An Invitation to the “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions” Conference

Rachel Waltner Goossen

It’s been twenty-two years since historians from the U.S. and Canada collaborated on the first academic conference focusing on women of Anabaptist traditions.  A sequel comes this summer: an interdisciplinary conference, Crossing the Line:  Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries, slated for June 22-24, at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  Scholars from around the globe as well as students and others interested in women’s and Anabaptist/Mennonite history will gather for cross-disciplinary panels, sessions, and conversations.  The conference theme invites us to consider how Anabaptists, Mennonites, Amish, and related groups have bumped up against – and traversed – physical and figurative borders, right up to the present day. 

crossing-the-line-header

Crossing the Line is a conference about women from Anabaptist traditions. Panels will emphasize the rich diversity of Anabaptist women’s experiences.

In 1995, a landmark scholarly conference titled The Quiet in the Land? Women of Anabaptist Traditions in Historical Perspective drew 256 participants from Canada, the U.S., Germany, and the Netherlands. Hosted at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, this early collaborative effort among Mennonite scholars featured artistic performances, especially drama, music and poetry. Approximately one hundred academic presentations explored the richness of women’s experience and interests drawn from Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren, Amish, Hutterite, Brethren in Christ, German Baptist, and Jewish perspectives. 

At the conclusion of the 1995 conference, participants were enthusiastic about the variety of methodological and interdisciplinary approaches on display, but noted that a future conference would need to cast a more inclusive net.  Many called for greater attention to international stories and viewpoints, pointing out that a critical mass of individuals in Anabaptist traditions lived outside of U.S./Canadian communities.  Others critiqued the Millersville gathering for failing to incorporate LGBT history, although other forms of inclusion/exclusion were dominant themes of the conference. 

Strangers at Home

Strangers at Home came out of a landmark 1995 conference on Anabaptist women.

By the final day of the conference, one observer noted the gathering’s big-tent flavor:  “Many perspectives have been expressed underneath this canopy . . . . We have not been concerned with boundaries.” Johns Hopkins University Press was attracted to the gendered theme of the conference and subsequently published an edited collection, Strangers at Home:  Amish and Mennonite Women in History (2002), which highlighted European- and North American-focused scholarship (a notable exception was Marlene Epp’s “’Weak Families’ in the Green Hell of Paraguay”). 

Intensifying an international reach this time around, the June 2017 conference will focus on boundaries and border-crossings. Women from the Global South will participate. Students and scholars from a dozen countries are among the panelists and plenary speakers.  Each day, an invited scholar will address implications of border- and boundary-crossings.  Hasia Diner, New York University Professor of History, will speak on gender systems in ethno-religious immigrant communities. Cynthia Peacock of India, affiliated with Mennonite Central Committee for nearly four decades and a representative for Mennonite World Conference, plans to address church leadership in South Asia. And Sofia Samatar, a Somali-American writer and English professor at James Madison University, will be drawing from her own Arab and Mennonite heritage for her presentation, “Crossing Ethnicities.”

Sofia-Samatar

Sofia Samatar, professor of English at James Madison University, will be one of several plenary speakers at Crossing the Line.

Academic presentations on a wide array of topics, as well as an art exhibit, poetry readings, original dramatic performance, modern dance and ballet performances, and Shendandoah Valley cultural tours round out the conference offerings. In the spirit of the 1995 gathering, organizers of the upcoming Crossing the Line gathering hope the event will contribute to “mentoring relationships that crossed traditions and disciplines and age groups,” according to planning committee co-chair Kimberly Schmidt.

Watch this Anabaptist Historians blog site for regular updates and postings from participants throughout and after the conference. Participants may register for the entire conference or for a daily rate.  Registration, schedule, sponsorship, and lodging details are available via the conference website.

Rachel Waltner Goossen is a member of the conference planning committee and professor of history at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas.

Tell Me Your Stories and I’ll Tell You Mine

This is a response to “Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege” by Ben Goossen.

Steve Ness

As librarian and archivist at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society (LMHS), a question that I hear quite often is, “Do the genealogical records in your library only include Mennonites?” My response is to encourage any researcher with an ancestral connection to southeastern Pennsylvania (and Lancaster County in particular) to spend some time digging into the many genealogical resources that we make available. While our focus is on the history of the Mennonites of this area, the genealogies and other resources in our collections contain many non-Mennonites as well. Any good genealogist will understand that they cannot claim that all of their ancestors were of a particular denomination any more than they can claim that they were all admirable.

Any good genealogist will understand that they cannot claim that all of their ancestors were of a particular denomination any more than they can claim that they were all admirable.

Ben Goossen, in his post, “Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege,” states that little has been written about how Mennonites have historically approached the field of genealogy. I agree that it is a subject that warrants proper investigation.1 Despite the dearth of research, however, Goossen makes the claim that, “Over the past century, white Mennonites have expressed uncommon interest in their ancestry.” I suspect that this cannot be substantiated and that Mennonite interest in genealogy is not significantly different than one would find among the rest of the population.

As is the case with many historical societies, the majority of visitors to the LMHS library arrive with the purpose of conducting genealogical research. A conservative estimate would be ninety percent. Of these, probably fewer than half consider themselves to be Mennonite. Some suspect or have been told that they have some Mennonite or Amish ancestry; some already know that they do, and some are surprised to learn of a Mennonite connection. This is due to historic migration patterns that have interwoven Mennonites into the fabric of broader Pennsylvania German culture in southeastern Pennsylvania. Many people across the United States—both Mennonite and non-Mennonite—have ancestral connections to this area which they value.

If Mennonite family and religious identity is so tightly bound, why aren’t more Mennonite individuals, congregations, and institutions expressing greater interest in their history?

Many LMHS members are not Mennonite and, despite the fact that the Historical Society serves as the official repository for Lancaster Mennonite Conference (LMC) and Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) records, LMC and ACC congregants represent a disappointingly-small percentage of LMHS membership overall. If Mennonite family and religious identity is so tightly bound, why aren’t more Mennonite individuals, congregations, and institutions expressing greater interest in their history? Even one of the examples Goossen provides of a “Mennonite genealogical publication”—Theodore W. Herr’s 1908 book on the descendants of Hans Herr—was neither written by a Mennonite nor printed by a Mennonite publisher.2

Genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States.  A 2008 poll cited by USA Today identifies only gardening as being more popular.3 The air time that major television networks have provided for shows focused on genealogy is additional evidence of its general appeal. The article’s author recognizes that genealogy has been used as a tool for exclusion but, unlike Goossen, emphasizes instead the value of genealogical research in helping us—all of us—understand better the stories of our past that help to shape us today.

Is there such a thing as “Mennonite Genealogy?” I am doubtful. Certainly there is privilege in the ability of white Mennonites to trace many of their ancestral lines back multiple generations with relative ease. I would argue that honest engagement with our past reveals a richer diversity in our stories than we might first imagine. Rather than seeing genealogy as a tool to build walls, we should embrace it as a technique to learn from and value the stories of everyone. Let’s sit down and listen to each other. You tell me your stories and I’ll tell you mine.


Steve Ness is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite College (B.S., History and Social Science) and Clarion University (M.S.L.S., Library and Information Science). His ancestry includes persons who were Amish, Church of the Brethren, Lutheran, Mennonite, United Brethren, and others.


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  1. Such research should include a more comprehensive examination of Christian Z. Mast, whose words in A Brief History of Bishop Jacob Mast… sound troubling to our twenty-first-century ears. Good historical research will look more carefully at the context in which Mast was writing, how the words quoted by Goossen fit with Mast’s other writings, and how representative Mast was of the larger Mennonite community at that time. Until such research is done I think it wise to temper condemnation. 
  2.  The book was republished twice by the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society—in 1980 and 1994. The third edition contained updates and corrections by Phillip E. Bedient, former emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College and member of the United Methodist Church. 
  3. Rodriguez, Gregory. “Roots of Genealogy Craze.” . Online at  http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2014/05/12/genealogy-americans-technology-roots-porn-websites-column/9019409/. 

David Rempel Smucker Responds to “Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege”

This is a response to “Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege” by Ben Goossen.

David Rempel Smucker

Mennonites doing genealogical research may or may not have undesirable attitudes about racial privilege. Goossen works from one case—Christian Z. Mast—out of the thousands of Mennonites who have done genealogical research. In my twenty-two years (1981-2003) of assisting people doing historical and genealogical research at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society library and archives (Lancaster, Pa.), I encountered many people in the following two categories: Mennonites who discovered information about non-Mennonite ancestors, and non-Mennonites who discovered their Mennonite and Amish ancestors. Both gained an enlarged sense of lineage from their genealogical study. These researchers emerged with an expanded identity that incorporated people of varied religious and ethnic persuasions.

These researchers emerged with an expanded identity that incorporated people of varied religious and ethnic persuasions.

Goossen also calls the vigorous interest in family history research among Mennonites “uncommon,” as if that interest is higher than that of other denominations. My years at Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society acquainted me with many other denominational and ethnic groups with historical and genealogical organizations. Of course, the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) is perhaps the denomination with the most interest in genealogy. In my experience, they were very generous in their willingness to share their vast historical resources with all researchers. They also quickly discovered how many contemporary Mormons had non-Mormon ancestors, and vice-versa.

To suggest that “Mennonite family history research is intimately connected to issues of racial privilege,” as Goossen does, is far too sweeping. It is similar to saying that I know a racist plumber, so I conclude that plumbing has an affinity to racism. Christian Mast’s ideas on race and culture are mistaken and lamentable, but one case does not constitute sufficient proof. Nor does that racism totally ruin the genealogical value of his book.  To show that Mennonite genealogy in Germany in the 1930s was influenced by Nazi ideology on race does not support generalizations about all Mennonite genealogy.  


David Rempel Smucker, Ph.D., former staff of Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, a resident of Winnipeg, Manitoba.


 

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Who Calls Whom Racist, and What’s the Privilege With That?

This is a response to “Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege” by Ben Goossen.

Philipp Gollner

I would rather not smoke a pipe with Mr. Mast. He’ll compliment me on my German accent, and how tall and “sterling” I am. Privilege, for this outsider. But I would rather not chat it up with “Genealogists against Inequality” either. They’ll tell me that it’s really, really, really, ok that I don’t have Mennonite relatives. They’ll say “diversity” thirty-four times. And, oh no, we’re not a tribe. Only peace and justice, that’s what we’re tracking.

I cheer Goossen’s probing of the artifacts of Mennonite belonging. Mennonite material culture remains understudied, even as Mennonites’ merging of ethnic and religious cultures continues to yield plenty of sacred stuff.

On a larger scale, however, I wonder if there aren’t eerie similarities between early twentieth-century version of American Mennonite purity and contemporary highbrow Mennonite longings for the post-ethnic. And I suspect that any real investigation of privilege in Mennonite history in the United States is ill-served by the N-word (that is, Nazi)—because too often, the N-word hits bottom as a convenient, anachronistic catch-all; because most “Mennonite ethnicity” in North America is much older and more complex; and because Mennonite privilege, even purity, are now passed on through more than blood.

Might enlisting genealogy again in the cause of a more perfect church—a post-ethnic one, this time—continue, not disrupt, this puritan streak of Mennonite mapping?

Those with enough brains to write, and enough politics to pull in the church, mapped Mennonite racial purity in early twentieth-century America. They weren’t only keepers of memory—they also pruned the family tree, made it more presentable. They were activists for the church’s present relevance and its future purity. (Mast, by the way, represented a progressive group that soon dropped the term “Amish” altogether.)

Might enlisting genealogy again in the cause of a more perfect church—a post-ethnic one, this time—continue, not disrupt, this puritan streak of Mennonite mapping? Doesn’t it simply perpetuate the original Mennonite desire for a fresh break, a clean sheet? And could such an exculpation make authentic relationships with non-white Anabaptists, who often rely on the messy transmission of ancestry and culture for a vital faith community, even more awkward?

More importantly, the building blocks of Mennonite aristocracy have changed from Blut und Boden to subtler forms of privilege: educational opportunities, denominational connections, the right ideas. Mennonite parents of my and Goossen’s generation won’t tell their young ones what a “stern” race theirs is. They access other privilege: they will tell their children to be “world-changers,” before they ever show a photo of their great-grandmother. They will humblebrag that their child has never eaten at McDonald’s, but loves vegan curry. Doesn’t know football, but is the bestest peacemaker of them all in second grade. Swims in a pool of Mennonite social capital, but grows up with the assumption that the virtue of studying its history lies chiefly in uncovering its oppressive character.

Therein, too, is purity. Therein, too, is privilege—and its passing on. And to the extent that an openly worn revulsion against the unbearable Teutonism of many North American Mennonite bloodlines helps us white progressives mask this privilege while accumulating another (think: “world changers”), it is no way forward.

I have no Mennonite ancestors. Sometimes I wish I would. The one grandparent who was an National Socialist soldier was a socialist, and deserted in 1944. Sometimes I wish I had a Nazi Other to point at. My daughters are growing up binational, bilingual. Sometimes I wish their belonging was clearer. But my diverse non-Anabaptist students find us educated white Mennos most grating when we preach color-free virtue, not when we are a tribe, warts and all. And most times, I’m with them.

Whither genealogists? I don’t even know if it’s my business as a historian to tell them. Poking Mennonite privilege with the help of history, however, will take more than the obvious scrutiny of race science. Instead, it might make collateral damage out of many of us white progressives.


Philipp Gollner (Ph.D., University of Notre Dame) is an Assistant Professor of U.S. History at Goshen College. Most recently, he is the author of “How Mennonites Became White: Religious Activism and Cultural Power.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90 (April 2016). Catch up with him on twitter, or philippgollner.com


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