Pandora Press in 2022

Pandora Press has had an interesting history leading up to the present, and this year has seen significant changes in its leadership, vision, and publishing model. Founded in the 1990s by C. Arnold Snyder, an historian at Conrad Grebel University College, and continued by Christian Snyder in the 2010s culminating with the publication of Jo Snyder’s The Vegan Mennonite Kitchen, Pandora Press is now – as they say – under new management.

Following many fruitful conversations with Christian Snyder in 2021, as of January 2022 I am now the Director of Pandora Press. To say the very least, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to grow and transform its work over the coming years, and I have much to share with readers of Anabaptist Historians in what follows.

First, I should say something about what Pandora Press has been doing so far this year and last. Our 2021 featured title, Jo Snyder’s cookbook The Vegan Mennonite Kitchen, continues to make a strong contribution to the conversation on Mennonite culinary cultures through its delicious recipes and storied reflections (not to mention a review in Chatelaine).

The Vegan Mennonite Kitchen: Old Recipes for a Changing World, by Jo Snyder. 186 color pages. 2021. ISBN: 978-1-926599-71-7. www.veganmennonite.com

The past few months have seen the publication of two titles that were in-press in late 2021, the first of which was recently covered in an interview with Lucille Marr, published here on Anabaptist Historians. The second title adds to the Bridgefolk series that collects papers from Mennonite Catholic dialogues, with a cover designed by the talented Meghan Harder.

Menno’s Descendants in Quebec: The Mission Activity of Four Anabaptist Groups 1956 – 2021, by Richard Lougheed. 2021. 255 pp. ISBN: 9781926599724

Intercessory Prayer and the Communion of Saints: Mennonite and Catholic Perspectives, Edited by Darrin W. Snyder Belousek and Margaret R. Pfeil. 2022. 260 pp. ISBN: 978-1926599786

Two further titles that contribute to established themes in Pandora Press’s publication history have recently been released, the first of which is a joint effort with the Masthof Press (which distributes the book in the United States), and the second of which is a new edition of a standout title in our spiritual care series.

Making Wars Cease: A Survey of the MCC Peace Section, 1940–1990, by Urbane Peachey. 2022. 320 pages. ISBN: 978-1926599885

Spiritual Caregivers in the Hospital: Windows to Competent Practice. Third Edition, Edited by Leah D. Bueckert and Daniel S. Schipani. 2022. 348 pp. ISBN 979-888627349-6

Beyond these four books, Pandora Press is excited to announce the following new and forthcoming publications. I have recently had the pleasure of editing a booklet on theologies of the border and the European refugee crisis, authored by Hadje Cresencio Sadje, a prolific graduate student who is currently a visiting fellow at the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre.

Theology at the Border: Community Peacemaker Teams and the Refugee Crisis in Europe, by Hadje Cresencio Sadje. 2022, 109 pp. ISBN: 978-1926599755

We are also very close to publishing a novel that stages a unique literary and philosophical encounter between Mennonite identity and Ancient Greek thought. Ronald Tiessen’s Menno in Athens narrates a pilgrimage that will speak to both the hearts and minds of its readers.

Menno in Athens: A Novel, by Ronald Tiessen. With original artwork by Lisa Rollo Kipp. 2022. 200 pp. ISBN: 978-1-926599-74-8

Beyond these titles, late 2022 will also see the publication of a book of weekly meditations on favourite hymns by Carla Klassen, an expansion of the recent Zeman Lectures by Gary Waite, a substantial study of Anabaptist oath refusal by Edmund Pries, and the first publication of Cornelius J. Dyck’s dissertation on the Dutch Anabaptist figure Hans de Ries, introduced by Mary Sprunger.

Spring 2022 Catalogue

Over the past six months I have been bringing older Pandora Press titles back into print, so if you have been looking for one of our books that has gone out of print it is likely that it is now available again. Our new catalogue includes a near-comprehensive list of our books, both past and present, so please see here for a PDF copy.

A New Logo for Pandora Press

To mark the major changes that have taken place over the past year in both its directorship and vision, and to signal its movement into new and exciting futures, I am excited to present the new Pandora Press logo, designed by Winnipeg illustrator and designer, and author of the highly-praised graphic novel Shelterbelts, Jonathan Dyck (https://www.jonathandyck.com).

The new logo is meant to be as evocative as the name of the press, calling to mind the tumult of Pandora’s box, which in Hesiod’s Theogony contains the foreboding promise of both positive and negative futures. In addition to the new logo, new books published in 2022 and onward will also include a larger and more detailed image that combines several themes connected to the press’s identity.

Connections

Although Pandora Press remains an independent publisher, informal friends of the press include the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre (directed by Kyle Gingerich Hiebert), the Institute of Anabaptist Mennonite Studies at Conrad Grebel University College (Associate Director, David Neufeld), the Canadian Mennonite University Press (now run by Sue Sorensen), the Institute of Mennonite Studies at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (led by Jamie Pitts and David Cramer), and Gelassenheit Publications (a new publishing company run by Jonathan Seiling).

Collegial relationships of mutual support are the only viable future available for Mennonite publishing and Mennonite higher education, and my aim is for Pandora Press to be a key part of that future by providing a home for scholars in and around the interdisciplinary field of Mennonite Studies to publish their work.

Submissions

Pandora Press invites submissions of both popular and scholarly manuscripts, including revisions of dissertations. Our established specializations are in Anabaptist history and Mennonite theology, but we are expanding in new interdisciplinary directions and we encourage submissions from scholars across the social sciences and humanities, as well as from literary writers in the ever-blooming discourse on Mennonite/s Writing.

For its academic titles, Pandora Press uses double-blind peer review and consultation with its newly formed editorial board in order to ensure a high standard of quality and scholarly rigour. Not all manuscripts will be accepted of course (for reasons of both quality and capacity), but Pandora Press is committed to helping early career scholars place their work with publishers that will help them succeed in their chosen fields, whether by referral to other editors or through constructive suggestions about form and content.

Translations

Pandora Press is currently seeking funding to pay for three major translations in the area of Anabaptist history, only one of which can be made public because contracts have yet to be signed. And it is an exciting project indeed!

In 1972 the Reformation History scholar Gottfried Seebaß submitted his lengthy habilitationsschriftMüntzers Erbe: Werke, Leben und Theologie des Hans Hut. Although at some point a typescript of the work was informally circulated, it took 35 years for the book to be published in Germany. The book was eventually released by Gütersloher Verlagshaus in 2002 to great acclaim. In his review for the Mennonite Quarterly Review, Tom Scott writes that:

“It is astonishing that a scholarly work, whose importance was recognized when it first appeared as a Habilitationsschrift in 1972, should have taken thirty years to find its way into print. Unfortunately, Seebass does not explain the reasons for the delay, nor why it should now at last have been published. It is even more remarkable, as Seebass notes in a brief afterword, that so few of his findings about the life and work of Hans Hut have been revised, let alone overturned, by subsequent scholarship in the intervening years. Both facts testify to the meticulous research and secure command of the theological highways and byways of the Radical Reformation that Seebass displays…” (MQR 77.3 2003)

In late 2021 Pandora Press commissioned an English translation of the book from Amalie Enns, and we are now seeking financial support to pay for translation, copyediting, typesetting, and distribution. If you are interested in supporting the project please contact the press through this form.

A Note of Gratitude

Mennonite Studies, Mennonite Theology, and Anabaptist History are each in a state of flux. Major shifts are occurring for journals like the Mennonite Quarterly Review (as John D. Roth takes on the oversight of MennoMedia’s work on the 500th Anniversary of the start of Anabaptism), and exciting new work is being done by younger scholars in the field – many of whom are featured on this site. In providing the update above I also want to express my gratitude to those who support the work of graduate students and early career scholars in the field, and especially to those who continue to purchase books published by Pandora Press and the other publishers listed above.

With thanks for your past, present, and future support of scholarly publishing in Anabaptist and Mennonite Studies,

Maxwell Kennel
Director
Pandora Press

Mexican Mennonites: from Religious Group to Ethnic Group, a Perspective from Cultural Anthropology

Dr. Patricia Islas Salinas

From their formation as an Anabaptist religious group in the sixteenth century during the Protestant Reformation, Mennonites have defended their beliefs and values through community sentiments and a religious identity that is based on their relationship with the Bible. The importance of faith and the notion of grace allowed them to survive the sociocultural atrocities they have suffered since their founding and that today distinguishes them from other groups.

In the 1870s, after experiencing a complicated diaspora, opportunities for growth as a society and Anabaptist community during one hundred years in Russia, and the imminence of the government imposition to end the privilegium, the more conservative Mennonites migrated to Canada and were afforded fifty years more of traditional community life. However, history repeated itself and the group was divided. Those who were not disposed to coalesce to the governmental provisions concerning their education and language decided to retreat, directing their gaze toward the Latin American continent.

The history of the Mennonites in Mexico began in 1922 when they decided to emigrate, driven by the conviction of preserving their group under the canons of their lifestyle and way of thinking, under an agreement with General Álvaro Obregón, president of Mexico, who granted a privilegium which allowed the purchase of the lands offered in the northwest of the state of Chihuahua, including the inhospitable Bustillos land. This series of events formed the San Antonio de los Arenales Agricultural Colony created for the settlers who were already there when the Mennonites arrived practically at the same time and the two groups began life in what is now known as Cuauhtémoc.

The original members of the Mennonite community in Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, Mexico, were undoubtedly the basis for the ethnic origin of this group, using religious worship first as a means of keeping the community together, and later, to remain isolated from the receiving community. Under the provision of preventing women and children from learning Spanish and living with the Mestizos, they managed to ensure that the majority preserved their traditional lifestyle.

A central pillar of Mennonite community is the family, where education in values ​​based on the Christocentric perspective is practiced. The primary means to achieve these values is enculturation. This phenomenon occurs in the family nucleus and is defined by the learning of traditions, customs and ways of thinking developed over time and inherited from parents to children so that children usually reflect domestic and cultural life in their practices, as indicated by Harris et al (1990) who argues, “enculturation is a partially conscious and partially unconscious learning experience through which the older generation encourages and forces the younger generation to adopt traditional ways of thinking and behaving” (4). Coupled with the sense of union and collaborative work to survive, some of the defining characteristics of group members are the values of being self-taught, self-managed, self-contained and the defense of their traditions and customs. 

The cultural study of groups concerning the anthropology of everyday life is highlighted by Agnes Heller who observes, “daily life is the set of activities that characterize the reproduction of particular men, which, in turn, create the possibility of social reproduction” (25). Following Heller’s maxim, “everyday life is the reflection of history,” it can be deduced that Mennonites have preserved their worldview from the collective memory of their traits such as clothing, gastronomy, labor according to gender roles, religious worship at different times of the day, Faspa and other aspects that are observed in the day-to-day life of family members.

After the settlers arrived, the Mexican Mennonite identity was born. They acquired the nationality of the country that had welcomed them by decree, thus forming a unique community in the world with very specific ethnic and cultural characteristics. Integration and cultural homogenization characterize an ethnic group, as well as persistence and the right to cultural difference in a context that, of course, is not their own and, therefore, requires a greater effort from the social actors, who forge their identity from family nuclei thus converting ethnicity into a social process from the perspective of the other, of the different. “There are those who define an ethnic group, not by one or another cultural and identity qualities, but because they are bearers of a culture and an identity that is maintained and reproduced in opposition to others that are dominant” (Pérez, M. 2007, 40).

In this sense, the Mexican Mennonites are an ethnic group due to the contemporary cultural specificity that comes from the original group, which sowed the worldview that gives them ethnic identity, a product of the interrelationships between generations through social, political and power practices among the members of the community since they have their own socio-political and economic system, as well as their cultural norms, community conflict resolution mechanisms and decisions based on their own authorities who work partially and conveniently with the Mestizo authorities.

Members of ethnic groups see themselves as culturally different from other social groups, and are perceived by others in the same way. There are various characteristics that can serve to distinguish some ethnic groups from others, but the most common are language, history or ancestry (real or imagined), religion and ways of dressing or adorning themselves (Giddens, 2000, p.281).

In the Cuauhtémoc region of Chihuahua, the Mennonites are perceived as one of the representative ethnic groups in the area and they are accepted and recognized as peaceful and hard-working people. However, at present, and despite the efforts of the first generations, enculturation no longer provides society with generations that pursue the same ideals and share the same thoughts and actions. Today, there is the phenomenon of the generational gap conceptualized by Margaret Mead that reflects on the evolution of the knowledge acquired under the daily experience of the new generations and the guidelines that the sociocultural context is marking them.

Individuals in a semi-insular society, such as that of the Mexican Mennonites, are immersed, on the one hand, in the daily life of their family and community and, on the other, in the dominant culture and the coexistence necessary to form part of the geographic context and socioeconomic, this generates that they are influenced by different factors such as learning the dominant language, the interrelation with people of different ethnic groups and thought, the use of new technologies, etc., which are interspersed with those learned in the family nucleus, and undoubtedly, these are stronger and the roots of their formation and cultural identity continue to be preserved.

In the Cuauhtémoc region there are two primary Mennonite colonies, Manitoba and Swift Current, the members of both communities coexist in a cordial and united way despite being divided into two main groups, the conservative (traditional) and the liberal (progressive), even when there is a diversity of churches, the guiding axis of all groups is religious Anabaptism. 

From the analysis of daily life, it is observed that the members of the Mennonite ethnic group have a strong sense of cultural identity and refer to it from a different perspective. On one hand, the conservatives are the ones who monitor the ancestral traditions and customs, decide to continue with the traditional educational system, and reject many aspects of modernity and intercultural relations, while those of the liberal branch have begun to use ethnicity as a strategy of continuity of the sense of belonging and community identity through practices and cultural and value meanings, such as the use of social networks to promote their culture, support for the Mennonite cultural center and museum, because even when they have been affected by modernity and globalization, they see themselves as different as they are seen by the dominant society.

Finally, within this cultural analysis, a noteworthy fact is the one that refers to the sociocultural openness of the liberal community with respect to mixed marriages where Mestizos are attracted and converted to the Anabaptist religion, some churches have become true intercultural spaces where the new generations share the education and values ​​of both ethnic groups creating new possibilities for community growth.

Factors like these have been creating differences within the community of Mexican Mennonites. Traditions are social constructions, and therefore, cultural exchange fosters a variation of existing and new traditions especially in the new generations.  

Additionally, tradition is a social construction that changes temporally, from one generation to another; and spatially, from one place to another. That is, tradition varies within each culture, over time and according to social groups; and between different cultures (Arévalo, J. 2010, Para. 8). 

In the Mennonite community of northwestern Chihuahua, the daily practice of rituals, attendance at Sunday service, solidarity between families, and the Anabaptist religious conviction that the sacred word and the commandments should guide their daily actions act as a mechanism of social cohesion between the members of both factions, however, the mere fact of being Mexican also generates a sense of belonging to the country where they were born.


References

Arevalo, J. (2010). Heritage as collective representation. The intangibility of cultural assets

Harris, M., Bordoy, V., Revuelta, F., & Velasco, HM (1990) Cultural Anthropology. Madrid: Publishing Alliance.

Heller, A. (1987). Sociology of Everyday Life (No. 301 H45Y).

Giddens, A. (2000). Ethnicity and race. Sociology, 277-315.

Amish Mutual Aid during the Great Depression and what it implies for Modern Capitalism

This post revisits the theme of Anabaptist economics that I addressed in my last most on the moral economy of the Hutterite community. I now turn to Amish mutual aid as a functional equivalent to public welfare and commercial insurance/credit during the Great Depression.


On December 16 in 1939, the Baltimore Afro-American, a prominent newspaper, published a brief note regarding the imminent foundation of an Amish settlement in southern Maryland. It noted the religious, “cult”-like character of this Anabaptist group and went on to comment that

The most interesting thing about them [the Amish], however, is the success they have had all through this depression in solving their economic problems. They have good homes, money in the banks, and have religiously spurned State or Federal relief. They have been able to eke out their comfortable livelihood by tilling the soil. Since this matter of getting farmers off relief and government help is one of the New Deal headaches, the Federal farm authorities might find it profitable to do some of their investigating on Amish farms. Maybe they will find some method more simple and less involved than plowing in and limitation of production. Maybe, too, they will run across a procedure that the average farmer can use.1

Baltimore African-American, Dec. 16, 1939.

At this time, the Great Depression had run its course for a decade, bringing economic havoc and social destitution to all capitalist societies. In the United States, African-Americans were particularly hit hard by the Depression’s onslaught on an already racist and highly unequal economy.2 The Afro-American’s readership thus in all likelihood was interested in the fate of the marginal Amish group. After all, while not being exposed to systemic racism, the Amish still represented an unusual model of economic organization that differed substantially from the overall farming population that had transitioned towards a mechanized, commercial and business-oriented agriculture in the preceding decades. What, if any, were these “procedures” that would have been applicable to “the average farmer”?

Before providing a tentative answer to this question, it is important to note a couple of things. First, there was no such thing as “the average farmer.” Rural communities faced different challenges depending on geographic location and other factors. The Depression, for example, had a different impact on owners, tenant-farmers and sharecroppers. Moreover, the systemic racism clearly favored white farmers, with consequences particularly for African-Americans in the southern states.

Second, the Amish were not as unscathed by the Great Depression as the Baltimore Afro-American made it seem. Contemporary sources, as well as later memoirs, provide ample evidence that the Amish were hit hard by depleted prices for agricultural goods, debt and environmental problems caused by dust storms and droughts. In 1971, the Amish periodical “Family Life” published two issues that sections on “Amish life in the Great Depression.”3 The stories by several Amishmen to some degree resemble the experience of hardship by non-Anabaptists as collected in the oral histories by Studs Terkel.4

Yet, these memoirs also show an underlying narrative that in fact for the Amish, the Depression was not as bad as it could have been. This voice is exemplified by one Jonathan Zook from Lancaster County who wrote that

[A]s far as the depression was concerned, we as a family never felt the hardship that many did. I had two boys just out of school and willing workers which I think was a great help to take us through the depression. And I never came to the place that I could not go to the bank and borrow all the money that we needed. [. . .] We were able to meet our interest and taxes [. . . ] and my good wife could always get enough together to feed the family of 8 at that time.5

Family Life, August 1971.

This overall narrative that “it could have been worse” is confirmed by the most prominent contemporary expert on the Amish, Walter Kollmorgen. His 1942 report on “Old Order Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania” was part of the Rural Life Studies program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Agricultural Economics. This study program was established in 1939 to conduct field research on six rural communities to assess “the quality of rural life” based on a number of factors, including social, economic, cultural and environmental factors.6 Kollmorgen’s analyses has been considered the most important piece of scholarship on the Amish of his time, and possible the starting point of Amish Studies as a scholarly discipline.7 His results showed that the Amish were easily the most stable of all communities in the Rural Life Study. Mirroring Jonathan Zook’s emic assessment, Kollmorgen contended that the Lancaster Amish largely evaded the most negative effects of the Great Depression

Not surprisingly, Kollmorgen’s study results mentioned the likely suspects of why the Amish weathered the economic turmoil relatively well. These included superior farming expertise such as soil conservation and a relatively high degree of self-sufficiency.

Kollmorgen addressed another factor throughout his report: communal mutual aid. This form of intra-Anabaptist support extended to loans on no or low interest, non-monetary aid, care, and general support for the needy. While Kollmorgen does not provide a quantitative assessment of his observation – for example, the sums involved in this communal process of sharing financial resources – his overarching assessment leads me to assume that mutual aid was perhaps was the most important ingredient to Amish resilience during the Great Depression. He considered it an informal “program of brotherly love and mutual aid”8 that rested on solid Anabaptist principles and continued to operate in a capitalist environment. In particular, Kollmorgen noted the financial impact of this “program” that provided a form of communal economic empowerment:

The practice of eschewing investments outside of the community and loaning available money at low interest rates to members of the church has served to give these people a rural credit system enjoyed by few farmers elsewhere. The significance of this practice cannot be overestimated. The salutary features of the program are obvious (1) no money is borrowed unless it is necessary (2) when money is borrowed the interest rate is low (3) there are no foreclosures, (4) bank failures and business failures do not disturb the community greatly, (5) investment sharks cannot plunder these people, and (6) interest earnings remain in the community.9

Walter M. Kollmorgen, Culture of a Contemporary Rural Community.

In this quote, Kollmorgen also indicated the comparative aspect in arguing that “few other farmers” had access to a similar form of mutual financial aid in a communal context. This comparative assessment becomes even clearer when comparing Kollmorgen’s study results to the other five cases in the Rural Life Study program, something that still lacks systematic assessment in the scholarly literature. Access to credit or non-monetary aid was considered a key problem across the board of the other case analysists. The case of Harmony, Georgia, with its large African-American population in particular highlighted the credit problem, something that the Baltimore Afro-American’s readership without doubt was quite familiar with.

What, if any, are insights to be drawn from Amish mutual aid during the Great Depression not just for “the average farmer” but in general for the common good in a capitalist economy? While Amish mutual aid is group-specific and unique in the sense that it is engrained in the Anabaptist notion of Koinonia, similar institutions in the form or mutual credit and mutual insurance are found in other contexts. In fact, research on and public debates about mutual aid have vastly increased in the recent decade or so.10 After the 2008 financial crisis, mutual aid has become a prominent theme in debates on how to alleviate social consequences of an economic downturn and to promote the common good.

In her contribution to The Nation periodical from December 2020 titled “Mutual aid can’t do it alone”,11 the political scientist Joanna Wuest criticizes this renewed focus on mutual aid. She pointedly refers to the gradual dismantling of public welfare in the United States under a neoliberal agenda so that “[o]ur country is coming to resemble a long-sought libertarian fantasy, with only atomized acts of compassion for those left out.” She calls for a much stronger role of the welfare state in providing comprehensive assistance to the needy.

From a European perspective, Wuest’s, demands for universal public welfare appear perfectly sound, reasonable and far from radical. After all, most European societies enjoy relatively universal public health insurance, unemployment insurance, retirement insurance, and more. Yet, it seems increasingly unlikely that the United States will soon – or ever – return to the path of public welfare expansion as tentatively established during the New Deal.

The case of Amish mutual aid during the Great Depression thus might hold some important lessons for promoting welfare on a communal level. This is not to say that an Amish institution should be taken as a fit-for-all model, let alone be idealized. In order to participate in Amish mutual aid during the 1930s, one had to subordinate oneself under the very strict regulations of the church, its religious tenets and underlying power structure. Such a rigid system of subordinance would not work for left-leaning communes, ethnic minorities or LGBTQ+ groups. At the same time, the Amish example shows how mutual aid provided an effective functional equivalent to public welfare and commercial credit at a time when the majority of Americans suffered from a lack of both.


1. Baltimore African-American, “Note on Amish Farmers,” Dec. 16, 1939, p. 9. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Retrieved June 12, 2016.

2. Rauchway provides an accessible first overview of this era in: Rauchway, Eric. The Great Depression & the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction. Very short introductions 166. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

3. Amish Life in the Great Depression, Family Life periodical, July 1971 (pp. 18-21) and August 1971 (pp. 18-21). Historical Heritage Library collection, formerly Aylmer, Ontario.

4. Terkel, Studs, ed. Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. New York: New Press; Distributed by W.W. Norton, 2000.

5. Jonathan Zook, in: Family Life, August 1971, p. 21.

6. U.S. National Archives II, RG 83 Entry 34, American Farm Community Study.

7. Anderson, Cory. “Seventy-Five Years of Amish Studies, 1942 to 2017: A Critical Review of Scholarship Trends (With an Extensive Bibliography).” Journal of Amish and Plain Anabaptist Studies 5, no. 1 (2019): 1–65.

8. Walter M. Kollmorgen, Culture of a Contemporary Rural Community: The Old Order Amish of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Rural Life Studies 4 (Washington, D.C., 1942), 22

9. Kollmorgen, Culture of a Contemporary Rural Community, 49–51. See also pp. 52-57.

10. See for example: van Leeuwen, Marco H. D. Mutual Insurance 1550-2015: From Guild Welfare and Friendly Societies to Contemporary Micro-Insurers. Palgrave studies in the history of finance. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

11. Wuest, Joana. “Mutual Aid Can’t Do It Alone.” The Nation, December 16, 2020.

Mennonite Miss Chihuahua Part II: Entrepreneur, Public Servant, and Cultural Ambassador

Katharine Renpenning’s journey to becoming “Mennonite Miss Chihuahua” is explored in Part I of this series: Mennonite Miss Chihuahua: Pageant Politics, Family Tragedy and the Crown.

After being crowned Miss Chihuahua and competing in the national Señorita Mexico pageant in 19871, Katharine Renpenning’s life was never the same. She moved to Chihuahua City to work for the government promoting tourism, which was one of her duties as Miss Chihuahua, and then went to Canada to study English. The director of the English school in Canada was so impressed with her English and entrepreneurial skills that he suggested that she offer English courses and travel experiences from Mexico. And so, in 1994, she started Keers2, a travel agency focused on English language immersions for children and adults ranging from summer camps and semesters abroad to IELTS and TOEFL preparation and professional work-study opportunities. Over the years, the agency began to offer educational travel opportunities outside the English-speaking world and expanded its language immersion program offerings to include French, Portuguese, German, Japanese and Mandarin. In 2018 in an interview with the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders Oral History Project, Katharine reflected on nearly twenty-four years of being in business:

We’re dedicated to managing study abroad programs, primarily we have courses for children: summer camps, or a high school course. We have contacts with schools, for example, Mennonite schools in Canada, government schools, private schools. We have contact with universities, sometimes I go visit the schools, the University of Winnipeg and Bartolomeos. I manage primarily Canada for people from Mexico. It’s very attractive because the English they speak there is more in-line with the media, more economical in terms of the exchange rate of the Canadian dollar. Now, we also manage, for example, my nephew is studying high school in Austria. We have children who go to study in Germany, school or just German or they go to France and study French combined with culture, with scents, with gastronomy. Chinese [also], right? We manage visas to go to China, as a visitor, as a student, or to Japan. And we [also] have Australia, which is also a country that offers an opportunity to study and work3.

In the oral history interview, Katharine mentioned that she has a showroom on the first floor of her business that is decorated like a traditional Mennonite home where she serves Faspa and hosts educational workshops about the Mennonite community. And that her business, travel and life in Chihuahua was all made possible by her pageant involvement.

[After the pageant] many things in life changed. . . . the family stopped thinking about my brother who had died and everything changed. I had a lot of opportunities, right? To grow. To know and to get to know who the Mennonites are, right? I’m identified as a Mennonite. The Mennonites say I’m not Mennonite and the Mexicans that I’m not Mexican, so, “What am I?” But, from that time onward I had the opportunity to grow a lot and also for the Mennonites be an ambassador of Mennonite culture. It’s been thirty years and it has been very beautiful. There are still many people who recognize me where I go. Now, for example, I’m very interested in people getting to know Mennonite culture. I like that the people who don’t know, who are outside, can get to know what it really is, right? And what God wants from us. That gives me the opportunity sometimes to talk with people about Mennonites and who they are.4

In the midst of running her successful business, Katharine was approached by staffers from Jose Reyes Baeza Terrazas’ governor’s campaign. Baeza Terrazas, who had previously served as a representative from Chihuahua in the National Congress (2003-2004) and as the mayor of Chihuahua City (1998-2001), wanted her to assist him in his campaign and in his government in exchange for the creation of a state resource office that was focused on the needs and development of Mennonite settlements across Chihuahua. Katharine remembers refusing his offer at first, but then accepting after Baeza Terrazas personally assured her that he would keep his word.5

I was invited to work for the government with the Reyes Baeza campaign. So, I said no that I couldn’t because those politicians always tell lies and never do what they say they are going to do and I was not going to make myself available to be doing something like that. So, they promised me that if the governor was going to offer something that he was going to follow through on it. And when he won, he said to me, ‘Well, ok . . . you are the person who can help me keep my word.’ So, the program was created and the program was to have a resource office between Mennonites and the government.6

The program, Chihuahua Vive Con Los Menonitas, ran from 2010-2016 under the leadership of the PRI party and was the first iteration of the government resource office that served as a liaison between the state of the Chihuahua and Mennonite communities across the state.

The program was created and the program is to have a resource office between Mennonites and the government. So, there were programs of every type. Education, for example, we did for education. ‘This is what has to be done in education, in rural development, in health, in transit.’ It was very beautiful, a little difficult. It was my first close contact with the community because all my contact had been more from afar. Many people had known that I had been the Miss Chihuahua that was Mennonite, right? And I felt sometimes that they saw me as a specimen of admiration and rejection, right? And people, yes, know me a little, but during the program period, well, we brought programs, for example, in rural development.

So, also, I was tasked, for example to be in education and to try to bring it. They said to me, the leaders of the colony asked me if they were going to prohibit churches like they did in Canada. And I told them, ‘No, that is not the case. What the government wants is that the schools actually teach students what is necessary for life. That children learn how to read, learn math, learn geography, really learn that it would be a place where children learn, if you do that the government won’t involve itself, but if children leave illiterate, we can’t permit that.’ So, out of principle, the Manitoba Colony started a new program that they called Mejoramiento en Educación [Improvement in Education] where they also gave classes in Spanish, classes in some other areas.

So, all those programs were brought down, culture, education, rural development, overall- was very gratifying because many people well, were very happy, thankful.7

The Mennonite Resource Office went through a few different iterations during its existence and had two different directors after Katharine Renpenning. The office was in flux every six years when there was a change in political leadership at the state level. These shifts were particularly notable when there was a change of ruling political party and when the local reigning political party was different from the political party at the state level. Despite some shifts in funding, preferred projects, or ideological approaches, the goal of the Mennonite Resource Office maintained the same goal of resourcing and developing Mennonite communities with the permission, trust, and support of Mennonite community leaders

The subsequent directors of the Mennonite Resource Office, Angelica Chavez Licon8 and Claudia Perez Howlet9, were interviewed for the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders Oral History Project and the full audio and clips are available on the Darp Stories YouTube channel10. A Mennonite employee who discussed their role as a program promoter and language service provider was also interviewed for the project on the condition that they remain anonymous. Their interview summary is available by request from the Mennonite Heritage Archives.11

Claudia Perez Howlet, the last director of the resource office before it closed its physical location along the Commercial Corridor in the Manitoba Colony located about 10 kilometers north of Cuauhtémoc in 2019, described the resources, services, and development projects that the office sponsored:

In this office we serve as a resource. We have a translator, for example, who translates for large events all the way down to the smallest things, who is right now accompanying a lady, an older woman from the nursing home to her appointment with Social Security. So that the doctor understands what is being said during these appointments through this interpretation. Translation of diagnoses, of whatever they want. Whatever information you want to reach the Mennonites, we translate. We have translated many transit campaigns, many civil protection campaigns. For the winter, for heaters. We translate everything we are asked to translate. We have gotten a lot of information that we edit, translate, and print in German. We don’t have much of a budget, but sometimes we have printed that information. Also, on the topic of health, are the fairs. Health fairs in many of the most remote Campos, like I told you, we went to El Sabinal. We go to traditional schools, and the more open ones allow us to vaccinate. Well, it is completely voluntary, but every time more children come with their shot records, with parental approval to receive a vaccine. In the incorporated [SEP, Secretary of Public Education] schools, we also have many programs in which we go with the health services. Last year we went to all the schools incorporated through the Álvaro Obregón school.

We went to their schools, along with the health sector. We, the entire government, try to see ourselves as a team. And everything we have at our disposal; we pool in order to serve. For example, we worry about everything here at the municipal level and at the state level concerning the economy. The programs, lending, from the municipalities to farmers and day-laborers that work for the Mennonites, because many times they don’t know this is available from us.  We work together as a team with the Centro de Salud, especially in giving health fairs in the Campos.  We have general practitioners, pediatricians, OBGYNs. They do mammograms, cervical cancer screenings, vaccinations, screenings for chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes. We bring in specialists to give talks. The health sector goes to schools to present on “The Healthy Plate” and the importance of physical activity, they check height and weight, the give vaccines, and even videos on how to properly brush teeth and various other topics, and they discuss symptoms of serious illnesses that they could be on guard for. Everything the schools allow us to present, because not all the information is allowed. We have to show the directors what we are planning to present to the children, and they tell us “Yes,” or “No.”  Because Mestiza education is a bit more open about many topics, right. And Mennonite education is more conservative in that aspect, so we share what we are allowed to. For those interested in education, we have an agreement with ICHEA, (Instituto Chihuahuense de Educación para los Adultos, Chihuahuan Institute for Adult Education) and we invite and help them. We have them at the fairs, so that the Mennonites who studied at traditional schools have access to education. Because the traditional schools only go to fifth grade, and only include German, Bible, and basic math. And then they go work on the farm. But many want more education, thus ICHEA. There aren’t schools or many resources, but through ICHEA they can have the books at home to study, and write an exam for our accreditation.

And then, in the area of economics, we coordinate events. We coordinate events with businesses, for example, such as with the Expo Menonita, every other year in September. We help with the organization, distribution, getting funders to make sure in happens, as a way of boosting the economy. For farmers.

As to the cultural aspect of our work, well, we foster individual and collective participation, and we organize meetings with youth to organize activities, because many times there aren’t activities here on the Corredor. So, we have tried to implement them with various youth. What we can do within the scope of our organization, and if we can’t, well, we can look for those who can. Those with more resources. This is a project we have been pushing, and the way we broke into that last year was with a very cool event we organized in December, which was the Parade of Lights. It was with a group of youth. It was initiated by them, and it was a success. We were very happy with it. So, this year we would like to continue, maybe with baseball tournaments, or whatever they suggest. They are just hanging out in the streets, so, we need to have more healthy activities. They are far from the city. If they want to go to the movie theater or something, not everyone can, they have no way of going. They also don’t have many things, so we are worried about that. And in the cultural aspect, we also look for events, and help with organizing and support, different competitions. We encourage participation in La Festival de las Tres Culturas (The Festival of the Three Cultures) so that the Mennonite culture is also represented. And well, basically, social development includes every area, but we principally focus on what is most necessary.

All of our activities are broadcasted Abram Siemens on the radio. He has helped us a lot. In broadcasting and all that. Everything we have. He is always asking, “What can I help with? And in this? What is happening this week?” So, he does interviews and is constantly spreading the word. Thank God, we have a good relationship with colony leadership. We are in constant communication. Thanks to communication media. Now, WhatsApp is a marvelous tool. I have a WhatsApp group with about 200 colony leaders. That’s how everybody knows to go to an event. Everything we have available, or that we do, or who we are, we are here to meet their needs. And it is through them. And they have opened many doors for us, and distribute many things for us.

We have to respect the customs of everyone. They respect ours, and we respect theirs that are completely- It seems to me that we live in the same place. Different cultures, but I think that we learned to live together very well with that.12

The physical location of the Mennonite Resource Office closed at the beginning of 2019 after nearly ten years of operation; however, the Chihuahuan government maintains that they will continue the Mennonite Service Program from the state capital under the Department of Social Development13

Katharine Renpenning, the “Mennonite Miss Chihuahua,” without whom the Mennonite Resource Office would not have been founded, resides quietly in Chihuahua City and continues to run Keers, which recently celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. She marveled at the path that her life had taken her and emphasized the responsibility she felt to continue to bring people from different communities together.

I think we are bridge builders. Not just cultural, [but] we are generational bridge builders. We are economic bridge builders. We are bridge builders in an ecological aspect in respect for love for God, love for nature . . . bridge building is very important.14


1. Darp Stories, “Señorita México 1987 con Katherine Renpenning (Nuestra Belleza Mexicana Excerpt)” YouTube video, 6 minutes, November 16, 2021, https://youtu.be/hgoCu3rvHo0

2. Keers, “Keers 25 Años” https://www.keersmx.com/index.html

3. Katharine Renpenning, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, March 23, 2018, Interview 34, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB.  

4. Ibid.

5. Jose Reyes Baeza Terrazas. Wikipedia en Español, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jos%C3%A9_Reyes_Baeza_Terrazas

6. Katharine Renpenning, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, March 23, 2018, Interview 34, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB.

7. Ibid.

8. Angelica Chavez Licon, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, March 23, 2018, Interview 35, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB.

9. Claudia Yazel Perez Howlet, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, February 20, 2018, Interview 19, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB.

10. Darp Stories, “Trailer: Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders” YouTube video, 4 minutes, May 1, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCGy9sd_xNDQTwffveCOhvhg/featured

11. Name Withheld by Request, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, March 8, 2018, Interview 27, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB.

12. Claudia Yazel Perez Howlet, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, February 20, 2018, Interview 19, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB.

13. Maribel Alba, “Cierra oficina de atención a Menonitas,” El Heraldo de Chihuahua, 31 Jan 2019, https://www.pressreader.com/mexico/el-heraldo-de-chihuahua/20190131/282995401101925

14. Katharine Renpenning, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, March 23, 2018, Interview 34, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB.

Southern Anabaptist Colleges and Civil War Memory: Eastern Mennonite

Regina Wenger

This is my second post exploring the relationship between southern Anabaptist colleges and Civil War memory. In my first post, I summarized the experiences of Anabaptists during the Civil War before discussing how Bridgewater College—founded in 1880—recalled the Civil War. I suggest reviewing that piece before reading the one that follows. Below I examine Civil War memory at Eastern Mennonite and offer some conclusions that compare it to how memory operated at Bridgewater.


As an adolescent, Peter S. Hartman witnessed the tribulations the Civil War unleashed on the Shenandoah Valley. Years later, the Mennonite recalled Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign and the Battles of Good’s Farm (Harrisonburg), Cross Keys, Port Republic, and New Market. Though, he stated, none of those conflicts compared to General Philip Sheridan’s “never-to-be-forgotten raid” in 1864:

We just began to realize what war was when Sheridan made his raid. They came [to Harrisonburg] Sunday noon . . . . There was no preaching anywhere that Sunday, so I went over to visit one of our neighbors right at Weaver’s Church. We could see from there Sheridan’s army coming up the [Valley] Pike and spreading all over the country, and I concluded I would better go home. When I got home the whole farm was overrun with soldiers shooting the stock…. Everything was taken, horses, hogs, sheep, except some chickens and four milk cows.1

Sixty-four years after Sheridan’s Union troops charred the Shenandoah Valley, Hartman told the tale of his experiences to students at Eastern Mennonite School.2 Founded in 1917, the Mennonite educational institution did not endure the war, but through the stories of Hartman and others, there developed a collective memory of the Civil War.

Early in the twentieth century, a group of Virginia Mennonite leaders wished to create a school for Mennonites in the eastern part of the United States. There already existed schools such Goshen College, which served Mennonites in the Midwest; however, no such institution existed for the 75 percent of Mennonites in the East.3 Bishops Lewis James (L.J.) Heatwole and George R. Brunk, as well as other leaders, advocated for higher education opportunities for Mennonites that simultaneously built up the church.4 Evan Knappenberger characterizes most of these men as “religious moderates willing to push the church in new directions while still remain­ing committed to the ideals of nonresistance and plain dress.”5 The school they envisioned shared those goals. In 1912, George R. Brunk developed a plan for a school located in Warwick, Virginia, and asked fellow church leaders for help. However, in mid-1913, Brunk proposed moving the institution to the Hayfield mansion near Alexandria, Virginia. The Alexandria Mennonite Institute and later the Hayfield Bible School floundered amongst personality, ecclesial, and financial conflicts.6 Through the efforts of Bishop L.J. Heatwole and Peter S. Hartman, Virginia Mennonites acquired land in Assembly Park, north of Harrisonburg, Virginia. From that site Eastern Mennonite emerged.

Eastern Mennonite—officially chartered in 1917—ran as a Bible school independent of broader Mennonite Church control until 1923. These Virginia Mennonites, including Bishop Heatwole, selected John B. (J.B.) Smith of Ohio as president (principal) of the school and developed a Bible school curriculum that operated on four tracks: academy, Bible, preparatory, and correspondence.7 However, within a few years, Smith ran afoul of the Board and departed back to Ohio. They then appointed noted evangelist and Virginian Amos Daniel (A.D.) Wenger to the presidency. He served from 1922 until his death in 1935, and it is during his administration that Civil War remembrances at Eastern Mennonite first come into view.

The activities of student literary societies and the periodical the Eastern Mennonite School Journal show an institution that idealized the South, and while condemning slavery, embraced derogatory stereotypes about African Americans. In April 1927, John D. Burkholder wrote a piece called “Family Life: As Seen by Jim Owen, Indentured Servant.” It detailed how an English indentured servant fell in love with southern culture and told of interactions with “mammies” and “darkies.” The piece concluded by saying, “As [he and his master] drove up the shady, inviting drive to the old mansion, Jim felt that he had indeed reached the Utopia of his dreams.”8 Though Eastern Mennonite included students from elsewhere in the United States, the early years of the Journal contains rhapsodic accounts of the “Sunny Southland,” the endearing peculiarity of African Americans, and the high quality of postbellum southern literature.9 In 1928 and 1929, respectively, the Philomathian and Smithsonian literary societies held programs on “The Negro” and “Southern Literature” that both featured “Negro spirituals” as musical selections.10 Through featuring an idealistic portrait of the South, southern culture, and African Americans, the Journal showed sympathy for the South and minimized the affect of slavery on African Americans. In addition, student Grace Showalter observed, that “Southern conventionality,” formed an important aspect of Virginia Mennonites’ spirituality.11 However, more important than the Journal’s contents was the role played by Peter S. Hartman on Civil War memory at Eastern Mennonite.

Beginning at least in 1920, Hartman delivered an annual lecture featuring his Civil War memories to Eastern Mennonite students and faculty.12 As noted in the opening story, Hartman was a young man when the war started in 1861. He later served as a lay leader in Virginia Mennonite Conference, was instrumental in purchasing the former plantation land on which the school was built, and acted as an informal development officer for Eastern Mennonite.13 Each of the written versions of his oral account followed the same narrative structure: (1) reiteration of the Mennonite Church’s nonresistance and stance against slavery, (2) the foreshadowing of the Civil War in John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and Lincoln’s election to the presidency, (3) the imprisonment of Anabaptists in Richmond for nonresistance, (4) the passage of conscription laws accounting for members of Anabaptist churches, (5) war’s material hardships, (6) the local battles of Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign, as well as the Burning, (7) Hartman’s interactions with General Sheridan and journey North with his Union caravan, (8) work experience in the North, and finally (9) viewing Lincoln’s body in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, before returning home to a decimated Virginia.14 He summarized the primary theme in his lecture’s concluding line: “All this time the Church stood for non-resistance.”15 In addition to his annual lecture, Hartman also shared with students his recollections of Reconstruction.16 Other narrations of the Civil War by Virginia Mennonites Emmanuel Suter and Bishop L.J. Heatwole echoed Hartman’s emphasis on hardship and nonresistance.17 Students at Eastern Mennonite thus heard about the Civil War as a conflict Mennonites were in, but not a part of.

Historical memory of the Civil War at Eastern Mennonite consisted of a singular stream of nonresistance, muddied by a romanticized view of the pastoral South and its culture. Explicit valorization of the Confederacy does not appear in any Eastern Mennonite sources. Rather, despite their occasional harshness and destruction, the Union is discussed more frequently and favorably in Eastern Mennonite memories of the war. Though a “savage looking man,” Hartman described how General Sheridan ensured his safe passage North.18 The Mennonite Church’s distain for slavery, even while simultaneously resisting and engaging with Confederate Virginia, also comes through in Hartman’s telling. As previously noted, Anabaptist participation in the Confederate economy made it difficult for them to receive financial compensation for the destruction of the war, despite sympathies for the Union. Additionally, American Mennonite identity as a nonresistant people partially lies in the centrality of suffering for the faith, as told in the stories of sixteenth-century European Anabaptist martyrs recorded in Thieleman J. van Braght’s Martyrs Mirror. Though born two years after the Civil War, Eastern Mennonite President A.D. Wenger found the text instrumental to his conversion.19 As Julia Spicher Kasdorf contends, “the publication history of Martyrs Mirror doesn’t precisely coincide with the nation’s wars, and yet American Mennonites tend to rally around the big book whenever the rest of the nation rallies around the flag.”20 Primed with tales from the Martyrs Mirror, Eastern Mennonite students likely heard a similar message of suffering and nonresistance in Peter Hartman’s Civil War recollections that he regularly delivered after the hardships of World War I. While Eastern Mennonite’s southern context shaped the imagination of many of its students and administrators, the dominant narrative surrounding Civil War recollections remained nonresistance amidst suffering.

Conclusions

Mennonites, Brethren, and their respective educational institutions possessed common religious memories of the Civil War grounded in the nonresistant theology of Anabaptism, but diverged by degree of emphasis. Ritual sites of memory appeared at both Bridgewater and Eastern Mennonite. Literary societies perpetuated nostalgic narratives about the South and African Americans. John Wayland and Bridgewater recalled the war through annually commemorating Lee’s birthday, while Eastern Mennonite’s Hartman lecture narrated another tale of heroic suffering for a cause. The nonresistant perspective also allowed John Wayland to describe Elder John Kline as a faithful Christian martyr. Likewise, Peter Hartman described himself and the Mennonite Church as the innocent suffering amidst the tribulations of the Civil War. Both Bridgewater and Eastern Mennonite also shared a history as institutions started by white southerners. As James Lehman and Steve Nolt observe, Anabaptists, like many of their neighbors in the reconstructing South, chose to value the repair of national and local relationships over advocating for the rights of African Americans. Thus their historical memory coincides with the reconcilationist narrative that historian David Blight chronicled in Race and Reunion.21

While both institutions held nonresistance as a wartime memory, only Bridgewater College explicitly endorsed the religion of the Lost Cause. The Lost Cause existed with nonresistance for the Brethren school as intermingling religious memories.22 On the other hand, Eastern Mennonite’s religious remembrances favored the Union, though they appear to not have competed with its nonresistant memories but, rather, reinforced them. Mennonites narrated themselves as distinct from their southern neighbors in their opposition to slavery and the Confederacy, as well as their pacifism. However, the presence of southern influence at both institutions raises the question as to what extent its culture served as a defining characteristic of the schools. Perhaps nonresistance defined demographics and marketing rather the schools’ cultures.23 After Eastern Mennonite graduated its first African American student in 1954, a local Mennonite schoolteacher explained reluctance around desegregation stating, “A bit of the Southern attitude rubs off on us, perhaps as a result of our public school experience. One tends to feel sympathetic to one’s state and its part in the Civil War.”24 Thus a fuller understanding of Civil War memory at southern Anabaptist colleges requires attention to the presence, in varying degrees, of the religious recollections of the Lost Cause and nonresistance.


1. Peter S. Hartman, “Civil War Reminiscences,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, February 1928, 17.

2. Originally started as Eastern Mennonite School, it later became Eastern Mennonite College, and is today known as Eastern Mennonite University. In this paper, the school will be referred to as Eastern Mennonite.

3. Donald B. Kraybill, Eastern Mennonite University: A Century of Countercultural Education (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017), 24. The relationship between the foundings of Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite remain a matter of historiographical debate. The longstanding narrative reproduced in Eastern Mennonite’s institutional histories describe the school as a conservative reaction to Goshen which resulted in hostility between the schools for decades. Kraybill, Eastern Mennonite University: A Century of Countercultural Education; Hubert R. Pellman, Eastern Mennonite College, 1917-1967: A History (Harrisonburg, VA: Eastern Mennonite College, 1967); Nathan Emerson Yoder, “Mennonite Fundamentalism: Shaping an Identity for an American Context” (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Notre Dame, 1999). Recently, Evan Knappenberger pushed back against that interpretation with a compelling argument that Eastern Mennonite shared an educational vision with Goshen and was started not as “an ideological alternative to Goshen but a geographical extension of it.” Evan K. Knappenberger, “To Shake The Whole World From Error’s Chain: An Alternative History Of The Founding Of Eastern Mennonite” (M.A. Thesis, Eastern Mennonite Seminary, 2016), 68, emphasis original.

4. Knappenberger, 88-98.

5. Evan K. Knappenberger, “New Take on an Old War: Valley Mennonites and the Lingering Consequences of the Civil War,” Shenandoah Mennonite Historian, Summer 2016, 16.

6. For a more detailed treatment of the earlier iterations of Eastern Mennonite see: Kraybill, Chapters 1 & 2, Knappenberger, “To Shake The Whole World,” 88-98.

7. Kraybill, 55-57.

8. John D. Burkholder, “Family Life: As Seen by Jim Owen, Indentured Servant,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, April 1927, 3-6. It’s unclear whether Burkholder created this piece as a work of fiction or recorded the oral account of Mr. Owen.

9. Mary M. Wenger, “Vacation on Vineland Farm,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, January 1923, 2-4; A.D Wenger, Jr., “Southern Literature,” April 1923, The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, 2-3; “Personal News Notes,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, April 1926, 19.

10. “Philomathean,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, June 1928, 17; “With Our Literaries: Smithsonian,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, July 1929, 21.

11. Kraybill, 112. Showalter went on to serve as director of Eastern Mennonite’s Historical Library from 1955-1990.

12. “Editorials,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, February 1928, 1; Harry A. Brunk, “The Gist of the Short Term Lectures,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, March 1930, 5-6. Hartman likely delivered the lecture regularly until his death in 1934.

13. Brunk, Harry A., Life of Peter S. Hartman: Including His Lecture Reminiscences of the Civil War and Articles by the Hartman Family (Harrisonburg, VA: The Hartman Family, 1937), 31-40; Hartman, “Civil War Reminiscences,” 7.

14. Hartman, “Civil War Reminiscences,” 7-21, Brunk, Life of Peter S. Hartman, 1937; Peter S. Hartman and Harry A. Brunk, Reminiscences of the Civil War (Lancaster, PA: Eastern Mennonite Associated Libraries and Archives, 1964). Though Hartman does not name Bishop Kline, the imprisonment of Anabaptists and development of conscription laws favoring those traditions that he mentions were incidents in which the clergyman was personally involved. Additionally, Hartman needed to go north with General Sheridan because Hartman joined the Mennonite Church during the war and thus was not protected by the draft exemption that only covered members of Anabaptist churches who joined before the legislation passed in 1862.

15. Hartman, “Civil War Reminiscences,” 21.

16. “Personal Mention,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, January 1923, 12.

17. See: Virginia Mennonite Conference Archives at Eastern Mennonite University Historical Library, L.J. Heatwole Papers (I-MS-1, mostly Boxes 3, 5.1; LJH Miscellany) and Emmanuel Suter Diaries Collection; Virginia Grove, “Grandfather,” The Eastern Mennonite School Journal, January 1939, 27-28.

18. Hartman, “Civil War Reminiscences,” 18.

19. John C. Wenger and Mary W. Kratz, A.D. Wenger (Harrisonburg, VA: Park View Press, 1961), 4–5, 7. Van Braght, Thieleman J., The Bloody Theatre, or Martyrs’ Mirror, of the Defenceless Christians: who suffered and were put to death for the testimony of Jesus, their Savior, from the time of Christ until the year A. D. 1660. Lampeter Square, Lancaster Co., PA: David Miller, 1837.

20. Julia Spicher Kasdorf, “Mightier than the Sword: Martyrs Mirror in the New World,” The Conrad Grebel Review 31, no. 1 (Winter 2013), https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/publications/conrad-grebel-review/issues/winter-2013/mightier-sword-martyrs-mirror-new-world

21. Lehman and Nolt, 222-23. Though they make this claim only about Mennonites, the similarities shared between Mennonites and Brethren make the claim likely to pertain to both groups. David A. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2001).

22. Based on feedback I received from Dr. R. Eric Platt, I have revised my conclusions about historical memory at Bridgewater. I think he’s correct in observing they likely informed one another. I hope to continue to explore the extent of that connection as I continue working on this project.

23. I am grateful to Dr. Elesha Coffman for raising this question after I presented my paper at the American Society of Church History. I intend to pursue this question further.

24. Kraybill, 173.

Mennonite Miss Chihuahua Part I: Pageant Politics, Family Tragedy and the Crown

The history of the presence and influence of beauty pageants in Latin America is expansive and has permeated all levels of society, so much so that political and economic actors, including drug cartels, have passively and actively engaged with them, even to the point of handpicking contestant participants, fixing the outcomes, and running former contestants for political office and/or giving them other positions of political influence.

Additionally, pageants in Latin America have long been a stage for political messaging as well as dissent, like in 2007 when Miss Mexico, Rosa Maria Ojeda, came under scrutiny for a dress design that depicted violent scenes of from Mexico’s Cristero War1, including Catholic rebels hanging from posts, which reignited long-standing tensions between Catholic and secular socio-political factions in the national discourse. In 2015, Mexico’s pageant organizers from the media network Televisa boycotted the Miss Universe pageant2 after Donald Trump’s comments referring to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “drug dealers.” More recently, Alejandra Gavidia, Miss El Salvador, participated in the National Costume Parade in the 2021 Miss Universe pageant wearing an outfit that alluded to the country’s Monument to the Constitution3 complete with a blindfold that read “Not one more disappeared” and a dress with red handprints, highlighting victims of femicide in her country.

In Mexico, beauty pageants are big business and have always been intertwined with political influence, scandal and policy and have been subsidized by the government from the beginning. The Señorita Mexico pageant, the first national level pageant in the country, was established by President Miguel Alemán Valdés4 in 1952 (one year before women gained the right to vote) to promote tourism, but a scandal arising from fraud allegations in 1959 resulted in the pageant being suspended for 5 years, relaunching in 1965. For the last 70, years local, state, national and international pageants have continued to hold close ties to government actors with pageant winners and participants holding influential positions and relationships with the government. In 2021, Miss Universe 1991, Lupita Jones Garay5, who had since become famous actress, producer, and political influencer, was urged by the National Action Party [PAN] to run for governorship of Baja California Norte, which she subsequently lost.

The level of power and influence that pageants hold in Mexico against the backdrop of gender discrimination, family violence and femicide, prompted the Gender Equality Commission [La Comisión para la Igualdad de Género] in 2021 to propose banning the use of public resources, promotion, and subsidies for beauty pageants6 as one of the provisions of the general law on Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence [la Ley General de Acceso a las Mujeres a una Vida Libre de Violencia]. Jones Garay fired back at the commission7, “Trying to typify these platforms as symbolic violence seems completely wrong to me and unfounded….Teaching her to cultivate her self-esteem, self-confidence and security. Providing her with professional opportunities so that she can stand out in what she is passionate about. Where is the violence?” further highlighting the enduring and complex relationship Mexico has had and continues to have with beauty pageants.

The 1987 the crowning of Kataharine Renpenning, a Mennonite of Russian descent, born and raised in Cuauhtémoc, as Miss Chihuahua, in many ways is a microcosm of the dynamics of beauty pageants in Mexico. Renpenning, who is still widely known as “the Mennonite Miss Chihuahua,” used her fame as a state pageant winner and national pageant participant to launch Keers, a language tourism business in Chihuahua City that focuses primarily on helping children and young adults learn English abroad and to help establish a state governmental agency focused on providing social services and community development in Mennonite communities across the state.

In the late 1980s, Katharine Renpenning had recently completed her coursework in Communications at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez and had returned home to Cuauhtémoc, when she was approached on the street by a man from the local Chamber of Commerce requesting that she participate in the Miss Chihuahua pageant. Despite his promises of charm training and prize money she turned him down saying, “It’s not for me,” and “They never give out the prize money, it’s all lies.”8

After returning to Juarez to present her thesis and receive certification her area of study, she received a phone call from her parents saying the President of the Chamber of Commerce and his wife had come to their house to request that she participate in the Miss Chihuahua pageant stressing that, “It will be very respectful and her mom can always be by her side.” She responded, “No, I don’t want to.”

Time passed, and Katherine completed her certification in Juarez, returning to Cuauhtémoc to accompany her mother to Durango to visit relatives. To her surprise, the Chamber of Commerce came to her house again and asked her to participate in the Miss Chihuahua pageant. The persistence of the Chamber of Commerce prompted Katharine and her mother to wonder if this was an opportunity from God. They began to pray and read through the book of Esther. Renpenning reflected on this experience in 2018 for the Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders Oral History Project (REBB), remarking, “We asked God for his blessing. I said, ‘I’m not going to win. I’m just going to participate.” Her older brother was the only family member who was resistant to the idea, “What are the Dietsch going to say about us today? ‘What is going on with those Renpennings?’

Katharine’s family was used to the tenuous relationship they had with the larger Mennonite community in the region. Her grandparents emigrated to Mexico in the late 1920s from Russia, rather than Canada, and settled in the city of Cuauhtémoc because they were not permitted by church leadership to live within the colonies. Despite the fact that her grandfather became known as a master carpenter in the region, serving the Mestizo and Mennonite communities, and her grandmother, Catalina Schroeder, profiled in “Trajchtmoakas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos”9 was a respected and sought-after midwife and healer, they were largely excluded from the Mennonite community while not being fully accepted in the Mestizo community. Katherine related her experiences to REBB:

There was a lot of discrimination. It was terrible. It was also terrible that the Mennonite church had also rejected us. Well, with the Mennonites you were from the “Mexas” and with “The Mexas” we were, “The Mennonites.” So, you don’t belong to anyone, right?. . . For the women, it was much easier than for my male siblings. So, they also felt the Mennonites’ rejection, it was very hard. Very difficult because physically we looked like them, right? On questions of religious principles and other aspects. And it was difficult sometimes for my older brothers because it came to blows, right? To get in fights with them, or well, attacked when they were walking to school. These attacks-they weren’t just verbal attacks, they were strong attacks and still to this day my brothers have that feeling of “Neither from here, nor from there.” Right? The attacks they suffered from the Mexicans . . . they were really, really, really ugly. At school, for example, I always felt bad because they said that the Mennonites had stolen the land from the Mexicans. And that was, “Oh, well, yes” They would point at me like this, “You stole the land!” In classes, in middle school, elementary school that’s how one would be addressed.10

Despite the inevitable rumblings from the local Mennonite community and mixed acceptance from the Mestizo community, the desire to heal from a family tragedy was what ultimately propelled Katharine to participate in the pageant.  In 1985, Katharine’s brother Tony was killed by a drunk driver while riding his motorcycle. “It was terrible. The whole family was in shock.” Katharine reflected that the pageant offered an opportunity for the family to focus on something other than the tragedy and was the first time that they had felt happy in a long time. She described the preparation for the regional competition:

We asked God for his blessing and we realized that the sign-ups had already closed and we said, “Ok. Well, they’re no longer going to accept us” that’s what we thought, right? . . . I entered and they accepted me. After I was accepted, there were preparations in the gym. They taught us diction, how to pronounce, how to cover ourselves, how to put a pencil between our lips and everything about speaking. In total, we were about 13 or so girls, very beautiful. All were from the northeast region. So, there were girls from Madera, from Guerrero, from some small towns, and it was very important that each municipality for Chihuahua that the girls were prepared and of good character, they always said it wasn’t enough for her to be just beautiful, but also had to be intelligent, know how to speak and everything. Overall, the preparation went well and the day got closer. A girl who hadn’t spoken well won and another girl who hadn’t either got 2nd place and I was left in 3rd place. So, just 1st and 2nd place were going to participate at the state level. But, because I was the other person, they said, “No, you are also going to participate.” “Me too? Well, I’m also going. Ok. That’s good right? That’s no problem for me.11

After receiving 3rd place in the regional competition, she travelled to Juarez to participate in the statewide competition. The event was rocked by scandal and it was alleged that the Institutional Revolutionary Party [PRI] fixed the results for Gabriela Trespalacios, the participant of their choice, which rocketed the scandal all the way to Associated Press syndication which described the pageant in this way:

Police were posted in every aisle and outside the auditorium where the Miss Chihuahua beauty queen was chosen, as the event was marred by rumors that the contest was rigged by the ruling political party.

Rumors had run rampant before and during the contest that the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, had fixed the pageant in this city across the Rio Grande from El Paso Texas, so that Miss Chihuahua City, Gabriela Trespalacios, would win the crown.

Every time she walked on the runway or tried to speak, she was booed and hissed by the crowd of nearly 5,000, but she never lost her composure.

In fact, Katharine Rempenning [sic] Semadeni, 24, of Chuauhtemoc [sic], was crowned Saturday as Senorita Chihuahua. Miss Trespalacios, 22, was first runner-up and Patricia de la Garza, 18, of Delicias, was second runner-up.

Officials had prepared for possible protests from the opposition National Action Party, or PAN, if Miss Chihuahua City were chosen.

PRI controls the municipal governments of Juarez and Chihuahua City and has been undefeated in the federal government for 58 years. Juarez, formerly a PAN stronghold, is the largest city in the state of Chihuahua, and Chihuahua City is the state capital.

PAN claimed that last summer’s municipal elections throughout the state were fixed by PRI, which nearly swept every election. PRI officials denied the accusations.

The crowning of Miss Rempenning [sic] at the University Cultural Center brought cheers from the audience.12

Katherine went on to represent Chihuahua in the national Señorita Mexico pageant,13 where she showcased traditional Mennonite clothing in the opening sequences where participants wear traditional clothing from their home state. Though she was eliminated in the first round of judging, the impacts of her participation in the pageant were long-lasting in her personal life and for the presence and role of the state government Campos Menonitas.  


1. “Miss Mexico ‘war gown’ toned down,” BBC News, 19 April 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6571061.stm.

2. Tanya Basu, “Mexico Pulls Out of Donald Trump’s Miss Universe Pageant,” Time, 30 June 2015, https://time.com/3942024/mexico-donald-trump-cheryl-burke-miss-universe-nbc-univision/.

3. Javier Maldonado, “Salvedoreña Alejandra Gavidia sacude Miss Universo con mensaje: ‘Un una menos, ni un desaparecido más,’” El Mundo, 11 December 2021, https://diario.elmundo.sv/salvadorena-alejandra-gavidia-sacude-miss-universo-con-mensaje-ni-una-menos-ni-un-desaparecido-mas/.

4. “Señorita México,” Wikipedia Español, https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Se%C3%B1orita_M%C3%A9xico.

5. Salvador Rivera, “Former Miss Universe Could be Mexican Border State’s Next Governor,” 30 January 2021, https://www.borderreport.com/politics/former-miss-universe-could-be-mexican-border-states-next-governor/

6. “Federal Lawmakers Move to Outlaw Beauty Contests,” Mexico News Daily, 4 July 2020, https://mexiconewsdaily.com/news/federal-lawmakers-move-to-outlaw-beauty-contests/

7. “Beauty Pageants May No Longer Exist in Mexico and Here’s Why,” LatinaWatch, 10 July 2020. https://latinawatch.com/news-update/beauty-pageants-ban-mexico/

8. Katharine Renpenning, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, March 23, 2018, Interview 34, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB.  

9. Abigail Carl-Klassen, “Trajchtmoakas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos,” Anabaptist Historians, May 7, 2020, https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2020/05/07/trajchtmoakas-parteras-and-midwives-100-years-of-maternal-care-in-chihuahuas-mennonite-campos/

10. Katharine Renpenning, interview by Abigail Carl-Klassen, March 23, 2018, Interview 34, transcript, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, MB. 

11. Ibid.

12. “Politics Invades Mexican Beauty Pageant,” Associated Press, 27 April 1987. https://apnews.com/article/ce63225db234b53394b48e62a6bef496

13. Darp Stories, “Señorita México 1987 con Katherine Renpenning (Nuestra Belleza Mexicana Excerpt)” YouTube video, 6 minutes, November 16, 2021, https://youtu.be/hgoCu3rvHo0

Reflections of an Anabaptist Historian on Teaching Faith, Teaching Feminism

My formation was largely at University of Waterloo, in the seventies and eighties where I did all three of my degrees.1 I had barely arrived at Conrad Grebel University College, situated on the campus, when Frank H. Epp signed me up for his initial run at teaching the history of Mennonites in Canada.2 The course fed my desire for a deeper understanding of my Brethren in Christ roots, but I was also searching for knowledge that would enlighten my historical awareness from my perspective as a woman. I sought in vain, at that time, to find my experience represented in any classroom in course content, the texts that we were assigned, the profs in the podiums.

Several years before feminist scholarship began to influence Waterloo’s history department, Frank Epp’s approach opened the way for students to consider their own experience in their study of history. He encouraged us to delve into Mennonite history; he also mentored me as I explored my own Brethren in Christ roots, and came to some understanding of my experience as a young woman who had grown up in that church. Several articles coming out of that work would be published in the denominational paper, The Evangelical Visitor.3

My male profs did support me in my search, but it was really thanks to Wendy Mitchinson and Mary Malone, both who were hired in the 80s, that the potential for women in history became clear. As Professor Marlene Epp has explained, “Wendy was pivotal in my own turn towards women’s history as a transformative way to interpret the past. In her supportive and forthright manner, she gave me, and many other female graduate students, the confidence to pursue a career in academia.”4 This, along with Mary Malone’s forthright re-telling of the past, also opened up my relationship to history.

By the time I graduated with my doctorate in 1990, I dreamed of teaching faith and teaching feminism. I was fortunate with opportunities that opened up – on Waterloo campus, the neighbouring university’s Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, and then in an academic position at Augustana University College. The teaching was varied, but each of these opportunities, in their own way, allowed me to explore what it meant to teach faith and teach feminism.

Fast-forwarding to the turn of the millennium, my vocation had expanded, taking me to ministry and bringing me from the rural setting of Camrose, Alberta, to pastor in the dynamic, multi-cultural and increasingly secularized city of Montreal. Shortly after arriving in Montreal, McGill’s Faculty of Religious Studies (now School of Religious Studies) invited me to teach Canadian Church History and Women in the Christian Tradition. The differences from Waterloo in the seventies and eighties, and Camrose in the nineties, were enormous. My identity had also shifted. I was no longer a tenured professor. I was a minister and Adjunct professor teaching on contract.

As I have explained elsewhere, the Quaker scholar/community activist Parker Palmer has been instrumental in navigating my role in the academy, particularly through his Courage to Teach. Palmer insists that rather than being objective, knowledge is dynamic. The idea that knowledge is the relationship of the subject matter, the professor and the students in a particular classroom, fits my own academic understanding.5 I want to honour my own experiences and those of my students, at the same time generating excitement about the subject matter that we are exploring together.

Laura Swan’s revelation in Forgotten Desert Mothers resonates with me: “I was hardly prepared for the inner revolution that would result when I began to confront the possibility that my own experience had value and meaning,” she revealed.6 If this potential of inner revolution was true for Laura Swan and for me, I also desire it for my students.

The experience of teaching in an array of settings has taught me how important it is for me as professor, to know my environment. Meetings with the administration, careful study of class lists, and a variety of brief written assignments has always helped me get the lay of the land. For instance, in the first class I ask students to write a couple of paragraphs explaining why they are taking the class and what would be helpful for me to know about their learning preferences. I also ask them to read the syllabus carefully, then to tell me what they are most looking forward to, and to ask a couple of questions that they hope will be answered by the end of term.

Being the multicultural and ethnically diverse city that Montreal is, inter-sectionality is evident in a variety of ways. Classrooms include theological students from Montreal School of Theology, which has a century-old arrangement with the School of Religious Studies. Classes embrace Christian, Jewish and Muslim students. They include students who are agnostic or atheist and spiritual seekers.

Classes draw from a variety of disciplines. One term I counted 17 disciplinary perspectives including the sciences in the Women in the Christian Tradition class. That group usually has a large co-hort of students from the Institute of Gender, sexuality, feminism and justice. Indeed, students claim diverse sexual identities.

These classrooms represent a variety of hopes and expectations. Some are primarily concerned with issues of faith. Some simply need a course in Christianity or women’s studies. Some are intentionally studying women. Racialized students need their history to be told. Gay and transgendered students seek a history that represents their experience.

As a professor, it is difficult to meet the varied expectations. My hope is that students will see enough of their experience reflected, that they will be inspired to explore further. My university teaching has never been explicitly about teaching faith; it has been about stimulating curiosity, and increasing knowledge whether it be a “feminist consciousness,” or historical awareness of the variety of players in society and the church. The Jewish feminist historian Gerda Lerner’s Why History Matters and her identification of a feminist consciousness outlined in The Creation of Patriarchy and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness have become central to my teaching of faith and feminism.7

In teaching faith, teaching feminism, I aim to assist students to see through the fog that has shrouded women’s experiences and women’s intellectual partnerships in our understandings of the past, to probe the silences. Lerner says that the major issue for women is their relationship with history, or to be clearer, women’s lack of a history. Teaching faith, teaching feminism means that there are times when it is essential to put women at the centre of enquiry. It is about finding and highlighting role models that can provide for a more balanced view of the past, women in history who can enlighten students on the complexities of the past as it relates to women’s experiences.

Key to this unveiling of history is the attempt to re-establish even if a little bit, the ancient severing of the feminine divine, to give glimpses of the feminine face of our understandings of God. Indeed, as Lerner has noted, women’s search for their connection with the Divine has been at the source of much of the struggle for a feminist consciousness. To come to an understanding of the connection between faith and feminism, it is essential to explore women’s experiences through two thousand years of struggle within an evolving patriarchal tradition, from Biblical times until the present. It is necessary to explore ideas of virginity, sexuality, marriage and motherhood, mysticism, European witch hunts, reform history including Anabaptism, missions and colonization, nineteenth-century reform, healers, the ordination debate and contemporary feminist theology. It is essential to study women’s own words throughout time, looking at what women themselves have said about their own experiences and their views of history, society and God.8

Finally, in teaching faith, and teaching feminism, it is essential for me as professor to insist that students practice putting women at the centre of inquiry, women from their own past and other women, all who have had their part in shaping the historical consciousness. In this way they, and I, can come to a deeper understanding of the relationship between faith and feminism.


1. This article is based on my presentation in “Teaching Faith, Teaching Feminism: Shaping Approaches for Analysis of Gender in Religious History at Public University, Private University, and Seminary Environments,” panel presented at Canadian Society of Church History, June 2021.

2. Three years later, he published Mennonites in Canada, 1786-1920 : the history of a separate people (Toronto: MacMillan, 1974).

3. “Sisters and the Brethren,” Evangelical Visitor (September 25, 1975), 6; “Movements and Missions,” Evangelical Visitor (October 10, 1975), 6; “Social Awareness,” Evangelical Visitor (October 25, 1975), 6. E. Morris Sider’s Nine Portraits: Brethren in Christ Biographical Sketches (Evangel Press, 1981) would feature “Sarah Hoover Bert,” 17-48 and “H. Frances Davidson,” 159-224.

4. https://uwaterloo.ca/arts/news/remembering-distinguished-professor-emerita-wendy-mitchinson

5. Parker Palmer, Courage to Teach, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 54. See also my “My Anabaptist Heritage and the Classroom,” Anabaptist historians: bringing the Anabaptist past into a digital century https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2019/04/26/my-anabaptist-heritage-and-the-classroom/

6. Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers: sayings, lives, and stories of early Christian women, (New York: Paulist Press, 2001), 4.

7. Why History Matters: Life and Thought (NY: Oxford University Press, 1997): 113-28. See also Lerner’s insightful and profound analysis in The Creation of Patriarchy (NY: Oxford University Press, 1986) and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-seventy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.)

8. Amy Oden, editor, In Her Words: Women’s Writings in the History of Christian Thought (Nashville, Tenn: Abingdon Press, 1994).

Histories of the Postsecular: An Interview with Maxwell Kennel

This interview is about Maxwell Kennel’s new book Postsecular History: Political Theology and the Politics of Time, published by Palgrave Macmillan in November 2021. In the exchanges below, coordinating editor of Anabaptist Historians Joel Nofziger asks how the book stands in relation to Anabaptist history and political theology, and questions how the book relates to the history of memory and the construction of national identity.

Postsecular History advances a critique of certain ways of dividing up time and history. Drawing from the field of political theology, it questions how theological and political ideas combine to form powerful legitimation strategies; and drawing from thinkers who approach the politics of time, it is concerned with how temporal and historical terms are periodized – especially how historical categories of ancient, medieval, and modern, and temporal categories of past, present, and future, are used in value-laden ways.

Joel Horst Nofziger: How did you become concerned with the ways that theopolitical thought creates temporality and historical periods?

Maxwell Kennel: I think that whether we are talking about reading and writing or teaching and research, scholarly activity is always influenced by biography, circumstance, and experience. The construction of historical periods and the configuration of time became important issues for me during my graduate studies, which is a time when the unstructured temporality of ‘study’ tends to replace more common ways of living in time (like the 9:00-5:00 schedule of the work-week).

As I managed my time and mediated between my academic work, family life, and other labor, I noticed that the terms and images I was receiving and using were simultaneously theological and political. One place where this realization came through most clearly was in the factory I worked in during the year between my masters and doctoral degrees. I wrote a personal essay on these experiences called “Factory Time,” which has recently been published in Hamilton Arts & Letters, and I think that it is a good introduction to the underlying concerns and problems that prompted my more abstract inquiries in Postsecular History.

JHN: Postsecular History is a theopolitical text. How do you understand political theology as a field?

MK: I think that, at its best, political theology should be a paradigm or lens through which to understand how concepts that appear to be secular often have very religious histories and structures.

For me, the field of political theology is far more diverse than one might gather from the anthologies that have been published in the past few years by Blackwell and T&T Clark. The term ‘political theology’ need not solely refer to the theological use of political analysis, and there are many scholars who work in political theology without doing so for the benefit of a particular religious tradition. By contrast with approaches that prioritize theology, I feel drawn toward the more pluralistic way of thinking about political theology that I see in the Political Theology Network, which presents its work as a rigorous form of interdisciplinary inquiry that is critical of power and oriented toward justice.

That said, political theology struggles to reckon with the traumatic memory and reception of its founding figures; the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt being the most salient example. Schmitt’s insight was that many modern state concepts are really secularized theological concepts, and the field of political theology has used this narrative of partial secularization to analyze a variety of social and cultural phenomena. But I worry about how enmity, competition, and violent forms of conceptual displacement remain within the discourse on political theology. In Postsecular History I critique the ways that political theology can be taken in by the desire for religion (especially Christianity) to remain in a relationship of competition or enmity with secularity, such that the identification of religious structures within secular concepts would represent another victory for religion over some caricatured image of secularism. In my dissertation I critique an exemplary expression of this pattern in John Milbank’s work, which first constructs an enemy called ‘secularism’ and then uses insights from political theology to position Christianity as the solution to the crises we experience in the ‘postsecular’ world. Instead of being beholden to this competitive displacement of secularity by Christianity, I think political theology is well equipped to think beyond dualistic oppositions between secular and religious ways of thinking, and instead theorize the complex mediations and entanglements between competing normative orders that structure our world.

JHN: In the acknowledgments section that opens the book, you note that you have been influenced by Travis Kroeker’s political theology, building on and from his approach which is “neither Catholic nor Protestant, neither Mennonite nor secularist, neither orthodox nor heterodox.” What does the pursuit of this kind of political theology look like to you?

MK: For a variety of reasons, I am fortunate that Travis Kroeker supervised my dissertation and guided me into political theology. Throughout my time at McMaster University between 2016 and 2021 my entire way of thinking was changed by both his seminars and published works. What I appreciate most about Travis’s work is his critique of possessive desire, and my appreciation for this way of thinking comes through most clearly in Postsecular History when I argue that the prefix ‘post’ cannot adequately fix upon the secular in a way that would allow us to move beyond it.

Travis’s work in Messianic Political Theology and Diaspora Ethics and his booklet Empire Erotics and Messianic Economies of Desire seems to be based on the idea that the desire to possess, control, and dominate things is a key theological problem, and I think it is just as much a problem for political theology as it is for religious studies. But where Travis tends to use Augustinian formulations to name this problem (the libido dominandi of the earthly city), I prefer Hartmut Rosa’s argument for the “uncontrollability [unverfügbarkeit] of the world.” However one puts it, the fact remains that it is not only a matter of ethics whether we are possessive and controlling in our scholarship. It is also a descriptive fact that such forms of possession do not work. One does not need theology or theory to know that the tighter and more anxiously we try to grasp things, the more we lose perspective.

Travis’s approach to political theology evades categorization and makes his work difficult to place in the discourse, but to me that is its benefit. His work inspires me to ask: must we be confined to the distinction between secular and theological approaches to political theology, where theologians confidently assert that we are ‘post-secular’ and secular scholars claim to have a better grasp on their object of study than those who believe in the doctrines they study? This is too simple. For me, political theology stands in a far more unique and generative relation with descriptive and normative approaches to the study of religion because it allows scholars to mediate between proximity and distance from what they study without either the fantasy of value-neutrality or the forcible imposition of normative categories.

Despite its flaws, I see the Anabaptist Mennonite tradition as one that can assist in this kind of critique of possessive desire in ways that have interdisciplinary consequences. Is it possible that a methodology based on the critique of violence could inform the works of scholars across the social sciences and humanities? I think so, and I explore this connection further in the introduction to a special issue of Political Theology that I edited earlier this year.

JHN: In what ways have your choice of topic and methodological approach been shaped by Anabaptist thought?

MK: Very deeply. My Mennonite background and Anabaptist sensibilities motivate my fundamental concern for how violence and other forms of force and coercion inhere in our ways of thinking, speaking, and knowing. This led me to write my dissertation on ontologies of violence in the works of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, Mennonite political theologians, and feminist philosopher of religion Grace M. Jantzen. As I revise my dissertation for publication, I have been reflecting on its relationship with Postsecular History, and I think that underneath the topics and sources of both works is a fundamental concern for the place of peace and justice in a world where the distinction between secularity and religion is inadequate.

In Postsecular History I critique ways of thinking about the category of the postsecular that privilege certain problematic configurations of time and history. I want to reject approaches to the ‘postsecular’ that use the prefix ‘post’ to indicate possession, novelty, freedom, and instrumentality. Rather than possessing the secular so as to move beyond it, and rather than proclaiming a new time after the demise of the secular, and rather than thinking that we can free ourselves from secular or religious histories, and rather than using the prefix ‘post’ as a conceptual instrument to mold the secular into a rejectable image, I argue for less violent ways of thinking about the postsecular that account for the complex mediations and entanglements that the term tends to point toward.

My current postdoctoral project “Critique of Conspiracism” is also underpinned by the same underlying values and questions, specifically concerning how conspiratorial thinking periodizes time and history in theopolitical ways, and how such ways of thinking can lead to violence. It seems to me that conspiracy theories are connected with religions in ways that entangle secularity and religion, and this is nowhere more evident than in the rise of QAnon and its connections with American evangelicalism. Postsecular ways of mediating between religion and secularity are at the heart of conspiratorial thinking, especially if we follow Michael Barkun’s suggestion that conspiracy theories are based on the idea that: “nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected.” My current work focuses on how this formulation serves as a theopolitical way of narrating the relationship between origins and ends, and does so in ways that allow for the justification of violence – for example, the events of January 6th 2021 in the American capitol. I think that the term ‘postsecular’ can helpfully name the confluence of religious and secular ways of thinking within conspiratorial thinking, and my next step in the project is to consider how conspiracy itself might be a secularized theological concept.

JHN: For the purposes of your argument, you settle on a definition of “postsecular” as “the confluence of Christianity, religion, and secularity with critiques of these terms that resist both religious and secular assertions of dominance.” What led you to this understanding?

MK: I conceive of the postsecular as a category that names the confluence of religious, secular, and Christian ways of thinking, but is also inseparable from the normative confrontations and contradictions that arise between these ways of thinking. My argument in Postsecular History is that we are better able to understand how religions and secularities become entangled and mutually critical of each other if we think about the postsecular without inscribing triumphalism into its prefix.

For example, I attempt to think about postsecular entanglements without Christian anxieties that motivate a return to foundations or a desire to assure final ends. Both the image of a return and the invocation of an end are simultaneously theological and political (‘theopolitical’). Messianic returns and teleological ends are theological concepts that also serve as politically usable means of persuasion. By pointing backward and forward in time simultaneously, a ‘return’ knits together tradition and novelty. So too with origins and ends, which are often mediated in persuasive ways by those who call for returns to a golden age or progress toward utopian or apocalyptic futures. All told, I see most ways of periodizing time (past, present, future) and history (ancient, medieval, modern, postmodern) as powerful persuasive techniques that ascribe value to certain terms and not others. Time and history are not given; they are made. What matters is how we engage in that act of making.

JHN: You discuss how “periodization serves as one kind of theopolitical justification narrative that is used within the logic of neoliberalism” and you suggest that “authoritative periodizations assist the neoliberal project in justifying and ordering the world.” The idea that neoliberal periodizations reorder our relationships with the past, present, and future reminds me of two texts on memory.

I am reminded first of Benedict Anderson’s argument in Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983) that “awareness of being embedded in secular, serial time, with all its implications of continuity, yet ‘forgetting’ the experience of this continuity …engenders the need for a narrative of identity” (265). How does the theopolitical control of defined historical periods interface with nation-building projects of communal memory? I also remember reading Jonathan Tran’s The Vietnam War and Theologies of Memory (London: Blackwell, 2010); especially Tran’s discussion of the possibility of a Eucharistic time where the Lord’s Supper becomes the reordering power rather than authoritarianism.

MK: Yes, I do see the connections that you are pointing towards between the construction of memory, community identity, and national identity.

It makes sense to me that, by his own admission, Benedict Anderson was influenced by Walter Benjamin and Erich Auerbach. When I look at Imagined Communities, I see substantial connections between the imaginative construction of nationhood and the theopolitical periodization of time and history that I write about in Postsecular History. For Anderson, the nation is an “imagined political community” that is “both inherently limited and sovereign” (6), and this limitation is found in the borders that demarcate the nation and prevent others from gaining access to its spatial body. Anderson argues that even “the most messianic nationalists do not dream of a day when all the members of the human race will join their nation,” by contrast with a Christian vision of universal membership (7). He also argues that the nation is imagined as sovereign because it arose during a time when “Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm” (7).

To me this shows how the nation – as a figure and bearer of identity – was born of legitimation crises where religious and secular ways of thinking confronted each other, and its hold on sovereignty is at least partly owed to how nation-building projects use theological and religious modes of persuasion to retain power. In answer to your question, I see theopolitical forms of periodization as usable strategies that nationalists tend to employ in order to keep the image of the nation stable. Although the former is extremely violent compared to the latter, both Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” use periodizing terms to build national identity. The words ‘back’ and ‘again’ serve to periodize time and history by reaching back into the past and bringing values into the present for the sake of a future. The figural mediations between these terms are powerful because religious visions of history endure in partly secularized forms of nationalism. In the final pages of Imagined Communities, Anderson is critical of narratives that forget the past and create identities out of this amnesia. For him, what cannot be remembered (bodily) “must be narrated,” and this narration occurs in “secular, serial time” that structures both individual life stories and the stories nations tell about themselves (204-205).

I am not as familiar with Jonathan Tran’s work, but when I look at The Vietnam War and Theologies of Memory, I feel a great affinity with its diagnoses of the temporal problems of modernity (as in the section on “The Detemporalization of Time”), but I am not very sympathetic with how Tran positions the Christian Eucharist as a solution to such temporal problems. Again, I appreciate Tran’s diagnosis of the problem of forgetting in his book’s seventh chapter, but I do not think that the Eucharist is the best way of performing the important bodily rituals of remembrance that, for example, one would require in order to heal from trauma. Isn’t the communion table also a site of exclusion where identity is formed by often-violent boundaries between the baptized and unbaptized? Tran’s concept of Eucharistic memory seems somewhat idealized and disconnected from the deep power problems that lie within community identity formation. When thinking about how to remember and work through traumatic events I think that something like the Internal Family Systems model has more potential for promoting healing in our ‘postsecular’ and ‘postreligious’ world.

JHN: One of the challenges you grapple with early on in Postsecular History is that the “postsecular” does not have a readily accepted definition, and in its construction of both the “post” and the “secular” the term promotes problematic forms of periodization. This might be most clearly addressed in your discussion of the Dutch Collegiants in Chapter 3 where you note that “despite its proclamations of novelty and succession – the term ‘postsecular’ cannot make good on the claim of its prefix by placing itself beyond the secular, nor can it successfully exceed or free itself from either its secular or religious history.” Why is it that “postsecular” continues to be a powerful idea despite this problematic assertion?

MK: I think that the main problem with the category of the postsecular, as it is applied to a whole range of ideas and experiences, is that it implies that we can get past the past. The very notion that secular ways of thinking can be placed in the past using the prefix ‘post’ is contrary to what historians do all the time. My argument, in part, is that the postsecular is situated within a history that it attempts to overcome, but cannot overcome because the past remains in the present. And I fear that this contradiction is not the kind of contradiction that results in dialectical tensions that lead to creativity and life. Instead, the aspiration to overcome the secular leads to forms of forgetting and memory loss that prevent the making of living connections between past, present, and future.

JHN: I think your fourth chapter is perhaps the most fascinating. In it, you give a parallel reading of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick alongside a consideration of fanatical Anabaptism—as understood in relation to the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster. Where did the inspiration come from to make such a juxtaposition?

MK: Well, that’s another interesting accident of history. Initially, the fourth chapter of Postsecular History was supposed to be a revision of my 2019 article in Political TheologyMüntzer, Taubes, and the Anabaptists” where I trace Anabaptist connections within Jacob Taubes’ Occidental Eschatology. But due to copyright problems I was forced to remove it at the last minute. However, in the early months of 2020, before the pandemic began in force, I was also auditing two graduate seminars. The first was Travis Kroeker’s seminar on Augustine’s City of God and Melville’s Moby Dick, and the second was Mike Driedger’s seminar on fanaticism at Brock University. The material I wrote while sitting in on these seminars was influenced by my work on the Postsecular History manuscript, and I began asking questions about how fanaticism figures in Melville’s novel and relates to how literary works periodize their narrative unfolding. Luckily, when I had to remove the middle chapter of the book, I had material from both sets of my seminar notes that fit together and meshed with the book’s argument, while also serving as a letter of gratitude to my teachers.

JHN: In conclusion, what would you say the contribution of Postsecular History is for historians and scholars in political theology?

MK: Jakob Burckhardt writes in his Reflections on History that “the philosophy of history is a centaur, a contradiction in terms [contradictio in adjecto] for history co-ordinates, and hence is unphilosophical, while philosophy subordinates, and hence is unhistorical.” Burckhardt argues that the problem with philosophy and history is that both are given to the idea that “our time is the consummation of all time” such that “the past may be regarded as fulfilled in us.” I suppose that my work in Postsecular History is focused on moving away from both coordination and subordination, toward richer and more textured ways of mediating between temporal and historical terms that do not abandon the desire for historical and temporal terms to facilitate movements from promise to fulfilment.

Part of this effort to find better ways of mediating between temporal and historical terms requires that we both understand the limitations of thinking in relation to origins and ends, and that we do not abandon the project of drawing promising and fulfilling connections between origins and ends. That is why I want to close with a quotation that followed me throughout the writing of this book but never fit well within its pages. In his book on Dostoevsky, Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin writes that

nothing conclusive has yet taken place in the world, the ultimate word of the world and about the world has not yet been spoken, the world is open and free, everything is still in the future and will always be in the future.

In the case of postsecular life where religions and secularities intermingle and the past returns ceaselessly in the present, I think it is important to hold things open and resist finality wherever it is found. My attempt to provide an historically attentive approach to the concept of the postsecular is part of this effort, and I hope it will cause its readers to pause and question the periodizing divisions of this age. But this pause should be informed by the topic of the concluding chapter of Postsecular History, which is waiting. I think that one remedial strategy for the temporal crises of our time – both the acceleration of time and the decay of its measures – is to cultivate a form of waiting that is actively engaged in the undoing of violent forms of periodization. For this I turn to the amazing work of German feminist Christian theologian Dorothee Sölle, whose mantra in her essay on waiting is “this is not it.” That’s what I think is the contribution of the book. Simply to say, with Bakhtin that the final word on the world has not been spoken, and with Sölle that the present state of things is not yet as it should be, in so many ways.

Through the lens of J. Harold Housman

EMU Special Collections was recently given a fascinating collection of digitized slides from the family of Dr. J. Harold Housman (1928-2009). Housman was a 1949 graduate of EMC who became a doctor and spent many years doing medical work in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Nigeria. 

These photographs, taken during his time at EMC, give a vivid glimpse into life at the college and Park View area. I hope you enjoy these images and if you see any one or any place you recognize, please share in the comments!

A mid-1940s view of EMC’s campus, prior to the construction of Northlawn (built in 1948) the Student Center/University Commons (built in 1957) or Hartzler Library (built 1971).
Martins Store, now used by the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding

The College Shoppe on Mt. Clinton Pike at the intersection of Park Road. It is now a private residence. 

J. Harold Housman was a keen pilot who got his pilot’s license at the age of 16. This photo was taken at the Hartman Airfield located on Chicago Avenue around where the Family Dollar now sits.

 

1947 Mixed Chorus
D. Ralph Hostetter supervises J. Harold Housman (right) and another student as they work on specimens.

J. Mark Stauffer

A. Don Augsburger

Students piled in a truck headed for a day out in the mountains

Sledding on the hill