A School By Any Other Name?

Names are funny things. Once they’re assigned to people, places, or things it can be hard to imagine anything else fitting. Though 100 years on it seems almost inconceivable for Eastern Mennonite University to be anything other than Eastern Mennonite, it took the founders a few tries to find a name that stuck. Many of the early suggestions were informed by the locations they would inhabit. Warwick Mennonite Institute, Warwick Mennonite Academy, and Alexandria Mennonite Institute clearly didn’t fit anymore once Harrisonburg became the settled upon location. But what about another suggestion: The Mennonite Student’s Safeguard and Industrial School? Certainly this conveyed in plain language the goals of the school, but it was a bit wordy and perhaps a bit too on the nose.  


In the end, they settled on Eastern Mennonite School. Not as conspicuous as The Mennonite Student’s Safeguard and Industrial School, but it was decidedly less of a mouthful and still contained a key indication of their core identity: Mennonite. In Eastern Mennonite University: A Century of Countercultural Education Don Kraybill writes that “The records do not say how the final name was determined” but that “even in the twenty-first century, Eastern Mennonite University remains the only Mennonite-related college or university of eight in the United States that carries the denominational name”1

It must be stated that having the word Mennonite in the name certainly doesn’t make EMU more Mennonite than other colleges. Some of the founders even made the case for leaving Mennonite out. Kraybill writes of a letter that chair of the local board C.H. Brunk wrote to the General Board stating “it is not customary to give a school a denominational name…some people are more or less prejudiced against denominational institutions . . . [the school] can be just as truly denominational without the name” A small group including Brunk agreed “unanimously” that it should be named simply “Eastern Institute and Bible School.”2

There are some even today who think that the inclusion of Mennonite in EMU’s name is off-putting to prospective students or has the potential to be polarizing. In recent times other Anabaptist groups have made or proposed changes to their names that remove words like Brethren and Mennonite in order to be more inclusive and broaden their appeal.3 And it’s possible that Goshen, Bluffton, Bethel, and Hesston don’t have to field pesky questions about the availability of electricity on their campuses.4 But some on campus argue that we should lean into, rather than downplay, the Mennonite characteristics. Kraybill touches on this argument, noting that:

In a campus forum, enrollment managers proposed striking Mennonite from the marketing materials and reducing “other odd things about EMU to make it look less ‘weird’ and easier to recruit local Virginia students and mainstream evangelical Christian ones.” History professor Mark Sawin argued the reverse: “If EMU stops being distinctively Mennonite, we have no reason to exist. There are plenty of better-funded, better-situated Christian colleges and liberal arts colleges. If we try to be like them—to be just another mainstream, vanilla, Christian liberal arts school, I think we would, and perhaps should, fail. We aren’t vanilla; we’re pistachio. Most people prefer vanilla and chocolate, it’s true, but those who prefer pistachio love it and will seek it out. To thrive we need to not lessen but increase our distinctiveness—we need to be more, not less, pistachio.” 5

So Eastern Mennonite University it is. We have spent the last 100 years committing to our pistachio-ness and will continue to do so.  Though some may see the label as a hindrance, it can also be seen as an opportunity to invite conversation and share the unique ideals of Anabaptism.  In this way EMU really is a Christian—and more specifically an Anabaptist Mennonite—University like no other.

For more information about the history of Eastern Mennonite University, check out Don Kraybill’s 100-year history: Eastern Mennonite University: a Century of Countercultural Education. Available from EMU, Amazon, and Penn State University Press.

  1. Donald Kraybill, Eastern Mennonite University: A Century of Countercultural Education (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2017), 54. 
  2. Kraybill, 54. 
  3. Rich Preheim, Still BIC but no longer Brethren,” Mennonite World Review, Oct. 30, 2017.; Rachel Stella, “Switch to ‘Rosedale Network’ narrowly fails,” Mennonite World Review, Aug. 14, 2017. 
  4. As a student tour guide I once was asked this very question. Other people I’ve spoken with have reported being asked where we keep our horses and buggies. 
  5. Kraybill, 294. 

Missing Pieces: Lancaster Mennonite Conference, Racism, and Us

Tobin Miller Shearer

In an era when the sitting president of the United States is able to re-tweet highly racist and inflammatory videos with apparent impunity, we need ever more sophisticated and historically grounded means of analyzing the problem before us. Although the use of historical analysis for political ends is fraught with difficulty, careful attention to specific historical trends can be illustrative. This graph-based analysis of Lancaster Mennonite Conference’s engagement in and response to racism from 1900 through 1970 may offer some insight for our present moment. This kind of analysis may show us the pieces we are missing in our present response.

*   *   *   *

I expect that I am far too fond of charts. My friends, when they’re being honest, tease me about my nerdy ways. Workshop participants shake their heads bemusedly in response to my excitement when I comment on a new handout.

So it is not surprising that I would turn to graphic representation for a new study of racism in Lancaster Mennonite Conference.

Actually the research is not entirely new. I simply revisited the database I developed when writing my dissertation and subsequent book Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Johns Hopkins: 2010). I then mapped the ways in which white Lancaster Mennonite Conference leaders and members dealt with external and internal race relations. The charts emerged from conversations that Cheryl Miller Shearer, my life partner, and I had as we prepared to lead a Sunday School class on racism and white supremacy at our congregation. I’ve chose Lancaster Mennonite Conference as the focus of my study because of their geographical location in a region representative of much of the kind of racism we see resurgent in society today.

Lancaster Conference response to racism - Chart AThe first graphic (Chart A) positions acts of racism on a grid with a public/private y-axis (vertical line) and an individual/collective x-axis (horizontal line). While by no means representative of every conceivable type of racist action, the graphic demonstrates that acts of racism in the twentieth century have been carried out across the full spectrum of public/private arenas and by a wide array of individuals and groups. The chart also suggests that collective manifestations of racism have been far more prevalent – and therefore damaging – than have individual acts of racism.

Lancaster Conference response to racism - Chart BThe second graphic (Chart B) positions acts of anti-racism on the same public/private|individual/collective grid. In particular, the named categories are representative—though not comprehensively so—of the kinds of anti-racist actions taken by white Christians in the twentieth century.1 This chart indicates that—across the white Christian community—responses to racism have been fairly robust and, to a degree, addressed racism in all its manifestations. What the chart does not indicate is the degree to which these responses are common in various Christian communities. For example, few white-majority Christian groups have been comfortable with confrontational acts or covert actions (for descriptions of the categories used on this chart see Appendix One below). Responses to racism on the individual end of the horizontal axis have been somewhat anemic, suggesting that white congregations have done less well at preparing and equipping their congregants to resist racism on an individual basis even though many white church leaders claim that they do encourage their congregants to take individual action.

Lancaster Conference response to racism - Chart CThe third graphic (Chart C) highlights a sampling of the kinds of racism that white Mennonites in Lancaster Conference participated in between 1900 and 1970 according to the records I have surveyed below and anecdotal evidence shared with me over the years (for citations and complete source listing, see Appendix Two). White Lancaster Conference Mennonites display a pattern consistent with the broader society during the first seven decades of the twentieth century. The Lancaster Conference actively and knowingly participated in racial segregation, promoted paternalistic programs like Fresh Air summer hosting ventures, invested far more money and resources in white congregations than in congregations of color, told racist jokes, and regularly hired those who looked like them.

None of this is surprising.

Lancaster Conference response to racism - Chart DThe fourth graphic (Chart D) highlights the kinds of anti-racism that white Mennonites in Lancaster Conference participated in between 1900 and 1970. Here again, most of the actions conform to patterns consistent with the broader society. As Christian Smith and Michael Emerson have demonstrated, white Protestant Christians—of which Lancaster Mennonites would be a sub-category—have been far more comfortable engaging in relational acts, non-political social service projects, and some types of educational initiatives.2 In short, actions in the public-collective quadrant are rare.

It is somewhat surprising, then, to note that Lancaster Mennonite Conference did pass a public “race relations statement” in 1960 and then assigned a committee to revise it in 1970. Much could be said about the content of the 1960 statement. I will limit my comment here to note that the 1960 statement is strong on integrationist thought and action but does not deal with systemic manifestations of racism. Nonetheless, the statement did put Lancaster Mennonite Conference on record as opposing “race prejudice” and the “segregation of races.”3

The other outlier that Chart D points to is that Lancaster Mennonite Conference went through a rather substantive shift from an overtly and unapologetic segregated institution to an, at least officially, desegregated institution. Prior to the passage of the 1960 statement, Lancaster Conference institutions practiced racial segregation in congregations, Vacation Bible Schools, Sunday Schools, mission outreach, and retirement communities. They did so deliberately, by official decision, and with little record of hesitation. The decision to integrate all such facilities did result in integrated congregations, retirement communities, etc., but the implementation of that integration was slow, attenuated, and incomplete a decade later.

Lancaster Conference response to racism - Chart EThe fifth and final graphic (Chart E) superimposes this record of anti-racist response on the breadth of racist actions in society. As the chart makes evident, white Lancaster Conference Mennonites were historically far more prepared to address acts of racism when they occurred in private and were non-confrontational in nature. With the exception of passing their race relations statement, white Lancaster Conference Mennonites did little if anything to respond to the public-collective—and therefore systemic—acts of racism and were likewise ill-prepared to respond to institutional racism in the form of lending practices, hiring decisions, policy determinations, etc.

I was, however, surprised to encounter the founding documents of Menno Housing, a Lancaster Conference related initiative to promote racially integrated neighborhoods. Leaders of Menno Housing did so by providing housing for “minority group families … in white neighborhoods” and for “white families” in historically black and brown neighborhoods.4 This kind of economically focused programming addressed the public issue of housing segregation and drew attention to the lending and realty practices that supported it.

The biggest take-away from my charting exercise is that white Lancaster Conference Mennonites were best equipped to respond to racism when it took interpersonal forms in the individual-private quadrant. Between 1900 and 1970, members of this community learned the lessons that they should not use racial epithets or tell racist jokes and that they should have friends from other racial groups. During that time period, they did not learn, however, of the overwhelming, sustained patterns of systemic and institutional racism both within and without their community. They lacked the theological and programmatic resources necessary to dismantle racism in all of the four quadrants in which racism operated in their churches and the society around them.

According to available research, what was true for white Mennonites in Lancaster Conference was true for most white members of mainline denominations in the United States. The question then, as now, is how will we equip our white congregations to be ready to respond to racism in its collective forms—that is both systemic and institutional—whether publicly or privately manifested?

White church leaders often contend their congregants are prepared to deal with racism on an individual basis. If that is all they do, if that is the only piece of the puzzle they have to offer, the kind of overt racism practiced by our current president —not to mention the less overt and systemic kinds—will remain with us for a very long time. We need to add the missing pieces of public, collective action to our faith-based responses.

Appendix One: Categories Used in Chart B

  • Ritual acts (prayer, liturgy, worship, etc.)
  • Public witness (marches, picketing, vigils, etc.)
  • Confrontational acts (meeting disruption, sit-ins, personal confrontation, etc.)
  • Educational initiatives (classes, workshops, book clubs, etc.)
  • Personal preparation/education (fasting, reading, personal prayer, etc.)
  • Research development (local history, institutional analysis, writing, etc.)
  • Institutional transformation (changing policy, procedure, mission statements, practices, etc.)
  • Development work ($) (giving drives, fundraisers, budgetary allocation, etc.)
  • Relational connections (one-one-one conversations, personal challenges, interrupting racist jokes, etc.)
  • Social service programming (food drives, housing initiatives, emergency monetary provision, etc.)
  • Official declarations (statements, pastoral letters, sermons, etc.)
  • Personal accompaniment (night watches, witnesses, being present, etc.)
  • Political actions (letter writing, voting, advocacy for candidates, etc.)
  • Covert actions (hiding refugees, secret taping, group infiltration, etc.)
  • Corporate engagement (stock purchasing, board membership, board ownership, etc.)
  • Economic actions (boycotting, strikes, work slowdowns, etc.)

Appendix Two: Citations for Chart C

Ritual acts (prayer, liturgy, worship, etc.)

  • 1963 ordination of “first colored minister” James Harris in Lancaster conference (1963b)

Public witness (marches, picketing, vigils, etc.)

  • 1970 Lancaster conference leaders make specific statement not to become involved in marches or demonstrations (1970b)
  • 1970 Pastoral Messenger editorial repeats opposition to marches (Baer 1970)

Confrontational acts (meeting disruption, sit-ins, personal confrontation, etc.)

Educational initiatives (classes, workshops, book clubs, etc.)

  • 1926 Publication of article by black author (Faust 1926)
  • 1939 Publication of article about mission work among African-Americans (Good 1939)
  • 1946 Publication of article describing racism within and without the church (Erb 1946)
  • 1946 Publication of editorial asking whether the church is equipped to engage in “Negro missions” (Wert 1946)
  • 1950 Publication of advice on relating to “negroes” including call for fresh air hosting (Brubaker 1950)
  • 1952 Publication of article on “Winning the Negro with Love” (Lehman 1952)
  • 1960 Publication of article on “Building Interracial Churches” that includes quote “We don’t want to be your brothers-in-law; we want to be your brothers in Christ.” (Landis 1960)
  • 1960 held panel with white mission workers and black church leaders on “understanding racial difficulties” (Stoltzfus et al. 1960)
  • 1964 Lancaster Conference leaders attend and speak at conference on race relations in Atlanta (1964)
  • 1965 Lancaster Conference leaders attend urban racial meeting in Youngstown, OH (Gingerich 1965)
  • 1968 Peace Committee of Lancaster Conference aims to change white attitudes (Landis 1968a)
  • 1968 Article published about the privilege of white people, white supremacy, and call for healing on the occasion of MLK, Jr.’s assassination (Landis 1968b)
  • 1969 letter and response to Black Manifesto warns against calling the police (1969a, Good and Landis 1969, Hess 1969)
  • 1970 program developed to get preachers of color in white congregations (Wenger 1970)

Personal preparation/education (fasting, reading, personal prayer, etc.)

Research development (local history, institutional analysis, writing, etc.)

  • conducts attitude survey on interracial housing in New Holland PA (Bomberger and Longenecker 1967)

Institutional transformation (changing policy, procedure, mission statements, practices, etc.)

  • 1915 Establishment of separate, segregated “Colored Mennonite Congregation (1915)
  • 1933 Establishment of segregated Sunday School for black people in Lancaster (Herr 1933)
  • 1936 Segregation of vacation bible schools in Philadelphia (1936); (Eshleman 1936)
  • 1938 Purchase of property for Lancaster “colored mission” (1938)
  • 1941 Purchase of property for Philadelphia “colored mission” (Lutz 1941)
  • 1948 Proposal to integrate retirement facilities (1948)
  • 1950 Listing of eleven mission statements to the “colored” (Stoltzfus 1950)
  • 1954 Establishment of integrated retirement community in Philadelphia (1954)
  • 1954 Starting of new missions to “Negro People” in Harlem and Tampa (Garber 1954)
  • 1954 evidence of small integration at LMS and of prejudice on the part of the principal (Weaver 1954)
  • 1955 move away from segregation in Tampa mission facilities (Kraybill 1955)
  • 1960 set up committee on race relations and call for full integration of all Lancaster Mennonite institutions (Thomas 1960)
  • 1962 Evidence of segregated churches starting to integrate (Shenk 1962)
  • 1963 Congregation in Lancaster Conference – Monterey – conducts interracial marriage but places stipulation that it cannot be a public wedding (Hershberger 1963)
  • 1963 previously segregated congregations in Steelton, integrate (Kraybill 1963)
  • 1969 committee on peace and industrial relations has extensive conversation about John Powell’s statement at Turner, Oregon, that give rise to Minority Ministries Council (Landis 1969)

Development work ($) (giving drives, fundraisers, budgetary allocation, etc.)

Relational connections (one-one-one conversations, mission and evangelism)

  • 1928 Call for missions to North American blacks (1928)
  • 1932 Decision to engage in African Missions (1932)
  • 1935 Maintenance of segregated mission in Philadelphia (Herr 1935)
  • 1944 Witness to migrant workers (Mosemann 1944)
  • 1961 report by Tampa missionaries exposes strong prejudice and paternalism of missionaries posted there (Lehman 1961)
  • 1962 Lancaster Conference church plant in Atlanta says that “the church of Jesus Christ overlooks race” (1962)

Social service programming (food drives, housing initiatives, emergency monetary provision, etc.)

  • 1926 Relief and mission work at Welsh Mountain (Weaver 1926)
  • 1929 Service to black children at Welsh Mountain (1929)
  • 1943 Purchase of building for elderly black woman in Welsh Mountain (Miller 1943)
  • 1950 Founding of Mission Children’s Visitation Program (Buckwalter 1947-1953);(Kraybill 1950)
  • 1951 High profile of Fresh Air program (Thomas and Thomas 1951)
  • 1952 Query by Lancaster Conference official over Fresh Air children carrying venereal disease into Mennonite homes (Kraybill 1952)
  • 1957 appreciation banquet for migrant laborers (1957)
  • 1957 article about “caring for the little brown-faced children” while parents, deemed to be in poverty because of sin in their lives, worked in the fields (Sensenig 1957)
  • 1961 Fresh Air Program for children from city missions in full swing (Shenk 1961)
  • 1966 Fresh Air Program still going strong (Benner 1966)
  • 1968 Fresh Air Program still active (1968b)
  • 1970 use Black Manifesto money to help out black member of an urban congregation (1970a)
  • 1970 Fresh Air program still ongoing (Lapp et al. 1970)

Official declarations (statements, pastoral letters, sermons, etc.)

  • 1955 statement by Lancaster Conference offered (1955)
  • 1959 Lancaster Conference race relations statement developed (1959)
  • 1960 Lancaster Conference on race relations released (1960)
  • 1963 Bishop board prints 5,000 copies of race statement for distribution (1963a)
  • 1963 bishops call attention to racial strife and urge additional use of conference race relations statement (Landis 1963)
  • 1970 Committee formed to revise race relations statement (Stauffer 1970)

Personal accompaniment (night watches, witnesses, being present, etc.)

Political actions (letter writing, voting, advocacy for candidates, etc.)

Covert actions (hiding refugees, secret taping, group infiltration, etc.)

Corporate engagement (stock purchasing, board membership, board ownership, etc.)

Economic actions (boycotting, strikes, work slowdowns, etc.)

  • 1967 Mennonites in Lancaster found Menno Housing to promote integrated housing (Voth 1967, Wenger 1967)
  • 1968 Menno Housing founding documents incorporated and passed (1968c, 1968a)
  • 1969 Menno Housing still focused on interracialism (1969b)

Works Cited

  1. Lancaster Conference Bishop Board Minutes. Rohrerstown, Pa.: Lancaster Conference.
  2. “The Stranger That Is Within Thy Gates.” Missionary Messenger, February 15, 1-2.
  4. Minutes of the Twenty-first quarterly Meeting of the Board of Bishops and the EMB of M & C held at the E. Chestnut St. Church. Lancaster, Pa.: EMBMC.
  5. Mennonite Mission for Colored, Philadelphia, Pa. In LMHS – Diamond Street Cong. Lancaster, Pa.
  6. Minutes of the Forty-Fourth Quarterly Joint Meeting of the E.M.B. of M.&C. and the Board of Bishops held at the Ephrata Church, Ephrata Pa. April 5, 1938 at 9:30 A.M. Ephrata, Pa.: Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities.
  7. EASTERN MENNONITE BOARD OF MISSIONS AND CHARITIES Executive Committee Meeting Mellinger’s Meeting House. Lancaster, Pa.: Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities.
  8. Eastern Mennonite Board Executive Committee Meeting 3/6/54.
  9. Lancaster Conference Bishop Board Minutes. Lancaster, Pa.: Lancaster Conference.
  10. “Migrant Workers Meet In Lancaster.” Christian Living, March, 10.
  11. Statement on Race Relations. Salunga, Pa.: Lancaster Mennonite Conference.
  12. From the East West North South: God is no respector of persons…. Are you? Salunga, Pa.: Lancaster Mennonite Conference.
  13. “Mennonite Faith Called ‘Total Love’.” Gospel Herald, August 14, 720-721.

1963a. Lancaster Conference Bishop Board Minutes. East Petersburg, Pa.: Lancaster Conference.

1963b. “News Notes.” Pastoral Messenger, July, 6-7.

  1. “Mennonite Churches in South Hold Conference on Race.” The Mennonite, March 31, 203-204.

1968a. Menno Housing Executive Committee Meeting Minutes. Lancaster, Pa.: Menno Housing.

1968b. Mission Children’s Visitation Program July 15-29, 1968. Lancaster, Pa.: Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities.

1968c. Statement of Purpose. Salunga, Pa.: Menno Housing, Inc.

1969a. “Lancaster Conference Peace Committee Responds to Black Manifesto.” Gospel Herald, August 12, 702.

1969b. “Menno Housing Works to East Poverty, Race Discrimination.” Mennonite Weekly Review, April 10, 2.

1970a. “A Proposal for the Use of Black Manifesto Funds.” Salunga, Pa., April 13.

1970b. “Report to the Lancaster Mennonite Conference, Mellinger Mennonite Meetinghouse, Lincoln Highway East, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.” Pastoral Messenger, October, 3-5.

Baer, Russell J. 1970. “Editorial.” Pastoral Messenger, January, 4.

Benner, N. 1966. Boys on bus on the way to fresh air placement.

Bomberger, Luke R., and Charles B. Longenecker. 1967. Attitudes regarding interracial housing in the New Holland area. Lancaster, Pa.: Menno Housing.

Brubaker, J. Lester. 1950. “Colored Missions.” Missionary Messenger, May, 11.

Buckwalter, Ira J. 1947-1953. Colored Workers Committee Notes 1947-1953. Colored Workers Committee.

Erb, Ruth G. 1946. “Meeting the Challenge of Negro Missions.” Missionary Messenger, January, 3-4, 12.

Eshleman, Merle W. 1936. “Mission for Colored, Philadelphia.” Missionary Messenger, February 16, 11.

Faust, Jessie. 1926. “A Negro View of the Color Problem.” Missionary Messenger, June 15, 10-11.

Garber, Henry F. 1954. FORTIETH ANNUAL REPORT EASTERN MENNONITE BOARD OF MISSIONS AND CHARITIES 1953. Elizabethtown, Pa.: Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities.

Gingerich, Simon G. 1965. Report of the Findings Committee Urban Racial Meeting, Youngstown, Ohio. Elkhart, Indiana: Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities.

Good, Noah G. 1939. “Our Witness to the Negro.” Missionary Messenger, April 16, 14-15.

Good, Noah G., and Paul G. Landis. 1969. “Dear Brethren.” Salunga, Pa., July.

Herr, Barbara H. 1935. “Philadelphia.” Missionary Messenger, October 20, 12.

Herr, H. L. 1933. Minutes of the Twenty-fifth Quarterly Meeting of the Eastern Mennonite Board of Mission and Charities of Lancaster Co., and The Board of Bishops, held at Mellinger’s Church, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 1933. Lancaster, Pa.: Eastern Mennonite Board of Mission and Charities.

Hershberger, Guy F. 1963. “Dear Abram.” Goshen, Ind., August 27.

Hess, Mahlon M. 1969. “Editorial.” Missionary Messenger, August, 24, 23.

Kraybill, Paul N. 1950. Mennonite Mission Children Visitation Program. Salunga, Pa.: Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities.

Kraybill, Paul N. 1952. “Dear Mr. Lewis.” Salunga, Pa., June 25.

Kraybill, Paul N. 1955. EASTERN MENNONITE BOARD OF MISSIONS AND CHARITIES and LANCASTER CONFERENCE BOARD OF BISHOPS Bimonthly Joint Meeting. Lancaster, Pa.: Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities.

Kraybill, Paul N. 1963. That Middle Wall Falls Again. Salunga, Pa.: Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions.

Landis, Paul G. 1960. “Building Interracial Churches.” Missionary Messenger, January, 6-7.

Landis, Paul G. 1963. “Lancaster Mennonite Conference Report, Mellinger Meetinghouse, Lincoln Highway East, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.” Pastoral Messenger, October, 3-5.

Landis, Paul G. 1968a. COMMITTEE ON PEACE AND SOCIAL CONCERNS Executive Secretary’s Report. Lancaster, Pa.: Lancaster Conference.

Landis, Paul G. 1968b. “Dr. King’s Message Often Misunderstood.” Mennonite Weekly Review, April 18, 4.

Landis, Paul G. 1969. Peace and Industrial Relations Committee. Salunga, Pa.: Lancaster Conference.

Lapp, Elmer, Dale Stoltzfus, Esther Petersheim, Evelyn Buckwalter, Jim Moyer, Velma Landis, Maria Lugo, Doris Stoltzfus, Dorothy Kruse, Ray Siegrist, Anna Kuhns, Jesus Cruz, Lorraine Weaver, Alton Longenecker, and Dick Frey. 1970. Glad Tidings Mennonite Church Program Evaluations. New York city: Glad Tidings Mennonite Church.

Lehman, Joseph S. 1952. “Winning the Negro with Love.” Missionary Messenger, November, 7, 9.

Lehman, Martin W. 1961. “Dear Bro. Charles.” Tampa, Fl., October 13.

Lutz, Henry E. 1941. Lancaster Conference Bishop Board Minutes. Lancaster, Pa.: Lancaster Conference.

Miller, Orie O. 1943. SIXTY-THIRD QUARTERLY MEETING OF E.M.B. OF M. & C. and LANCASTER CONFERENCE BOARD OF BISHOPS held at Chestnut Street, Lancaster Church. Lancaster, Pa.: Eastern Mennonite Board of Mission and Charities.

Mosemann, Alta M. 1944. “Witnessing In Southern Migrant Labor Camps.” Missionary Messenger, June 11, 5,12.

Sensenig, Velma. 1957. “Migrant Ministry.” Missionary Messenger, April, 2, 14.

Shenk, Norman G. 1961. “Dear Brethren.” Salunga, Pa., December 14.

Shenk, Norman G. 1962. Joint Members’ Meeting of Steelton, Myers Street and Sharon Congregations. Steelton, Pa.: Eastern Mennonite Mission Board.
Stauffer, Leon. 1970. Peace Committee Minutes. Salunga, Pa.: Lancaster Mennonite Conference Peace Committee.

Stoltzfus, Luke, William Weaver, George Nolley, James Harris, and John H. Kraybill. 1960. “Understanding Racial Difficulties.” Missionary Messenger, January, 6.

Stoltzfus, Robert. 1950. “A Short History of Mennonite Work Among the American Negro.” Missionary Messenger, October, 12.

Thomas, Amos, and Martha Thomas. 1951. “Dear Bro.”, March 21.

Thomas, David N. 1960. Lancaster Conference Bishop Board Minutes. East Petersburg, Pa.: Lancaster Conference.

Voth, Arthur A. 1967. Lancaster Area Housing Group. Lancaster, Pa.: Menno Housing.

Weaver, Amos W. 1954. Response to LeRoy Bechler Survey. Lancaster, pa.: Lancaster Mennonite High School.

Weaver, John H. 1926. An Experience at the Welsh Mountain.

Wenger, A. Grace. 1967. “”No Room” – in Lancaster?” Missionary Messenger, July, 5-7.

Wenger, Chester L. 1970. “Dear Pastors.” Salunga, Pa., August 24.

Wert, Daniel D. 1946. “What About Our Negro Missions?” Missionary Messenger, January, 2.

  1. Assessment based on my study of the white Christian community. Appendix One describes the actions included in each of these categories. 
  2. Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). 
  3. Lancaster Mennonite Conference, “Statement on Race Relations,” Pastoral Messenger, April 1960. 
  4. “Statement of Purpose,” (Salunga, Pa.: Menno Housing, Inc., 1968). 

Mennonit to Gottgläubig

2+3 panorama

Genealogy Chart of Manfred Quiring

Walter ( Jacob) Quiring (1893-1983) was a widely read writer of Russian Mennonite background, an outspoken Nazi apologist, and later the editor of the Canadian Mennonite newspaper Der Bote—a set of significantly clashing roles over his lifetime.

This genealogy chart is found in the Library of Congress German Captured Documents microfilms.1 It is filled out in the name of Quiring’s son Manfred, who, as I understand it, was killed in World War 2.

What is  most interesting is that Quiring filled in the space for religious affiliation for himself, his wife, and son as gottgläubig, a Nazi term for non-Christian religious affiliation which might be translated as “theistic.”2 However, all of the previous generations are labeled as Mennonit.

John D. Thiesen, Archivist, Co-director of Libraries, Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel College, North Newton, KS

  1. German captured documents collection, 1766-1945, Library of Congress, Reel 286, shelf no. 18,806.4 (near the end of the reel). 
  2.  “Gottgläubig” Wikipedia, https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gottgl%C3%A4ubig (Accessed November 30). 

Rethinking 606, the “Mennonite National Anthem”

Austin McCabe Juhnke

In 2015, Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” recorded a show on the campus of Goshen College in Indiana.1 As he often does, Keillor began the show with an introduction to the local area, describing the Mennonites who live there as “one of the most persecuted people in history.”  According to Keillor, these Mennonites developed a tradition of hymn singing “to keep up their spirits in the midst of all of this horrible cruelty and violence.”2 As if to prove his point, following this introduction, Keillor had the Goshen College choir lead the audience in singing “606,” a unique setting of Thomas Ken’s doxology (“Praise God from whom all blessings flow”) which many Mennonites know colloquially by its number in the 1969 Mennonite Hymnal. After recording the show, Keillor marveled at how his “Mennonite” audience “sang like angels. You just hummed a note and gave them the downbeat, and they sang in perfect four-part harmony.”3 Even though Keillor framed this performance of 606 as an expression of Mennonite-Anabaptist historical persecution, Mennonites have only been singing this hymn widely since its appearance in the 1969 Mennonite Hymnal. Since 1969, however, it has become commonplace for Mennonites to sing 606 not only in worship, but also as a celebration of Mennonite community in public places. The song has even sometimes been called “the Mennonite national anthem.”4 Though this nickname is used with somewhat jocular tone, it is perhaps more fitting than it appears, and it is worth considering the ways nationalist thinking has shaped Mennonite identity and musical practices.

Nationalists of the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thought of nations as naturally occurring, discrete groups of people. Within these groups one would expect to find essential similarities and between the groups one would find essential differences. Points of national comparison ranged from cultural practices to physical features to emotional temperaments. Today it is generally agreed that nations are constructed, rather than natural entities.5 Nevertheless this enticing idea has made for strong political solidarities that have been used both to resist and reinforce systems of oppression over the last centuries. Thus, at best, nationalism is used as a strategic simplification of the complexity of human social relationships. At worst, however, this ideology fuels a drive to maintain the “purity” of a supposedly natural identity.

One important way of legitimating national identities is history. If a group of people saw themselves in the same historical narrative, it helped create the sense of belonging to a national “we” that united people across space and time. “Praise God from whom” (606) was added to The Mennonite Hymnal during a period in which American Mennonites were more consciously looking to history to make sense of themselves in the modern world. Between the First and Second World Wars, Mennonites formalized a belief in nonviolent pacifism, identifying their tradition with the phrase “historic peace church.” In 1943 Harold Bender, founder of the Mennonite Historical Society and professor of history at Goshen College, penned his influential essay “The Anabaptist Vision.” In it he connects present-day Mennonites to an “authentic” Anabaptist lineage.

[W]e know enough today to draw a clear line of demarcation between original evangelical and constructive Anabaptism on the one hand, which was born in the bosom of Zwinglianism in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1525, and established in the Low Countries in 1533, and the various mystical, spiritualistic, revolutionary, or even antinomian related and unrelated groups on the other hand. . . The former, Anabaptism proper, maintained an unbroken course in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and Holland throughout the sixteenth century, and has continued until the present day in the Mennonite movement[.]6

In assuming that there is a definable “Anabaptism proper” and that it has an unbroken lineage to the present, Bender—consciously or not—was taking cues from nationalist models of identity. Later historians disputed the idea that it is possible to determine a single origin point for Anabaptism, but Bender’s “Vision” of a historical Anabaptist-Mennonite essence became an influential articulation of Mennonite identity in the mid-twentieth century and beyond.7

In this context, Mennonite hymnals became a powerful way of mediating ideas about Mennonite history, tradition, and identity. During the 1950s the (Old) Mennonite Church’s Music and Worship committee began to consider revising their 1927 Church Hymnal. There was a sense among many on the committee that the quality of Mennonite singing had been slipping. In 1959 committee member Chester K. Lehman gave a talk called “Congregational Singing – Our Losses and Gains” in which he criticized recent Mennonite hymnbooks for their heavy reliance on the “popular and emotional gospel songs,” which he viewed as a “retrogression” in Mennonite tastes.8 In 1960, another committee member and Goshen College music professor Walter E. Yoder spoke at a Music and Worship conference at Goshen. In his talk, “Raising Our Sights in Our Church Music” he bemoaned the loss of hymns from before Mennonites began speaking English and taking on Protestant- and evangelical-like church activities: “The unfortunate thing was, and we still have this problem with us today, that with the change of language and the taking on of many new activities, the church dropped its good german [sic] hymnody and sub[s]tituted for them the weaker texts and lighter tunes of the Gospel Hymns.”9 The years-long process of compiling and editing the 1969 Mennonite Hymnal formalized a Mennonite musical aesthetic that sought a return to the “solemn, sober, thoughtful and dignified” hymns of an imagined Mennonite past.10


606 in the red Mennonite Hymnal (1969). Photograph by the author.

It was in this process of “recovering” the Mennonite musical past that “Praise God from whom” came into Mennonite institutional hymnbooks. The source for number 606 in The Mennonite Hymnal was a nineteenth-century song collection called Harmonia Sacra by Mennonite publisher Joseph Funk. Funk’s instructional songbooks were part of a broader “singing school” movement in the United States that influenced Mennonite and Protestant singing alike.11 The song had fallen into relative obscurity, before its inclusion in the 1969 Hymnal.12 By 1979, however, the song was described as “the favorite of Mennonites everywhere” in the Gospel Herald, and by the 1980s it was referred to as the “Mennonite national anthem.”13

In The Mennonite Hymnal, 606 was placed in the “Choral Hymns” section because the committee thought it was too difficult for general congregational use. Indeed, there are several musical features that make singing 606 especially difficult. Unlike most hymns, in which the voice parts move more or less in the same rhythm, in 606 the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass voices jump in and out unpredictably. One example of this is right at the beginning of the hymn. Here the soprano and tenor voices begin singing “Praise God from whom” in duet. Not until a measure later do the alto and bass voices join in, singing a compressed rhythm to catch up to the other voices by the end of the first musical phrase. Complicating the issue further, there are no verses in 606 and thus no “second chances” for learning one’s part. It is not a coincidence that the “Mennonite national anthem” has these difficult elements. In fact, it is precisely because it is difficult for outsiders to join in that the hymn works as a musical identity marker. For those who are able to sing along, 606 is a powerful auditory and embodied experience of Mennonite community, yet this insider experience is predicated on musical stumbling blocks that produce outsiders in the act of performance.


“Project 606” on the banner of the webpage for MennoMedia’s new hymnal project. Screen capture November 7, 2017. (http://hymnalproject606.com)

In the most recent Mennonite hymnal (Hymnal: A Worship Book, 1992), 606 became number 118. Nevertheless, “606” continues to resonate as a favorite hymn and a Mennonite cultural symbol. At the 2011 Mennonite Church USA convention in Pittsburgh, a tally from the delegates put the “Mennonite national anthem” at the top of a list of “heart songs.”14 More recently, 606—or the idea of 606—has become a fundraising and publicity tool for Mennonite Church USA and Canada’s work on a new hymnal. According MennoMedia, the forthcoming hymnal’s publisher, the project aims to “take into account the breadth of the Mennonite Church [USA and Canada], the diverse ways Mennonites sing and worship, and new digital technologies.”15 Still, in an effort to raise money for the hymnal ($606,000), the work on the new hymnal was until recently nicknamed “Project 606.”16 This nickname highlights the tension between the desire to preserve and propagate a practice understood as “traditionally Mennonite” and the hope of making space for diversity within the Mennonite church.

In singing, do Mennonites, as Keillor, imagine connecting to a history of European-Anabaptist persecution? If so, will the church be able to embrace the new songs and joyful noises of a vibrant church community? I do not wish to propose here that Mennonites need a new “national anthem,” or that new musical styles will be inherently better or more inclusive. Nor do I mean to suggest that Mennonites must stop singing “Praise God from whom.” More important for Mennonites—particularly those who trace their heritage to European Anabaptists—is to confront the exclusive, ethnocentric mythologies that often inform the ways hymn singing is valued. In so doing, it would make possible a practice of singing that works not to undergird narrow formulations of Mennonite identity, but rather to reveal resonant experiences of the divine in community that transcend the logics of the world.
Austin McCabe Juhnke is a PhD candidate in Musicology at Ohio State University studying music in the Mennonite Church during the twentieth century.

  1. As of November 28, 2017, the show can be heard in its entirety here: https://www.prairiehome.org/shows/48522. 
  2.  Garrison Keillor, “Good Enough is Enough,” A Prairie Home Companion, American Public Media, May 2, 2015. 
  3.  Michela Tindera, “Quick Q&A: Garrison Keilor” Indianapolis Monthly,  August 6, 2015, http://www.indianapolismonthly.com/arts-culture/quick-qa-garrison-keillor/ (accessed November 28, 2017). 
  4.  See Anna Groff, “606: When, Why and How Do Mennonites Use the Anthem,” The Mennonite, March 18, 2008. 
  5.  See, e.g., Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, (New York: Verso, 2006). 
  6.  Harold S. Bender, “The Anabaptist Vision,” Church History 13, no. 1 (March 1, 1944): 8. 
  7.  James M. Stayer, Werner O. Packull, and Klaus Deppermann, “From Monogenesis to Polygenesis: The Historical Discussion of Anabaptist Origins,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 49, no. 2 (April 1975): 83–121. 
  8. Chester K. Lehman, “Congregational Singing – Our losses and gains,” (1959). Box 6, Folder 2. Mennonite Church, Music and Worship Committee, 1909-1992.  I-3-1. Mennonite Church USA Archives – Elkhart. Elkhart, Indiana. 
  9.  Walter E. Yoder, “Raising Our Sights in Our Church Music” (1960). Box 6, Folder 6. Mennonite Church, Music and Worship Committee, 1909-1992.  I-3-1. Mennonite Church USA Archives – Elkhart. Elkhart, Indiana. 
  10.  Yoder, “The New Church Hymnal and its Implications for Worship” (ca. 1962). Box 6, Folder 4. Mennonite Church, Music and Worship Committee, 1909-1992.  I-3-1. Mennonite Church USA Archives – Elkhart. Elkhart, Indiana. 
  11.  See, e.g., Walter E. Yoder, “Singing Schools,” in Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, 1958, http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Singing_Schools&oldid=113641. 
  12. “Praise God from Whom” Also appeared in the Songs of the Church, ed. Walter E. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1953), 10. 
  13.  “World’s Attic Goes to Kitchen for Help,” Gospel Herald, March, 13 1979. For a use of “Mennonite national anthem,” see, e.g., James C. Juhnke, Dialogue with a Heritage: Cornelius H. Wedel and the Beginnings of Bethel College (North Newton, KS: Super Speed Printing, 1987), 75. 
  14. “What Songs Will Mennonites Sing?” Canadian Mennonite, http://www.canadianmennonite.org/articles/what-songs-will-mennonites-sing 
  15.  “‘Project 606’: Mennonite Song Collection Project Aims for 2020 Release,” The Mennonite, January 4, 2016, https://themennonite.org/daily-news/project-606-mennonite-song-collection-project-aims-for-2020-release/. 
  16. MennoMedia, Project 606: A Gift for the Next Generation,  September 12, 2017, http://web.archive.org/web/20170912230138/http://hymnalproject606.com/ . The project has recently been rebranded as Resonate: Join the Everlasting Song, http://hymnalproject606.com (Accessed November 30, 2017), a change that was found after this post was initially published. 

A Radical Love in Harlem: Resolve, Resilience and Restoration (Part 1: 1952 – 1975)

This is a portion of a current autobiographical project documenting the historical account of Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church in Harlem, New York City from its birth in 1954 leading to the 65 Church’s Anniversary in 2019. (Part I Resolve: 1954 – 1975) Part II Resilience: 1976 – 1996) (Part III Restoration: 1997 – 2017) 


Richard W. Pannell

It was in the heat of the civil rights movement on June 2, 1961, when my father, Richard W. Pannell, a twenty-one year old African-American man first arrived from Coatesville, Pennsylvania, to the historic village of Harlem, New York City. Harlem was known as a predominately African-American community that had a “southern presence” due to the “Great Migration” that fueled Harlem’s population in the 1920’s. Harlem was often called “the spiritual home of the Negro protest movement,” as noted activists Marcus Garvey, A. Philip Randolph and W. E. B. Du Bois led several protests and organized ideas around social justice movements.  The growth of organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the radical writings of The Messenger magazine empowered Harlem residents to speak up and advocate on behalf of their community. 1

Harlem was also an oasis of cultural, social and intellectual enlightenment that gave birth to the “Harlem Renaissance” (1918 – 1930s). Literary figures spoke to the social disparities and suffering of the people of Harlem as mirrored in the famous poem entitled “Harlem” by Langston Hughes:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?2

Theologically speaking, Harlem was a community of vibrant yet contradictory ideologies and beliefs in the early 1960s. Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X was deemed the “Prince of Harlem” and regularly held protests on the corner of the infamous 125th Street and Seventh Avenue to mass supporters. Televised speeches of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could be heard echoing throughout tenement house hallways on Lenox Avenue, and were emulated by black preachers like the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in the pulpit on Sunday mornings. Yet on almost every dining room wall of black families living in the projects, there hung a picture of a blond haired, blue-eyed “White Jesus.” This was Harlem; a radical, renowned and resiliently beautiful community.

It was here in the place known as the “Black Mecca” of the world that John H. Kraybill, a young white Mennonite pastor, greeted my father in front of 2526 Seventh Avenue and welcomed him to Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church.  It would be a moment in time that would change the trajectory of the relationship between the Harlem community and the broader Lancaster Mennonite Church Conference throughout the civil rights and black power movements. 3

5.Kraybill family at brickfront church (1)

Kraybill family at brickfront church

John H. Kraybill was the founder and first pastor of Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church (originally named Harlem Mennonite Church). Kraybill had arrived in New York City from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in May of 1953. Kraybill, once a student at Ontario Mennonite Bible Institute from 1951 – 1953, was drafted during the Korean War (Jun 25, 1950 – Jul 27, 1953 ) and was given classification as a “conscientious objector,”  “a person who refuses military service on the grounds that he or she cannot in good conscience participate in the machinery of war due to personal beliefs.”4 Kraybill was ordered to work two years at a nonprofit institution that addressed national health and safety. It also had to be at least 150 miles from his home town in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Bellevue Hospital in New York City was the ideal place for Kraybill to serve his two years. However, unbeknownst to him at that time, Kraybill would spend thirteen years building the mission church plant of Seventh Avenue and ushering in a shift that would serve to save, strengthen and call a generation of radical and diverse young leaders to serve this Harlem Church for the next fifty years.

Kraybill arrived in New York City in the spring of 1953 and became a member of one of the mission churches planted by Lancaster Mennonite Conference in partnership with Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities. St. Ann’s Mennonite Church, located in the South Bronx, was founded in 1951. Harold Thomas served as the pastor. Prior to then, the Fox Street Mennonite Church was founded in 1949 under the pastoral leadership of Aquila Riehl. Shortly after Kraybill arrived at St. Ann’s Mennonite Church, he learned that the congregation had a vision to plant another church across the bridge in Harlem. Kraybill recalled a dear elderly sister in the congregation named Olive Lucas, who felt passionate about supporting this new vision and gave a few dollars as she could to help it come to pass. The congregational leadership also believed that they had found the perfect person to serve as the pastor of this new endeavor: John H. Kraybill.

With a leader now selected, a group from St. Ann’s Mennonite Church located a vacant lot in Harlem on 147th street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues to start their mission. There they established the Open Air Bible School for two weeks in the summer of 1953. Over fifty children attended this outreach and it continued throughout the fall. Kraybill began getting to know the families in the community and informed them of his search for a vacant building to establish the new church. Soon Kraybill came across a building for sale on Seventh Avenue between 146th and 147th street. It was a five story building with thirteen apartments and two store fronts. Kraybill rented the building and made plans for the first service.

3.Minese and Olive

Olive Lucas, Minese Hamilton, and unknown friend

On January 17 1954, the opening service was held for Harlem Mennonite Church at 2526 Seventh Avenue, later to be renamed Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church. That same year, John Kraybill married Thelma Synder and was credentialed for the ministry through Lancaster Mennonite Conference. The first members included  Willis Johnson, Minese Hamilton and Glen and Florence Good Zeager, urban blacks and rural whites coming together as one. This was the beginning of a quiet resolve to build a cross-cultural church intertwining two very separate communities for the greater purpose of the radical love of Jesus Christ.

In the spring of 1954, Glen Zeager encouraged Kraybill to consider purchasing the building to expand the ministry that included Sunday School, Bible Classes and Sunday Morning Worship. In June 1954, John Kraybill and Glen Zeager gathered together a down payment of $3,000 and was able to miraculously purchase 2526 Seventh Avenue for $26,000. Later, in order to increase sustainability for the property, Kraybill and Zeager sold the building to Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities in 1959.


Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church

The ministry of Seventh Avenue continued to flourish with the help of many Mennonites that came from Pennsylvania through Volunteer Service or 1-W service assignments (conscientious objectors). It was a 1-W service assignment that brought Richard W. Pannell to Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church on that summer day in 1961. My father was introduced to the Mennonite church in 1952 as a twelve year old living in Newlinville, Pennsylvania. In 1946, the Newlinville Mennonite Church emerged from a summer Bible school program held by the Coatesville Mennonite Church among African Americans in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. There my father attended Sunday School and was later baptized at the age of fourteen. Under the pastoral leadership of Elmer D. Leaman, Pannell developed a deeper understanding of Anabaptist values, community and practices. Once stating that he felt “a part of the family,” Pannell was accepted, valued and loved by his new church community. As a teenager, Pannell shared fond memories of  participating in summer camps such as Camp Tel Hai, Camp Men-O-Lan and Camp Hebron. Pannell also had the opportunity to meet  and socialize with other black Mennonite youth from different urban outreach churches such as Diamond Street Mennonite Church in Philadelphia through the many mission station gatherings that were held in the area. Some of these other young black Mennonites from Harrisburg and Philadelphia such as Harold Davenport, Margie Middleton and Doris Allen Perkins also came up to New York and joined in this counter-cultural idea of building a Mennonite church in the heart of Harlem.  A new radical Anabaptist community of young, diverse and energetic modern day missionaries would live in the apartments above the church that was developing.

  1. Richard W. Pannell, phone interview by author, November, 17 2017. All following comments about Richard W. Pannell’s life are taken from this interview. 
  2. Langston Hughes, “Harlem [2]” in Collected Poems, ed. Arnold Rempersad (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 426. 
  3. John H. Kraybill presentation and personal notes from April 30, 2017 at Infinity (Seventh Avenue)Mennonite Church Building Celebration; John H. Kraybill, email interview by author, on November 15, 2017. All following comments about John H. Kraybill’s  life are taken from this documentation and interview. 
  4. Hanspeter Jecker, “Conscientious Objection,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, accessed August 15, 2014, http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Conscientious_objection. 

On the Theological Uses of Anabaptist History: A Conversation

Note: The following is a conversation about the theological and ecclesiological uses of Anabaptist history from the perspectives of an early modernist and a modernist

By Christina Moss and Ben Goossen

CM: When the two of us presented on a panel together in June at the Crossing the Line conference at Eastern Mennonite University, one of the recurring themes during the discussion that followed was the ways in which contemporary Anabaptists engage with Anabaptist history. My own period of study, the sixteenth century, encompasses the beginnings of Anabaptism, so it continues to hold a lot of interest for the spiritual descendants of those first Anabaptists. But of course, Anabaptism is a dynamic tradition and has continued to evolve since the sixteenth century. Ben, your research has focused more on Anabaptists in the modern era. How have you found that contemporary Anabaptists engage (or perhaps fail to engage) with more recent Anabaptist history?


The ongoing influence of Harold Bender’s Anabaptist Vision, despite extensive scholarly critique, represents the entanglement of history and theology in Anabaptist communities.

BG: That was a great discussion! One of the insights I have continued to ponder is your comment that Reformation-era Anabaptists lived during a radically different time that, if we are honest with ourselves, may not actually have that much bearing on our twenty-first century context. In my work, I have tried to trace some of the reasons why modern (i.e. nineteenth- and twentieth-century) Anabaptist church leaders, historians, and lay persons have attached such importance to Reformation history.[^1] Frequently, the answer seems to be a search for a “usable past,” in which sixteenth-century stories are brought to bear on more contemporary challengescrises of faith, external threats, shrinking congregations, etc. I might venture that for modern Anabaptists, the study of Reformation history has disproportionately been about modern issues. So in that sense, I would say that truly understanding either modern or early modern Anabaptism would first require deconstructing how we talkand have talked in the pastabout the Reformation. But you’re the sixteenth-century expert; where would you say the historiography falls on this point?

CM: I’ll admit to being much more familiar with how historians talk about sixteenth-century Anabaptists than how contemporary Anabaptist churches and theologians deal with that legacy, but from what I’ve seen there’s definitely a gap, though perhaps there wasn’t always. The dominant narrative in the mid-twentieth century was that cast by Harold Bender in his essay “The Anabaptist Vision.” Bender argued that Anabaptism was a logical culmination of the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. He distinguished between the “original evangelical and constructive Anabaptism,” or “Anabaptism proper,” and “the various mystical, spiritualistic, revolutionary, or even antinomian related and unrelated groups on the other hand.”[^2] The Bender school of Anabaptist history provided churches and theologians with a usable past, but from a historiographical standpoint it was roundly critiqued because it marginalized so many different expressions of sixteenth-century Anabaptism. Later seminal works like James Stayer’s Anabaptists and Sword and Stayer, Werner Packull, and Klaus Deppermann’s article “From Monogenesis to Polygenesis” emphasized the diversity of early Anabaptism, both in terms of theological views and geographical points of origin.[^3] Currently, some historians working on sixteenth-century have confessional commitments of their own and others don’t, but all would agree on their responsibility to explain the beliefs of their subjects as accurately as possible, regardless of whether those views are theologically relevant for contemporary Anabaptists.

I do want to be clear that I don’t think that churches shouldn’t look to the past for theological inspiration. Certainly, as we seek to be faithful in our own context, we can learn from others who sought to be faithful in theirs. But I do think we need to be really careful about it, and honest with ourselves. Often, as people of faith, we approach church history having already made up our mind about a theological question and seeking antecedents in order to validate our position. Take the question of women’s ordination, for instance. There are some truly fascinating women in sixteenth-century Anabaptism, and they are well worth studying, but even the most permissive Anabaptist groups wouldn’t have practiced women’s ordination the way we do in MC Canada and MCUSA churches today. Melchior Hoffman, who enthusiastically affirmed the callings of both male and female prophets, allowed for the possibility that women might also serve as teachers if no qualified men were present.[^4] As notable as this concession was for its time, reluctantly allowing women to serve as a “Plan B” is not a suitable approach to women in ministry for the twenty-first century church. Where legitimate antecedents do exist, they’re certainly worth highlighting to emphasize that there is, and has long been, room in our theological tradition for the views we’re trying to advance. However, our theological forebears weren’t infallible, and, if we sincerely believe that a theological position is worth advocating for, we should do so regardless of whether or not it has precedent, without trying to reshape the theology of our spiritual forebears to better fit our views.

In fact, I believe that reflecting on our theological tradition’s fallibility is perhaps one of the most crucial ways churches can and should engage with church history. Ben, I know that your work has touched on this quite a bit. Could you speak to that here? What does it look like for Anabaptist churches to reckon with our spiritual forebears’ fallibility, and to do so well?

BG: Perhaps we should pull a few theologians into this conversation. It strikes me that history as practiced by Anabaptists has probably always been theological in nature. For many conservative groups, history writing has in the past and continues today to offer an acceptable alternative to more “worldly” disciplines like philosophy and theology—which, in my opinion, makes it a kind of philosophy or theology par excellence. Meanwhile, those of us influenced by or working in the wider academy would, I think, tend to join other professional historians in seeing the practice of history as a means of tracking power relations in the past, often for purposes of altering them in the present. All historians do this according to a guiding (often changing) set of ethical or moral standards; and Anabaptist historians—like practitioners of other religious traditions—might see these standards as emanating specifically from their theological worldviews.


Images and narratives about Reformation-era Anabaptists, such as this etching from Thieleman van Braght’s Martyrs Mirror, have held different resonances among Anabaptist communities over the centuries.

I like your notion of reckoning with past fallibility as a source for spiritual inspiration in our own time. This way of evaluating history both takes seriously the discipline’s fundamentally ethical character and also avoids purely laudatory accounts. That still leaves the question, however, of how to decide what to praise and what to lament. Here I’m thinking of David Weaver-Zercher’s excellent new book, Martyrs Mirror: A Social History, which examines how Anabaptists of various stripes have read and interpreted Thieleman van Braght’s famous seventeenth-century martyrology over the past four centuries.[^5] Weaver-Zercher persuasively argues that despite vastly different contexts and hermeneutics, Anabaptist readers have consistently seen the Martyrs Mirror as a tool for measuring their own communities’ faithfulness (understood in different ways), against the faithfulness of Reformation-era Anabaptists. Such a practice already depends on the construction of a theologically-grounded narrative dichotomy, which in this case presents Anabaptist martyrs as heroic and their Catholic and Protestant persecutors as fallen.

So I think the issue is less whether our histories—scholarly or popular—should or should not emphasize past fallibility; they do so inherently. Rather, the more significant question might be how closely that fallibility is associated with historical actors with whom we might be inclined to identify, especially “spiritual forebears,” as you put it. Displacing fallibility exclusively or mostly onto others can be appealing, but doing so tends to render the actions of our historical role models unimpeachable, in turn making it difficult to criticize the male-dominated gender relations of the early Anabaptists, to pick up on your example, or to recognize how contemporary discourses of peacemaking, discernment, and process can disadvantage LGBTQ members today. For me, one the basic purposes of Anabaptist history is to recognize when Anabaptism as a denomination or identity is invoked to disadvantage or marginalize others. Often, Anabaptism as an idea is so positively connoted in our minds—or in the minds of historical actors—that preserving its honor, unity, or very existence takes precedence over advocating for the needs of women, queer folks, people of color, or any other number of people. Thus I see recent work around gender, labor, and race by Felipe Hinojosa, Stephanie Krehbiel, Tobin Miller Shearer, and Janis Thiessen, among many others, as vitally important in the task of keeping us skeptical and honest about a faith we have chosen and a past we have not.[^6]


Recent scholarship on Anabaptism in both the early modern and modern periods, such as this edited collection, owe much to non-Anabaptist historians.

In some ways, that brings us back to theology. Christina, I’d be fascinated to know how early modernists like yourself navigate disciplinary boundaries and even professional relationships within the discipline of history, where some practitioners identify as religious and others do not. I’m also wondering what sources Anabaptist and non-Anabaptist historians of the Reformation have drawn upon to develop the moral-theological lenses that they use and have used to evaluate past actions and events—scripture, revelation, arguments and texts developed during the sixteenth century?

CM: In my experience, the scholarly relationship between scholars of different religious affiliations (or non-affiliations) who study early modern Anabaptism has been really fruitful. We bring different questions, interests, and perspectives to the material at times, but we learn so much from each other. The field has been incredibly enriched both by historians who are rooted in contemporary Anabaptist communities and historians who aren’t. For instance, we know quite a bit more about Spiritualists and apocalyptically-minded Anabaptists thanks to the work of scholars who don’t belong to contemporary Anabaptist faith communities. If anything, I see less tension between Anabaptist and non-Anabaptist historians than has sometimes existed between Anabaptist historians and Anabaptist theologians. The debate between Denny Weaver and Arnold Snyder after the release of Anabaptist History and Theology comes to mind.[^7] Essentially, Weaver argued that Snyder had written a skewed historical survey of sixteenth-century Anabaptism that “[opened] the door to the accommodation of violence rather than seeing the rejection of violence as theologically normative.”[^8] Snyder, however, pointed out Weaver’s critique was historically insubstantial, since he failed to demonstrate from the sources how Snyder’s reading was skewed.[^9]

Personally, as someone who is both an active member of a faith community and a historian, I try as much as possible to separate out my historian and theologian hats. As a historian, my job is to be as faithful as I can to the source material—treatises, letters, court records—and to represent the views of the people I study as clearly and accurately as possible. It’s only after I’ve done that work that I can bring out my inner armchair theologian and start asking questions like “Is this a useful model for the Church today?” or “Does this Scriptural interpretation have the potential to lead to human flourishing?” The latter question gets at the heart of the moral/theological lens I’ve personally come to adopt when sifting through approaches to faith and Scriptural interpretation, but that’s highly individual and different scholars and people of faith often come in with different considerations.

BG: Your suggestion that our understanding of early modern Anabaptism has been enriched by dialogue with historians of various (or no) faith traditions is fascinating. It rings true to me for the modernist period as well. Non-Anabaptist scholars have done vital work to situate modern Anabaptist history within larger trends and contexts, often showing that Mennonites, Amish, Brethren, and others are not really as unusual or disconnected from the world as we’d sometimes like to think, but thereby also helping to make true instances of uniqueness all the more significant. More broadly, the integration of modern Anabaptist history into Marxist scholarship, gender analysis, or the so-called social and cultural “turns,” to name only a few important examples, has been possible only because of broader developments emerging from many voices across the academy and beyond. Each of these intellectual and methodological movements has further allowed us to see Anabaptist history as multiple, contested, and endlessly interesting. 

I’d like to thank you, Christina, for initiating this conversation, which I think demonstrates how dialogue between early modernists and modernists—like exchange between disciplines or across religious lines—can illuminate anew topics we thought we knew well. I’d be excited to see more such discussions in the future, and of course I look forward to reading more of your ongoing work and to thinking about how it can inform modernists’ thinking and writing about Anabaptist history. 

CM: Thank you so much for your willingness to take part in this conversation! It’s so important to keep having these discussions, both as historians and as members of faith communities.

Christina Moss is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Waterloo studying Anabaptist prophets in sixteenth-century Strasbourg. Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University and the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.


Lessons in Mischief from the Eastern Mennonite High School Class of 1959

The Eastern Mennonite School centennial a few weeks back provided the opportunity to reflect on, as Donald Kraybill has put it, one hundred years of countercultural education. Hopefully, the reunions and reminiscences also provided the chance to reflect on a quintessential aspect of student life: mischief. But if you’re looking for more, read on. 

In March 2014 I sat down with five women from the EMHS class of 1959. They shared about many aspects of student life in the 1950s, perhaps most gleefully reminiscing about the little ways they pushed the boundaries of good behavior. What follows is a list of things I learned about how to get away with mischief from the self-described “good kids” of 1959. (The women are identified below by their initials. All quotes come from the transcript I prepared, titled “EMHS 1959 Transcript,” available at the Menno Simons Historical Library at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA).

#1. Spies are all around: know who to watch out for (and where to watch for them)

It’s not just teachers, staff, or parents who enforce good behavior. College students, too, could act as “spies.”

MH: You remember the spies? [they all laugh]. They were college kids. We didn’t know who they were. College kids were designated spies so when you were in the dorm [Northlawn] in the social room…You never knew who was watching you. So you tried to sit there with your hands down here [indicates under the table] so you could hold hands [with a boyfriend]. We did that a lot…. I never got caught but it’s not that we never held hands.

#2. Break one rule at a time and make the most of your image

In 1959 looking plain signaled that all was right within you. You could be trusted. And this meant you could get away with more.

MH: And one day, I lived in the dorm and [boyfriend] had a sister that lived down close to where the seminary is now. They wanted us to come for supper so Miss Barge and Esther Longacre were deans and I had to get permission to go walk from this dorm [Northlawn] to there with him and it was dark. And that was almost a no-no. They didn’t want to let us go but [boyfriend] at that time was very conservative. He wore a plain coat. And Miss Barge liked him. [laughing]. And I still remember her words: we’re going to let you go but you know we trust you.  [more laughter]. Little did they know! [laughter]

CB: If you looked conservative.

MH: Yeah.

CB: You could get by with just about anything.

#3. Mischief is best accomplished within the safety of a group — and in a way that uses modesty to your advantage

The women recalled a particularly conservative faculty member and what they did to irritate him:

CB: …one time just to be kind of ornery, some of us girls sewed little bells on our crinolines, under our skirts. And then when we walked it jingled a little bit. Wasn’t real loud but you could hear these little bells. And I know…one of the professors, it would agitate him so. Of course he couldn’t see them but he started quoting scripture about these tinkling cymbals or something. [Laughter.]…. he thought we were very sinful because we had bells on.

#4. If possible, be a boy

CB: And remember the boys found out that I was so afraid of mice…We had these desks which opened up. I opened it up and there’s a mouse!

UK: a live one?

CB: No, dead. And I screamed. [Laughter]. They had the biggest kick out of that. But I don’t think they got in trouble. [More laughter].

UK: You probably got in trouble for screaming.

#5. Sometimes you need a little help from worldly items (like an eyebrow pencil)

WR: You were supposed to wear hose all the time.

Shen61 02

Girls playing volleyball, c. 1961. Is that truly a stocking seam on the back of the girl’s leg? Or a cleverly drawn line, courtesy of an eyebrow pencil? (Girls playing volleyball, 1961 Shenandoah (Eastern Mennonite School yearbook), courtesy of the Menno Simons Historical Library, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA.)

WR: And they had to be dark.

ED: And they had to have seams.

HS: What was it about seams? [the younger interviewer is confused, having only known a world where hose don’t have seams]

ED: So they knew you had hose on.

CB: Eyebrow pencil worked.

UK: You just took eyebrow pencil and —

UK: There’s always a way to get around everything! [Laughter]

CB: You could use an eyebrow pencil and put the mark up your leg and you’d look like you had stockings on.

HS: And that worked? [wondering how they all had eyebrow pencil; wouldn’t make-up have been forbidden?]

WR: For a while! [Laughter]

#6. Enjoy the ironies that will come when your elders don’t think through the logical results of certain rules

The women remembered rules about wearing skirts even during gym class. Bad news for the girls; potentially appreciated by the boys. 

MH: And the boys really enjoyed going to the basketball games. Because they couldn’t wait until we’d fall over and then they’d see our skirts would fly up. I remember them talking about it. [laughter.]


Girls playing basketball in the old gym at EMS, c. 1957. Their skirts appear well in order. (Girls playing basketball, 1957 Shenandoah (Eastern Mennonite School yearbook), courtesy of the Menno Simons Historical Library, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA)

#7. Sometimes you just have to risk it

CB: The most sneaky thing we did was we snuck out in front of the chapel, got on motorcycles with two of our male classmates and they took us for a ride through Park View and back and then we worried for weeks; we were afraid that somebody would find out. That would have been terrible.

UK: We’d have been sent home.

#8. When you get older and are looking back, have some grace for your elders

CB: You know I have done a lot of fussing about the way things were but I really appreciate the bottom line was a good religious base and some of these far out things that they demanded, they were just carrying out what they needed to, I suppose. But I am thankful for what the church stands for, the Mennonite church.

#9 But also acknowledge that amid the fun was real hurt—and real mistakes

It may be funny sixty years later to think of boys hoping the girls’ skirts would fly up in gym class; it could very well have been deeply embarrassing for the girls then. But embarrassment is the least of the problem—sexism, double standards, and all the problems inherent in the male gaze also come to mind.

And while pushing the limits in small ways was one thing, the costs were real for those who didn’t quite fit in. The women remembered one classmate who left school because she would not confess to the error of having a boy student put his arm around her shoulder on the couch. They remembered this student had “looked a little wordly” and always been under suspicion. Speaking of another issue, one woman recalled that her sister had red, curly hair. Just having this bright, unruly hair meant “she looked like a wordly student…And everything that went wrong, she got blamed for because she just looked like somebody that would be mischievous or break the rules or whatever. And she carries that stigma with her today.” Whether kicked out of school, or just being under suspicion for how you naturally look, inequality and injustice lurks in many of these memories.

What lessons in mischief do you have from your school days? What gems could be recorded at your family dinners? Thanksgiving is coming. In the centennial spirit, think about purchasing a small digital recorder (I use an RCA VR5320 R digital voice recorder which costs around $30) and sitting down to record some stories. If you interview a Mennonite women, consider donating the recording to the collection where the interview I quote from here is housed: Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, in the Eastern Mennonite University archives. I am happy to answer any questions about the logistics of recording interviews or about how to donate recordings to an archive.