-cultural encounter in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project
The church at Campo 67, in a Mennonite community, was looking for a Mestiza teacher, but with Mennonite faith, to work in the community. So, they invited me to go to work for a year, and I accepted. And that was the first time I had direct contact with the more traditional Mennonite community….I lived in the Campo. There was a couple that were teachers, and another couple that were the pastors. So, I worked with these teachers and lived with the pastors. But I lived in the community from Monday to Friday, and for the weekend I returned to Cuauhtémoc, to my house…The first years it was difficult. For them it was difficult seeing and living with a Mestiza in the middle of the community. Maybe my way of dressing was also different, and that drew attention. There was also a bit of fear, because they had someone unknown and didn’t know who I was, what I was going to teach, what I was trying to do…. I came for one year and I stayed 20, but I think my biggest motivation has always been to serve and I think that I have a desire because God uses me to be able to serve. And I saw that this would be the way the God would use me. Teaching people the faith, mainly, that is my first goal, and the second is, well, the language. And I also believe that one of the things that has always impassioned me is that they can see that the Mestizo culture is different than the idea that they have always had in their head. That I think is one of the biggest motivations in my life. And also, I fell in love with the Mennonite culture. For me, it was never difficult being with them. I can’t say that there was anything I had to sacrifice, it was a pleasure.
Though external intervention from Conference churches and schools, which included the transformational role of teachers like Diana Sandoval Arballo, played a large part in implementing education reform in the Tres Culturas Region, it would not have been possible without internal proponents for school reform, like Peter Rempel Enns, whose lifelong advocacy for education reform in the Mennonite Campos was chronicled by the State of Chihuahua’s Mennonite Resource Office’s 2016 publication, Hombres y mujeres menonitas destacados: Caminos inspirantes (Outstanding Mennonite Men and Women: Inspirational Paths). These local advocates for school reform were concerned about what they perceived to be low educational standards, low levels of literacy among graduates, harsh punishments, and an incomplete curriculum. Often advocates for school reform, particularly those within more traditional communities faced strong backlash from community leadership and some were excommunicated for their stances; however, as more families chose Konferensa schools at the same time that tensions were high in traditional communities concerning increased business and social relationships between Mennonite and Mestizo communities, the use of vehicles with rubber tires, and the introduction of electricity, questions began to arise with traditional church leadership about the best path forward concerning education. Some remained steadfast in their Darpe Schule model, but many more began to make small, but significant changes to their education systems.
Faced with external and internal pressures for school reform, Kleingemeinde and Old Colony communities sought a solution that they felt would allow them to raise their academic standards while maintaining their distinctive values and cultural practices. Beginning in 1995, through the MCC and a variety of other Mennonite aid agencies, they built relationships with Amish communities and schools in the United States and began receiving Amish teachers, not just in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua, but across Mexico, to teach in Kleingemeinde and Old Colony schools, and to assist in the restructuring of administration, curriculum, and assessment. (This topic is addressed more in depth in Rebecca Janzen’s 2019 Anabaptist Historians blog post, “How Much to Change: Amish Teachers in Mexico.”)
Perhaps the most significant impact to education in the Tres Culturas Region in recent history, was when many private, Mennonite church schools began seeking accreditation from Mexico’s Secretary of Public Education (SEP). SEP accredited Mennonite schools have to meet specific national curriculum, assessment, achievement and enrollment standards, but are allowed to have religious instruction and maintain cultural practices. While the majority of SEP Mennonite schools only include Primaria (Grades 1-6) and Secundaria (Grades 7-9), which are the levels of compulsory education in Mexico and the most common level of education among Gen-Z Mennonites in the Campos, particularly among those from less traditional communities, a few SEP Mennonite schools offer Preparatoria (Grades 10-11/12), which was previously only available at non-Mennonite public and private schools in Cuauhtémoc.
More and more students from the Campos have been going to study at the universities in Cuauhtémoc and Chihuahua. Even some of the most traditional Darpe Schule in the region have been taking steps to examine educational practices and standards within their cultural context. Adults from traditional backgrounds are beginning to finish SEP accredited Primaria and Secundaria schooling through ICHEA (The Chihuahuan Institute for Adult Education), while other traditional adults, including Peter Rempel, the principal of a Kleingemeinde school in the Manitoba Colony, who shared his experiences with the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, have taken advantage of a government program called Prepa Abierta to finish their high school equivalency online. From Darpe Schule to high schools that prep students for university and everything in between, the Campos Menonitas in the Tres Culturas Region have an educational diversity that is unique and 50 years in the making.
From her teacher housing, provided to her by the SEP school that serves traditional students in Campo 38 ½ where she currently works, Diana Sandoval Arballo looked out her window into the Darp and commented on the changes that she had seen during her 20 years as a Spanish instructor in Mennonite schools
Over the course of years, the parents became more interested in the education of their children. They saw it as more important, the fact that they could learn. And they are more motivated to make the school grow. I think it happens with the passing of the years. They have lost the fear towards education, that is different than what they got. And they have been motivated more so that their children can go further, even though they learn different things, they dream of being a doctor, not just working in agriculture. So, I think that the change in these years that I have been here have been very big and the steps have been very steady toward education.
In early November of 2020, Mennonite Church USA asked pastors from across the country to share how their congregations engaged in community action during the 2020 Presidential Election. Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship in New York City hosted open mediations for peace before and after the election. Raleigh Mennonite Church in North Carolina focused efforts on “fair elections, poll watching, and get-out-the-vote efforts.” Joel Miller, the lead pastor at Columbus Mennonite Church in Ohio, served as a peacekeeper at the polls, ready to prevent, de-escalate, and reduce the violence that many feared would occur on election day. These leaders’ responses, published in Anabaptist World, described nine congregations that unabashedly valued political action inspired by their faith. In our unavoidably politicized world, it seems that the driving question for these and many other Mennonites is how does our faith lead us to participate in politics? Even in the very questions MC USA posed to their pastors (How are people in your congregation preparing to engage in community action?”), political participation was assumed. This assumption, however, was once a highly contested issue among Mennonites. The driving question that preceded our current query was at once more simple and more complex: does our faith lead us to participate in politics? This question came under severe scrutiny and reconsideration during the 1950s and early 1960s, as an emergent theological paradigm and the social and moral imperatives brought to bear by the Civil Rights Movement worked in tandem to forge among Mennonites a social conscience with critical political underpinnings. The arduous working-out of this nascent political identity was on full display during the 1964 Presidential Election.1
In the fall of 1964, The Gospel Herald, the denominational organ of the “Old” Mennonite Church, published an unprecedented degree of political coverage in the weeks leading up to the presidential election between President Lyndon B. Johnson and Republican challenger Barry Goldwater. The dozens of editorials, letters to the editor, discussion pieces, and official statements printed that fall revealed a complex religious and political milieu. In new and public ways, a Mennonite’s politics became a religious issue, and one’s spirituality became a political issue. Because political participation was still far from the modus operandi, Mennonites simultaneously debated the very practice of voting and, for those who would vote, the candidates’ merits. On all sides of these debates, Mennonite leaders and laity articulated religious and political arguments in their favor.
These divisions wrought by the 1964 Election were thrown into sharp relief that June when J. Lawrence Burkholder, a leading advocate of social responsibility in the “Old” Mennonite Church, suggested that the Committee on Economic and Social Relations (CESR) and the Peace Problems Committee (PPC) take a public stance on Barry Goldwater, a highly divisive Presidential hopeful closing in on the Republican nomination. Gravely concerned with Goldwater’s international and domestic policies, Burkholder suggested that a statement be published “help the Mennonites to form enlightened attitudes regarding Goldwater.” Such “enlightened attitudes,” Burkholder suggested, would reflect his view that Goldwater posed a serious “threat to the peace of the world.” Many of Burkholder’s and others’ arguments against Goldwater were founded in the Arizona Senator’s civil rights stance. His vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was ambiguous at best and deeply racist at worst. Many Mennonites were equally troubled by Goldwater’s foreign policy, shaped willingness to use nuclear weapons and his criticism and rejection of the United Nations. Burkholder certainly recognized the risk in making such an overtly partisan political statement but believed that speaking out in an official church capacity was in order. As he saw it, the differences of conscience between Goldwater and the Mennonite Church were stark enough to avoid significant controversy. Moreover, he thought such an opportunity could be used to “help our people to think politically on one of the clearest issues in many years.”2
There was some precedent for a church committee to speak on political concerns during a national election. In the presidential election of 1960, the Peace Problems Committee made an official statement advising “old” Mennonites not to give in to or become involved in the anti-Catholic propaganda aimed at the Kennedy campaign. Motivated and justified by the religiosity of the issue, the PPC urged its members as “peace-loving nonresistant Christians” to “hold aloof from all such lower-level proceedings,” such as being swayed by or participating in the campaigns of misinformation and lies, as well as any general “electioneering,” all of which violated official church doctrine. Voting, however, was another issue. Because the church did not “forbid voting” as they did “electioneering,” the PPC left the matter up to the individual, only advising that one’s conscience not be swayed by “the current political pressures.” The committee members who faced Burkholder’s challenge in 1964 were reminded of their previous work but were undoubtedly aware of the difference between the explicitly religious problem of 1960 and the partisan declaration that Burkholder was suggesting. Moreover, as Hershberger reminded his fellow committee members, the PPC did not take a position for or against either candidate in 1960.3
Among members of the CESR and PPC, Burkholder’s proposal was met with mixed support. On the one hand, many “Old” Mennonite leaders shared Burkholder’s personal fear of the political dangers of a President Goldwater. Carl Kreider, for example, wrote that Goldwater’s “election would be a disaster to American foreign policy as well as to our domestic program.” Clearly, these Mennonites had been following the election and held developed opinions about the candidates and what they would do for the country. Writing the week after the Republican National Convention, John E. Lapp, who was still in disbelief about Goldwater’s nomination, feared “war, militaristic tactics in the race question, and break with Russia” would be all but certain under a Goldwater administration. On the other hand, however, most members were hesitant to go so far as to publish an official statement supporting or rejecting a specific political party or candidate. Opening this epistolary conversation which would play out over the summer, Guy F. Hershberger suggested that they ought not to consider the reactions of church members, but rather “whether in taking such a step we would be true to our obligation to give a true Christian witness.”4
Lay perception, however, dominated much of the discussion. Conservative Mennonites, whether theologically or politically so, were the primary concern of committee members. These leaders worried that an expression of support for Johnson or the Democratic Party would upset the laity, either because they supported the Democratic candidate or because they entered political discourse in the first place. The vital question of does our faith lead us to participate in politics? was an undercurrent of the conversation, explicitly shaped by the institutional nature of Burkholder’s proposal. Orie O. Miller summarized the concern of many of his moderate colleagues, writing that such a statement would “be entering into territory for which we have no mandate and probably no clear church position as a point of reference.” Without direction and blessing from the MC General Conference for such a political move, no matter how vague or issues-focused a committee statement might be, it was inadvisable. On the other hand, several members agreed with Burkholder that the positions that the MC General Conference had taken on race relations and nuclear warfare—which opposed to Goldwater platform clearly enough—was a sufficient mandate to warrant a statement, especially if it remained on the issues, not the candidates.5 Moderate members proposed a compromise that was eventually adopted, suggesting that instead of these church committees articulating an official position in a formal statement, several members submit a message to the Gospel Herald as individuals.
However, the views of Republican Mennonites received far more attention than those of religiously conservative, non-voting members.Lapp, who gave full-throated support for a statement detailing the moral and political dangers Goldwater posed, was optimistic about the political views of the laity: “Now the conservative elements of the church may be inclined to vote for Goldwater, simply because he is a Republican candidate, but I can’t for the life of me see how any nonresistant Christian could support the man.” On the other hand, Paul Landis and others predicted that any move against Goldwater’s platform would be “interpreted as an attack against [his] personality” and “a position in favor of the Democratic Party.” This sort of overt political statement, Landis feared, would lead many “old” Mennonites to lose confidence in the committee and the church. Many leaders’ desire to make a political statement on the election was itself contradictory: they were deeply concerned about the prospect of a Goldwater White House, but while they were aware of the Republican leanings of many “old” Mennonites, few wanted to upset their partisan constituency.
The resultant statement, “Moral Issues in the Election of 1964,” which appeared in the Gospel Herald on September 22, reflected the moderate consensus. The three authors—Lapp, Chairman of the PPC, Hernley, Chairman of the CESR, and Hershberger, Secretary of both committees—made no mention of Johnson or Goldwater or the Democratic or Republican parties in explicit terms, but rather “the candidates” and “the coming election.” In line with official church doctrine, these leaders left the questions of voting and political participationup to the individual and chose to focus entirely on issues of the election and Christian conscience: “The present statement is not to say that members of the brotherhood should vote in the election of 1964. It is to voice the conviction, however, that Christians who do vote must, in making their choice, endeavor to find those issues which are most important from the viewpoint of Christian morals, and to discover which candidates are most responsive to the claim of Christ and His righteousness.” This choice, in the eyes of the authors, was clear enough, considering that the issues of civil rights and nuclear warfare deserved “most serious consideration,” briefly citing previous church action on these issues. Far from the explicitly partisan statement Burkholder wanted, these issue-based suggestions for voting Mennonites reflected the MC leadership’s political limits.6
However carefully Hershberger and the other authors may have tread, readers had no trouble “read[ing] between the lines,” as one Elkhart Mennonite opined. “It seems the Peace Problems Committee might just as well have come out in the open, and endorsed the one party.” Bill Sauder penned an even more blunt criticism and missed (or ignored) the nuance entirely: “I find distressing the committee’s statement. . . in which they advise Mennonite church members to vote for the Johnson-Humphrey presidential ticket if they vote at all.”In the weeks between the publication of “Moral Issues in the Election of 1964” on September 22 and Election Day on November 3, fourteen Mennonites (a remarkably large number of respondents to a single topic) wrote to the Gospel Herald to weigh in, expressing everything from extreme gratitude and support to dismay and harsh opposition.7
Facing this gambit of responses, John M. Drescher, editor of the Gospel Herald, grappled with how to present these issues to the Mennonite community. In a private letter to Guy F. Hershberger the week after “Moral Issues” was published, Drescher wrestled with the paradox of neutrality created in this contested theological and political space. Politically, some urged him to remain neutral and give equal coverage of all political and theological positions. In contrast, others demanded that he publicize whom he is supporting in the current election. On the theological axis, Drescher faced pressure to stay entirely out of politics by some and wholeheartedly enter into the political fray by others. These pressures, Drescher lamented, had been “heavy and hard” from all sides during this particular election season. Privately, while Drescher watched the political proceedings with great interest, he felt “that every election is basically the same” and was not particularly excited about either ticket. However, as the editor of the denominational organ, he strove to avoid partisanship and only discuss political issues when clearly “in the light of Scripture.”8
Even this distinction, though, was a bridge too far for several readers, who wrote in lamenting the publication of politically-focused material: “I would much rather read my political speeches in a public newspaper than to read it in what is supposed to be a church paper covering the religious aspects instead of the political.” Wilbur M. Wyse strongly advocated for an entirely non-political Gospel Herald, but he nevertheless held his own strong political opinions: “The thing that alarms me most is that so many of our Mennonite professors from our church colleges lean so strongly toward the Socialistic Party, or the Democratic Party, if you want to call it thus. . . .” (ellipsis in original). Indeed, most of the condemnation of Drescher’s handling of the organ came from political conservatives who desired more balanced coverage of the candidates and the issues. Concerning church involvement in politics, theological conservatism went hand in hand with political conservatism, while theologically liberal Mennonites (that is, those who advocated political action within the church) represented all angles of the political spectrum. It stands to reason, however, that those most likely to comment at length on the political issues covered in the Gospel Herald would be the most politically informed, while the non-participatory Mennonites would remain quiescent.9
Several weeks after the publication of “Moral Issues in the Election of 1964” and amid the ongoing debate in “Our Readers Say,” the Gospel Herald ran Paul Peachey’s “Faith, Fear, and the 1964 Elections.” Peachey, Secretary of the Church Peace Mission in Washington, D.C., and a former professor of sociology and church history at Eastern Mennonite College, took aim at the Goldwater platform but did so from an entirely different position than those that preceded him. In Peachey’s view, the rise of “New Republican Radicals,” led by Goldwater, the John Birch Society, and the Minutemen, was a reactionary movement to the “shattering” of the illusion of religiously-founded American exceptionalism brought on by the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War. “The notion that America was. . . endowed with a kind of redemptive mission in the world, was clearly a distortion of the “chosen people” theme of the Bible,” from which Americans have incorrectly and dangerously viewed their “wars as righteous and holy.” His main concern was with this emergent radical faction that was gaining a strong influence over the traditional political left. Goldwater, Peachey argued, “posed a real peril to Christian faith.” Standing “firm in faith, [and] in witness and obedience in the face of communist evils” is one thing, he wrote, but it another thing entirely to follow Goldwater and “shoot the men who we think are disobeying God.” Thus, Peachey’s aim was not to condemn “the Republican party as such,” nor to endorse “the Democratic platform,” but rather to warn his fellow Mennonites of the dangers of Goldwater and “the Republican platform of 1964,” for its dangerous “idolatrous nationalism which seeks to play God among the nations of the world.” With this line of argumentation, he further blurred the distinction between the political, the religious, and the relationship between the two in the pages of the Gospel Herald.
Upon entering this discourse, Peachey received several statements of support in “Our Readers Say,” but also drew the same criticisms that Hershberger and his colleagues did: he was too partisan and too political in the public space of the Gospel Herald. Curiously, however, the center of the conversation remained centered around “Moral Issues” and seemed somewhat unaffected by Peachey’s bold article. Perhaps the most striking reaction to Peachey’s article came from Isaac Hershey, Jr.: “If Bro. Peachey is truly an alien here, he will not vote and aliens should not criticize the government under which he has permission to live. . . I count it a privilege to vote for Mr. Goldwater.”10
The final full-length article to address the presidential race appeared in the Gospel Herald on November 3, election day, and was written by none other than J. Lawrence Burkholder. Occasioned by a summer of political discussions in his home church, the Mennonite Church of Boston, and perhaps displeased with the direction the CESR and PPC took his suggestion that June, “A Congregational Discussion of Political Decisions” laid out the views of Burkholder and his fellow Boston Mennonites on the church’s responsibility in American politics and society. After prayerful study of the Bible, sermons, and campaign issues, these Mennonites agreed that political issues are indeed the church’s concern. As such, congregations and individuals should discuss the positions and qualifications of specific parties and candidates. They agreed with the reasoning of Hershberger, Hernley, and Landis, that the church should help its members face political issues and decisions “in the light of the Christian faith,” but pushed even further: “Moreover, when the church, through corporate effort, has reached a consensus on a political matter, it cannot remain silent, but must give witness to its decisions.” While they noted “the civil rights problem” and America’s global “responsibility” as the two most important political issues that confronted Christians, Burkholder made no mention of Goldwater or the Republican Party as he was so keen to do that summer. Published on election day, however, this cry for political discourse and participation in the life of the church took a forward-looking position that stressed the constant importance of political witness.
Alongside this statement from Boston Mennonites, Drescher gave considerable attention to lay voices in the November 3 issue, publishing ten politically-oriented letters in the “Our Readers Say” column. Here, as in previous publications, ordinary Mennonites issued their support or condemnation for “Moral Issues” and “Faith, Fear, and the 1964 Election” on theological and political grounds. In nearly every instance, readers demonstrated that they were acutely aware of the political issues at play and had formed developed personal opinions. Moreover, many folks grounded their political stance in their conception of Christian morality. In other words, they had done—and had been doing—what Hershberger and his colleagues were calling them to do. Ironically, and much to these leaders’ chagrin, most of these laypeople supported Goldwater and thus chastised “Moral Issues” whole cloth for its thinly-veiled liberalism.
Perhaps most demonstrative of this pattern is Maurice W. Landis. This Lancaster Mennonite expressed his gratitude to the authors of the September 22 article, complimenting them on “rightly alert[ing] us to the fact that there are unprecedented moral issues in the 1964 election.” Deftly, however, he flipped the statement on its head and wrote an extensive analysis of political issues in light of Christian morals that led to the support of Senator Goldwater’s conservative platform. He implored readers to evaluate each candidate on the moral issues that Hershberger’s statement failed to address, including where the candidates stood on “compromising with the enemies of God” and recognizing God and permitting the Bible to be read in schools,” as well as supporting “free enterprise as taught in the Bible.” Landis demonstrated his keen interest in the nuances of domestic and foreign politics and articulated them in terms of his own view of Christian morality. He was not alone in his views either; several other faith-conscious and politically-conscious Mennonites wrote in voicing their economic concerns and the importance of school prayer. Joni D. Yoder went so far as to say that “as far as a moral issue is concerned and as far as putting souls at stake, such things as the Supreme Court ruling against prayer in public schools. . . far outweigh[s] an issue of fear of nuclear weapons.” The efforts of Landis and his right-leaning brothers and sisters to sway fellow Mennonite voters underscores the fact that political participation based on Christian morality was not entirely a liberal movement, but a pattern that emerged on both sides of the political spectrum during this era. Moreover, the “old” Mennonite leaders’ decision to counsel their members on moral issues rather than specific candidates and parties opened the door for their original intent to be turned against them. As we have seen, though, this was a double-edged sword; their moderate position and vague language were still too radical for many conservatives.11
After the Johnson victory on election day, political discourse in the Gospel Herald fell silent. As the dust settled from these debates about the role of the church in political participation and discourse, it appeared that few minds had been changed. In one sense, the leaders and laity of the “old” Mennonite Church were still working through the thorny question of does our faith lead us to participate in politics? As the Gospel Herald‘s active readership demonstrated, however, the new issue of how faith directed political opinion and participation had emerged as an intricate and divisive issue for the church and its members. The fact that these two questions were inextricably linked and progressing at different speeds and in different directions throughout church adds to the layered complexity of this election-season eruption. Although these issues were in no way resolved, the fall issues of the Gospel Herald powerfully demonstrated that the age of public quietism was waning and that political discourse and participation was very much alive among Mennonites.
1. Mennonite Church USA, “MC USA Congregations Prepare for Bold Peacemaking Amid Election,” Anabaptist World, November 2, 2020, https://anabaptistworld.org/mc-usa-congregations-prepare-for-bold-peacemaking-amid-election/. For the theological, social, and political changes during the middle decades of the twentieth century and the specific impact of the Civil Rights Movement, see Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998); Leo Driedger and Donald B. Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994); Tobin Miller Shearer, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).
2. J. Lawrence Burkholder to Guy F. Hershberger, June 22, 1964, Guy F. Hershberger Collection, 1896-1989, MS 1-171, b. 21, f. 20, Mennonite Historical Library. The entire committee correspondence regarding Burkholder’s proposal is in this folder, hereafter referred to as GFH.
3. Peace Problems Committee, “A Statement by the Peace Problems Committee Concerning Involvement in the Religious Issue of the Current Presidential Election Campaign,” Gospel Herald, October 11, 1960, 890.
4. Carl Kreider to Guy F. Hershberger, August 12, 1964, GFH; John E. Lapp to Guy F. Hershberger, July 23, 1964, GFH; Guy F. Hershberger to Members of the Committee on Economic and Social Relations, July 10, 1964, GFH.
5. Orie O. Miller to Guy F. Hershberger, July 27, 1964, GFH. Some members of the CESR and PPC found precedent in the communications sent from the “old” Mennonite General Conference to President Kennedy, enough so to cite them in the statement they produced: John E. Lapp, H. Ralph Hernley, and Guy F. Hershberger, “Moral Issues in the Election of 1964,” Gospel Herald, September 22, 1964, 826. For a copy of the telegram commending Kennedy for signing the nuclear test ban treaty and expressing the church’s support of the administration’s position on civil rights and racial justice, see Arnold Cressman, “General Conference Meets at Kalona,” Gospel Herald, September 3, 1963, 787. Also, see Mennonite General Conference, “The Way of Christian Love in Race Relations” (Hesston, KS: Mennonite General Conference, 1955).
6. Lapp, Hernley, and Hershberger, “Moral Issues in the Election of 1964,” 826.
7. Harold S. Alexander, “Our Readers Say,” Gospel Herald, October 27, 1964, 942; Bill Sauder, “Our Readers Say,” Gospel Herald, November 3, 1964, 965.
8. John M. Drescher to Guy F. Hershberger, September 29, 1964, Guy F. Hershberger Collection, 1896-1989, MS 1-171, b. 21, f. 21, Mennonite Historical Library, Goshen, IN.
9. Wilbur M. Wyse, “Our Readers Say,” Gospel Herald, November 3, 1964, 965.
10. Isaac Hershey, Jr., “Our Readers Say,” Gospel Herald, November 3, 1964, 965. For other reactions to “Faith, Fear, and the 1964 Election, see Wyse; Allan Eitzen, “Our Readers Say,” Gospel Herald, November 3, 1964, 965.
11. Maurice W. Landis, “Our Readers Say,” Gospel Herald, November 3, 1964, 966; Joni D. Yoder, “Our Readers Say,” Gospel Herald, October 6, 1964, 860.
While processing a recent box of donations, I happened upon an Annual Catalog from the 1920-21 school year at Eastern Mennonite School. As I leafed through it, I found handwriting all throughout the margins. There is no name on the catalog, so it could have been a student eager to remember all the rules or a member of the faculty or staff taking notes so they knew how to guide their pupils. Either way, these notes provide a revealing look at the minutiae of life at EMS a century ago.
EMS was in its fourth year in 1920-21 and the fledgling school was finding its wings. In January of 1920, students and faculty moved up the hill from the White House in Park Woods to the newly built Administration Building. As the only building on campus, it was the focus of campus life. Students studied and lived all together under one roof. Enrollment was 216, nearly triple the first year’s enrollment of 77.1
The rules were numerous at EMS in 1920-21, so our scribe was savvy to take notes. The first rule under, “General Rules and Regulations” sets the tone, stating that, “The discipline of the school will be parental and homelike but firm and positive.” The rest of the 23 rules and regulations cover behavioral expectations both in and out of the classroom.2 EMS sought to educate young people to become good workers for the Mennonite church, and their rules were meant to keep students in good standing with the school, the church, and their fellow students. The “Discipline and Decorum” section states that “for a denomination to maintain and perpetuate doctrines which are unpopular and the observance of which call for self-denial and non-conformity to the world, she must exercise a rigid and judicious discipline.” and “It should not be considered that obedience and submission to wholesome discipline and authority militates against the happiness of man, or that it infringes upon his real liberty”3. Following the rules was required to maintain the harmony of community at EMS and foster an environment where learning was possible.
Here is a sampling of what was noted in the catalog:
On curfews and timeliness:
“Gentleman in the building by 7 o’clock. Ladies in the building by supper time.”
“Prompt to come, prompt to go. Do not linger in basement hall.”
In the halls, one must not linger or loaf habitually or blockade the stairway and doors.
“Students must be in their rooms when last bell rings for study period. At 10 o’clock all lights must be out and quiet”
“No noise before 6 A.M.”
“Students will be allowed to associate on the campus provided there is no habitual coupling off of the same individuals of opposite sex”
“Students will not be allowed to couple off away from the campus except on outings accompanied by authorities. Violations of this rule will be punishable by at least 10 demerits.”
“No visiting during study hrs. without permission from H.M. or assistants”
On personal health:
“Bathe twice a week–bathing schedule on bulletin board Friday P.M. 20 minutes each”
“Have a study schedule, refrain from eating between meals, exercise regularly, and avoid too much sweet.”
Failure to follow these rules, along with other infringements like unexcused absences could result in a demerit. The writer notes that five demerits disqualify someone from office (for school clubs or literary societies), 10 earn a reprimand from the principal, 20 a reprimand before the faculty, 25 suspension and 30 expulsion.
There was at least one perk of 1920 EMS–someone else does your laundry! The scribe writes that students were allowed 12 pieces besides bedding and were to throw their items down the chute Sunday afternoon.
Though the above rules have gone, the 2020-21 school year at EMU has seen a new crop of regulations–this time for the physical health of all on campus and in the wider community. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students must do their best to observe social distancing, mask wearing, and there are limits on the dining hall, athletic spectators at games, and gathering size. Following the rules is yet again required to maintain the harmony of community and to foster an environment where learning was possible. Though the methods and reasoning look different a century on, I believe the hoped for outcome is the same: a conscientious and caring community that prepares students to make a difference in the world.
1. Kraybill, Donald B. Eastern Mennonite University: a Century of Countercultural Education. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017. p. 343.
2. Eastern Mennonite School. Annual Catalog 1920-21. p. 22-23.