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.

Les Frères mennonites au Québec : Le Lien, a voice for Francophone Mennonites

Les Frères mennonites (Mennonite Brethren) established a mission in Québec in 1961 when they were expelled from the Congo.1 An evangelistic fervour in the province saw a handful of congregations rapidly emerge to the north-east of Montreal, bolstering the presence of the Old Mennonites, the Fellowship Baptists and the Baptist Union churches. Using evangelistic methodology, charismatic leaders Ernie and Lydia Dyck sparked the establishment of new congregations. These new churches quickly grew to embrace several hundred young people who had converted in the evangelistic crusades that emerged in the wake of the massive cultural shifts spawned by the Quiet Revolution, Vatican II and the feminist movement.2 Historians and sociologists estimate that by 1984 there were 1000 men and women, mostly young, attending ten newly formed congregations.3

Print press became an important tool in furthering this mission. By 1980, the Mennonite Brethren Herald began to supplement their English and German bi-lingual publication with a monthly French insert, La publication françaisdu Herald.4 This journalistic enterprise gave voice to a new community. For historians, it provides a wealth of information about the development of the Mennonite church in Quebec. It is the voice of new converts who were growing into their identity as Christians and Mennonites. Initially it appears to have been an arm of the evangelism claiming Quebec, with its goal to edify and encourage new Christians. With news from the churches in Quebec, testimonies, inspirational messages and teachings for the Mennonite Christians in the province under the editorship of a young evangelistically-minded Quebecois leader Auguste Masson, it soon claimed its Quebecois identity with the name Le lien des Frères mennonites (The Mennonite Brethren Connection).5

Under new editorial leadership, Le Lien would become an important vehicle that allowed women’s voices to be heard.6 Claudette LeBlanc, who had converted under the influence of young evangelicals at the college in Ste-Therese, took the post after training at the Institute Biblique Béthel located in Sherbrooke. The mood of the paper quickly shifted as she gave opportunities for women to explore publicly what it meant to live as evangelical Christians in the fast changing culture of Quebec.7 The paper became a place where women could reflect on what it meant to be Christians in their context; it challenged readers on how they lived their lives as Christian women. Defending the increased volume of women’s voices, LeBlanc’s editorial comments in the February 1986 issue explained:

Un autre numéro sur les femmes, direz-vous! Pourquoi pas? Elles représentent souvent plus que la moitié de l’Église (53% chez nous) et leur rôle n’est pas encore clair pour tous. Il importe donc d’y rêfléchir ensemble.”
(Another issue on women, you say! Why not? They often represent more than half of the church and their role isn’t yet clear for everyone. It is necessary to reflect on this together).8

Coinciding with the naming of Annie Brosseau, another young female convert and graduate of Institute Biblique Béthel as editor, by 1988 Le lien expanded its evangelical voice to introduce the francophone constituency to the work of Mennonite Central Committee.9 The introduction of “Le MCC au Québec,” with an extensive interview of Debby Martin Koop, MCC Canada’s recently appointed representative in Quebec, set the stage for a new face for Quebec Mennonites. It was historic in its setting the stage for MCC’s relationship with the Mennonite Brethren.10 This unique relationship between MCC and the Mennonite Brethren as it involved in Quebec, notable for women’s leadership, is well worth further exploration. To conclude, I hope to develop our understanding further as I prepare for my contribution to the MCC at 100 conference coming up soon in fall 2021. I also hope that others will discover for themselves the rich potential that le Lien holds for historical inquiry.


1. Claudette LeBlanc, “’Nous louons le Seigneur!’” le lien des Frères mennonites Vol. 6, no. 2 (juillet-août 1987), 1-2.

2. For a clear outline of the developments of evangelicalism in Quebec during these years, see Richard Lougheed, “The Evangelical Revivals of the 1960s – 1980s,” in French-Speaking Protestants in Canada: Historical Essays, 191-206, edited by Jason Zuidema (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2011).

3. Ruth Dyck, “Le progrès de l’évangel dans la ‘Belle Province’” (26 september 1980), 1; see also Richard Lougheed Mennos in Quebec (Kitchener, Ontario : Pandora Press, forthcoming).

4. Ruth Dyck, “Rendez-vous à Winnipeg,” Publication français du Herald, Vol. 1, no. 1 (le 8 août 1980), 1.

5. “La tournée du trio d’IBL,” Le Lien (le 8 août 1980,), 3; (25 mars 1983), 8.

6. I have explored elsewhere the rich female culture that developed during this time. See “Le Comité des femmes inter-églises, 1978-1998: a compass for the women of l’église des frères mennonites du Québec,” Journal of Mennonite Studies Vol. 37 (2019), 105-18.

7. Claudette LeBlanc, “Jésus en moi,” Publication français du Herald (le 26 septembre 1980), 4.

8. Claudette LeBlanc, Le Lien (février 1986), Vol. 4, no. 8, 2.

9. Annie Brosseau, “Une Parole efficace,” Publication français du Herald (27 février 1981), 4; Le Lien Vol 9, No. 2 (juillet-août 1990), 3.

10. Claudette LeBlanc, “Le MCC au Québec, entrevue avec Debby Martin Koop,” Le Lien (May 1988), 4-5, 7.

From the Flat Files

Tucked away in the office of the Menno Simons Historical library is a flat file that has eleven drawers filled with various and sundry historical treasures. I thought it might be interesting to dive in and sample a few of the items housed therein.

The first item I wanted to highlight is a bill for two shillings and six-pence or half-a-crown printed in colonial Pennsylvania in 1772. 

Next is an announcement issued in March 1862 by Lt. Col. J.R. Jones at the behest of General Stonewall Jackson to muster the militia for the Confederate Army in Rockingham County. This announcement contains a provisio for conscientious objectors that states, “I am authorised to say to the Tunkers and Menonites [sic], that Gen. Jackson believes them to be sincere in their opposition to engaging in war, and will detail them as teamsters, etc. They can serve their state as well in such a capacity as if bearing arms.”

Here is a full transcript of the announcement: 

Attention Militia

Special Order   Head quarters, V.P.

Non. 1853                                           March 31 1862

Lieut. Col. J.R. Johnes 33 D Regiment Va. Vols.
is ordered to proceed to Rockingham County for the purpose of bringing out the Militia.  
By order of Maj. Gen. Jackson, A.S. Pendleton, A.A.G
A company of cavalry has been ordered to report to me here, for the purpose of executing the above order; and any additional force necessary will be sent. I sincerely hope, therefore, that All Militia Men Will promptly report themselves, and avoid the mortification of an arrest. I am authorised to say to the Tunkers and Menonites [sic], that Gen. Jackson believes them to be sincere in their opposition to engaging in war, and will detail them as teamsters, etc. They can serve their state as well in such a capacity as if bearing arms

Come Forward, Then, Promptly. 

You brethren from Rockbridge, Augusta, Shenandoah and Page are in the field, and our brave little army is hard pressed by the enemy.

You will rendezvous at the courthouse

On Thursday morning at 9 o’clock. Prepare to leave for the army. 

J.R. Jones Ct. Col.      33d Regt vol

We have a poster depicting scenes from the 1936 Mennonite World Conference held in Amsterdam.

And finally, we have a number of lovely etchings depicting Mennonite groups in the Netherlands.

“Mennonist Church named the Waterlanders” 
“Mennonist Church named the Flemings”
“The Sun; Depiction of the division of the bread in the Holy Supper by the Mennonites”
J.V. Schley “The Lord’s Supper of the Anabaptists Premiere figure”
J.V. Schley “The Lord’s Supper of the Anabaptists Seconde figure”

 
I hope you enjoyed this peek into the treasure chest that is our flat files. If you would like to see more, you can visit this website that contains a number of scans of other items in our collection.

Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch Among Hasidim and Amish

Mark L. Louden

Toward the beginning of the 1985 film directed by Peter Weir, Witness, the 8-year-old Amish protagonist, Samuel Lapp, is in a Philadelphia train station with his mother. At one point Samuel approaches a man from behind whom he believes to be Amish based on the man’s dark clothing and broad-brimmed black hat, only to discover that he is not Amish, but a Hasidic Jew.

There are obvious similarities between Hasidim, members of Orthodox Jewish sects (often described as “ultra-Orthodox”) whose strong faith infuses their daily lives, and the Amish. The spiritual descendants of a Jewish revival movement in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe, Hasidim, like their Amish counterparts, marry only within their communities, have large families, and maintain a measure of distance between themselves and outsiders, a distance that is marked outwardly through distinctive practices of daily living, including how they dress and groom themselves. Aside from the fact that Hasidim are Jewish and Amish are Christian, there are many differences between the two groups. Hasidim, for example, submit to the spiritual authority of a dynastic leader, a rebbe, and observe strict, biblically based dietary laws. In Amish congregations, bishops wield much less authority and there are no restrictions on the food Amish may eat or how it is prepared. The ways in which Hasidim and Amish educate their children differ as well. Hasidic children are segregated by gender in schools, with boys receiving a mostly religious curriculum in Yiddish. Amish-run schools, which are conducted exclusively in English, do not separate girls and boys and teach secular subject matter only.1

Hasidic family in Borough Park, Brooklyn, NY
(Adam Jones, public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

A presumed linguistic connection between Hasidim and Amish is depicted, this time humorously, in another Hollywood film, The Frisco Kid (1979). The film’s main character is Avram Belinski, a hapless Polish-Jewish immigrant rabbi played by Gene Wilder who is making his way from Philadelphia to San Francisco. At one point, Belinski mistakes a group of Amish people for Hasidim and addresses them in Yiddish, which the (standard) German-speaking Amish do not understand, prompting one of them to ask Belinski, “Dost thou speak English?” (Click here to see the clip of this scene.)

A notable similarity between Hasidim and Amish has to do with language. Most members of both groups speak languages that are related to German, but only distantly, Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch. In what follows I will compare Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch with respect to language structure as well as how they are used.2

Amish family at Niagara Falls
(Gilabrand, public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Although Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch are not mutually intelligible with German (or each other), both descend historically from varieties of southern German and diverged from German mainly through emigration. Yiddish is by far the older of the two languages. Its roots extend back to the ninth century, while Pennsylvania Dutch developed in the eighteenth century. Due to the lack of historical documentation for the oldest forms of Yiddish (the earliest written evidence for the language dates to the late thirteenth century), how it emerged as a distinct language is speculative. There is also a lack of scholarly consensus as to which southern German dialects Yiddish is most closely related to. A common view is that Yiddish developed in Jewish communities in the Central Rhine Valley, part of the West Central German dialect area, the regions marked 20 and 21 in the map below.3 Others place the Yiddish linguistic homeland farther east and south, in Bavaria (regions 33, 34, and 35), which belongs to the Upper German dialect group.

Continental West Germanic languages, not including Afrikaans, Pennsylvania Dutch, and Yiddish
(Rex Germanus, public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Another complicating factor in identifying the German roots of Yiddish is the considerable variation across the varieties that were spoken historically in Central and Eastern Europe. Yiddish dialects fall into two major groups, Western and Eastern. Western Yiddish, which has been moribund for some time, was spoken mostly in German-speaking Central Europe. Eastern Yiddish, which was the native language of most Jewish immigrants to the US in the late nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth centuries, including the Hasidim, was coterritorial with non-Germanic languages, mostly Slavic languages, Hungarian, Romanian, and Lithuanian. Within Eastern Yiddish there is considerable dialectal variation.4

The early history of Pennsylvania Dutch is much better understood, mainly because of its shorter time depth. The language developed through the immigration of German speakers to colonial Pennsylvania, most of whom hailed from the Palatinate, which is located partly in the Central Rhine Valley, hence there are many similarities between Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch. The German dialects that Pennsylvania Dutch most closely resembles today are in the region marked 20 in the map above.

As with Yiddish, there are dialects of Pennsylvania Dutch, though the differences across them are not nearly as great as within Eastern Yiddish. Pennsylvania Dutch dialects differ from one another mostly in vocabulary; the grammar and pronunciation are remarkably uniform. The original variation within Pennsylvania Dutch was geographically determined. In the heartland of the language, the counties located in the so-called Dutch Country of southeastern Pennsylvania, the clearest differences were between the varieties in Lehigh and eastern Berks counties and those used in Lancaster and western Berks counties. Amish and Mennonite sectarians, who collectively comprised only a small minority of the Pennsylvania Dutch founder population, came to be concentrated in Lancaster County. Today, most Amish Pennsylvania Dutch speakers live in the Midwest and their form of the language differs somewhat from what their coreligionists speak in Lancaster-affiliated communities, a natural consequence of change over time, however all Amish varieties of Pennsylvania Dutch are completely mutually intelligible.5

There are no absolute criteria according to which linguistic varieties are called “languages” or “dialects” and there is often disagreement among linguists and native speakers alike as to how to label specific varieties. Coincidentally, the most famous comment on the difference between languages and dialects was popularized by the linguist Max Weinreich, whose work on the history of the Yiddish is unparalleled. The quote, which Weinreich heard from a Yiddish speaker who attended one of his lectures, is “a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot” (A language is a dialect with an army and navy). What this essentially means is that when two linguistic varieties sharing a common ancestor have become autonomous from one another (e.g., administratively), it is reasonable to classify them as separate languages. And certainly, if it is difficult for speakers of the varieties in question to understand one another due to differences in vocabulary and grammar, that would move the needle further away from calling them dialects of a common language. In the case of Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch, their external (sociolinguistic) and internal (structural) distance from German is clear: both are best regarded as languages separate from German, as, for example, Dutch and Luxembourgish are.6

The linguistic distance between Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch and German can be shown by comparing how the same text is rendered in all three languages. Below are translations of the first five verses of Genesis. The Yiddish version is transliterated; written Yiddish uses the Hebrew alphabet. The Pennsylvania Dutch version is based on the Midwestern Amish variety of the language and is written in an orthography similar to English.

German (Luther 1545)7

1Am Anfang schuf Gott Himmel und Erde. Und die Erde war wüst und leer, und es war finster auf der Tiefe; und der Geist Gottes schwebte auf dem Wasser. Und Gott sprach: Es werde Licht! und es ward Licht. Und Gott sah, daß das Licht gut war. Da schied Gott das Licht von der Finsternis 5und nannte das Licht Tag und die Finsternis Nacht. Da ward aus Abend und Morgen der erste Tag.

Standard Yiddish (Solomon Blumgarten 1941)8

1in onheyb hot got bashafn dem himl un di erd. 2un di erd iz geven vist un leydik, un fintsternish iz geven oyfn gezikht fun thom, un der gayst fun got hot geshvebt oyfn gezikht fun di vasern. 3hot got gezogt: zol vern likht. un es iz gevorn likht. 4un got hot gezen dos likht az es iz gut; un got hot fanandergesheydt tsvishn dem likht un tsvishn der fintsternish. 5un got hot gerufn dos likht tog, un di fintsternish hot er gerufn nakht. un es iz geven ovnt, un es iz geven frimorgn, eyn tog.

Pennsylvania Dutch (Di Heilich Shrift 2013)9

1Am ohfang hott Gott da himmel un di eaht kshaffa. 2Nau di eaht voah gans veesht un leah. Es voah dunkel ivvah’s deef vassah, un Gott sei Geisht voah ivvah’s vassah. 3Un Gott hott ksawt, “Loss di helling gmacht sei,” un’s voah hell. 4Gott hott ksenna es di helling goot voah, un hott di helling fadayld fumm dunkla. 5Gott hott di helling “dawk” kaysa, un hott’s dunkla “nacht” kaysa. Un’s voah ohvet un meiya, da eahsht dawk.

I mentioned above that one difference between the use of Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch among Hasidim and Amish is that the former language is used as a medium of instruction in Hasidic parochial schools. In the teaching of religious subject matter, which is the primary focus in the education of Hasidic boys, pupils study sacred texts in Hebrew and Aramaic but discuss their content in Yiddish. One common way that scripture is taught is by reciting the original Hebrew phrase by phrase, interspersed with literal Yiddish translations.

Below is a recording of a contemporary Hasidic man reciting the biblical passage above in Hebrew and Yiddish. The Hebrew original is given in bold, with the Yiddish in roman script.10 The differences between the Hasidic and Standard Yiddish versions here are due to dialectal variation. The standard variety commonly used when Yiddish is formally taught in non-Hasidic institutions is based largely on the Eastern dialects that were historically coterritorial with Lithuania. Most modern Hasidic varieties of Yiddish derive from dialects that used to be spoken farther south, in an area where Hungarian, among other languages, was also spoken.

Hasidic Hebrew and Yiddish

1berayshes – in unhayb, buru eloykim – hot der aybershter bashafn, es hashumaim – dem himl, veays huurets – in di erd. 2vehuurets – in di erd, hoysu – iz geveyn, soyhi – pist, vuvoyhi – in vist, vekhoyshekh – in tinkl, al pnay sehoym – hekhern upgrint; veriekh eloykim – in der gayst finem aybershtn, merakheyfes – hot geshveybt, al pnay hamoyim – hekhern vaser. 3vayoymer eloykim – in der aybershter hot gezugt, yehi oyr – es zol zaan lekhtik, vayhi oyr – in es iz gevorn lekhtik. 4vayar eloykim – in der aybershter hot gezeyn, es huoyr – di lekhtikayt, ki toyv – az zi iz git, vayavdayl eloykim – in der aybershter hot upgeshaydt, bayn huoyr – tsvishn der lekhtikayt, ibayn hakhoysekh – in tsvishn der tinklkayt. 5vayikru eloykim – in der aybershter hot gerifn, luoyr – tsi der likhtikayt, yoym – tug, velakhoyshekh – in tsi der tinklkayt, kuru – hot er gerifn, loylu – nakht, vayhi eyrev – es iz geveyn uvnt, vayhi boyker – es iz geveyn in der fri, yoym eykhud – deym ershtn tug.

In the past, both Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch were once widely spoken by people not affiliated with Hasidic or traditional Anabaptist groups. So-called secular Yiddish speakers advanced the frontiers of the language during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in many ways. Yiddish became a vital vehicle for communication in several public spheres, including literature, politics, and scholarly research, and there were countless periodicals produced in Yiddish whose content in many cases was not connected to the Jewish faith. The Holocaust dealt a critical blow to the language. Perhaps as much as one-half of the world’s Yiddish-speaking population was murdered by Nazi Germany. Although Yiddish continues to be spoken by non-Hasidic Jews today, many of whom identify as Yiddishists, ardent advocates for the language and culture, the Hasidim far outnumber these more secular speakers.

The counterparts of secular Yiddish speakers in Pennsylvania Dutch–speaking society are known among scholars as “nonsectarians,” or more popularly the “Church People” or “Fancy Dutch.” Nonsectarian Pennsylvania Dutch are the descendants of non-Anabaptist German-speaking immigrants to rural Pennsylvania during the colonial era who had little contact with Amish or Mennonites from the early nineteenth century on. They became the main standard bearers of a rich folk culture that included several thousand texts, including literary works. But unlike Yiddish, Pennsylvania Dutch was always used almost exclusively by rural dwellers of modest educational background. Among those Pennsylvania Dutch people, sectarian or nonsectarian, who aspired to move “up” socially or who chose to marry non-Pennsylvania Dutch-speaking partners, the shift to speaking English only was in most cases rapid. Today, the vast majority of active speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch are members of Amish and traditional Mennonite groups, who choose to live in rural areas and set limits on the degree to which they interact with the larger society, thereby creating a social space within which their heritage language remains vital.

Despite their status today as the main speakers of Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch, neither Hasidim nor Amish engage in conscious efforts to cultivate, promote, or celebrate their heritage languages. Language maintenance is a secondary phenomenon of how both groups live out their faith. For their part, Hasidim adhere to a teaching that observant Jews should avoid innovation in their names, language, and clothing, which is derived from a belief that the preservation of these cultural practices by the biblical Israelites contributed to their redemption from slavery in Egypt. The quote below is from a Hasidic man interviewed by a Yiddish-speaking linguist, Isaac Bleaman, and is included in Bleaman’s 2018 doctoral thesis comparing the sociolinguistic situations of Hasidim and Yiddishists in New York.11

The rabbis are always saying you’re not allowed to change your language. It says in Midrash [biblical commentaries] on account of three things the Jews could leave (Egypt) . . . Shem [name], lushn [language], and malbesh [clothing]. Shem is the name, they didn’t make their names goyish [non-Jewish]. Lushn and malbesh . . . So the Hasidim will interpret lushn to mean language, to mean how the way that your parents spoke. So you must continue to speak . . . if your mother speaks Yiddish, you must also speak Yiddish and if you change, then you have a problem.12

An additional important factor underlying the maintenance of Yiddish among Hasidim has to do with Hebrew. Among observant Jews generally, Hebrew, which is a Semitic language unrelated to Germanic Yiddish, has unique significance as the sacred language of scripture that has been a constant throughout the entire history of the Jewish people. Some Jewish thinkers have even declared that Hebrew was the original language of humanity: “The language created by God, which He taught Adam and placed on his tongue and in his heart, is without any doubt the most perfect and most fitted to express the things specified.”13 Most Hasidim feel that Hebrew, as the holy tongue, is unsuited for everyday communication, making Yiddish, which is still a uniquely Jewish language, an appropriate vernacular for in-group communication. Yiddish also serves as a marker of the spiritual-cultural boundary between Hasidim and outsiders, both other Jews and non-Jews.

Amish and other traditional Anabaptists do not subscribe to an explicit, scripturally based ideology that justifies the maintenance of Pennsylvania Dutch, however its continued use is viewed as a tangible connection to their spiritual heritage.14 Amish people affectionately refer to Pennsylvania Dutch as their Mudderschprooch (mother tongue), which evokes that it is the language they first learn to speak at home and what their forebears spoke. The similar affection among Hasidim for Yiddish is reflected in their description of it (but not Hebrew) as their mame-loshn, which also means ‘mother tongue’. Like Yiddish, Pennsylvania Dutch performs a boundary-maintaining function for Amish and other Plain people, as it has now become a language that is effectively their own.

The meaning of Mudderschprooch is extended by the Amish to include German; the Pennsylvania Dutch word Deitsch means either ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ or ‘German’. Just as the Hasidim feel that maintaining Hebrew is essential for the practice of their faith, German has a similar status among the Amish, though the Amish do not believe that German is an inherently holy tongue. They know that German was not the original language of the Bible, yet it is at the center of their devotional life. They use Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible and prayer books and hymnals that are in an archaic form of standard German called by linguists “Amish High German” or “Pennsylvania High German.” The Amish do not proscribe the use of German for non-religious purposes, but their everyday communicative needs are met by Pennsylvania Dutch and English. As members of North American society, the Amish recognize that English is essential for their economic survival and it is the main language they read and write. For their part, Hasidim also speak, read, and write the languages of the larger communities in which they live, however their proficiency in Yiddish as a written as well as an oral medium distinguishes them from the Amish, who rarely read or write Pennsylvania Dutch.

The ideology that calls Hasidim to signal their Jewish identity overtly in names, language, and clothing has a clear parallel among the Amish and other Plain Anabaptists. Although Amish people do not have given names that are different from those of their non-Plain neighbors, their speech and dress and grooming set them apart. The reflections of an Old Order Mennonite minister are apt here, linking distinctive verbal behavior and appearance to the cardinal Anabaptist virtue of humility.

In my opinion, though the Deitsch we have is not a written language, it is enough to help keep us together as a people. God confused the languages, and it served a good purpose. Now maybe we should not strive for a unified language. I often think how an old sister counseled, soon after I had joined the church, that “children should also learn a little something about bearing their cross, with their clothing style.” I think also it is thus with the language. It is good for them to endure a little ridicule.15

Both Hasidim and Amish “endure a little ridicule” for how they live out their faith, but their demographic success – their growth rates are exponential due to large average family sizes and low attrition – is remarkable. And as the Hasidic and Amish populations increase, the futures of both Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch look bright.


1. The scholarly and popular literature about Hasidim and Amish is vast. Two book-length treatments of each group to be recommended are Hasidic People: A Place in the New World by Jerome R. Mintz (Harvard University Press, 1992) and The Amish by Donald B. Kraybill, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, and Steven M. Nolt (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

2. To date, there has been one article devoted to comparing Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch, “A Lexical Comparison of Two Sister Languages: Pennsylvania German and Yiddish,” Pennsylvania Folklife 29: 138–142, by John R. Costello (1980). Thanks to Edward E. Quinter, Allentown, PA, for bringing this article to my attention.

3. Map source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_German_languages#/media/File:Continental_West_Germanic_languages.png.

4. As is true of the scholarly and popular literature on the Hasidim, there are scores of publications on Yiddish. One recent title is Yiddish: Biography of a Language by Jeffrey Shandler (Oxford University Press, 2020).

5. For an overview of the history of Pennsylvania Dutch, including its status among Amish and other Plain people, see Pennsylvania Dutch: The Story of an American Language by Mark L. Louden (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016).

6. See the Wikipedia entry for “A language is a dialect with an army and navy”.

7. Source: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Mose%201&version=LUTH1545. The source of the sound clip is accessible here.

8. Source: Torah, Nevi’im, u-Khetuvim by Solomon Blumgarten (Yehoash Farlag Gezelshaft, 1941). Blumgarten’s translation of the Book of Genesis (Breyshis, in Hebrew) is accessible here. The sound clip is excerpted from a video recording of Samuel Kassow, a native speaker of Yiddish and professor of history at Trinity College. The recording was produced by the Yiddish Book Center, based in Amherst, MA, which is a premier organization for the documentation and dissemination of Yiddish language and culture: https://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/. I am grateful to Isaac Bleaman for bringing this video recording to my attention. Note that Kassow pronounces the words es iz ‘it is’ as “shi”, which is a feature of his Northeastern (Lithuanian-Belarusian) Yiddish dialect: es iz > siz > si > shi. He also pronounces oyfn ‘on the’ as “afn”.

9. Source: Di Heilich Shrift, which was produced by a committee of native speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch from Ohio who were of Amish background (Wycliffe Bible Translators, 2013). The complete translation is accessible here. I produced the sound clip of this excerpt myself.

10. I am indebted here again to Isaac Bleaman, who is a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley and a fluent Yiddish speaker (https://www.isaacbleaman.com/). An anonymous Hasidic friend of Isaac’s kindly created this sound clip for this blog post and Isaac produced the transcription.

11. “Outcomes of Minority Language Maintenance: Variation and Change in New York Yiddish” by Isaac L. Bleaman, Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 2018, pp. 55–61.

12. Bleaman 2018, p. 57. This quote is translated from Yiddish.

13. This quote is from The Kuzari, a seminal philosophical text by the Spanish Jewish poet and thinker Judah Halevi (d. 1141), as cited on p. 71 of “Holy Land, Holy Language: A Study of Ultraorthodox Jewish Ideology” by Lewis Glinert and Yosseph Shilhav, Language in Society 20: 59–86 (1991).

14. A thoughtful essay on the ecology of Pennsylvania Dutch, German, and English in Amish society is “What Is a Language?” (Family Life, February 1986, pp. 12–16), which was written by Benuel S. Blank, an Amish man. The essay is accessible here.

15. Amos B. Hoover, German Language: Cradle of Our Heritage, Ephrata, PA: Muddy Creek Farm Library, 2018, pp. 52–54. The original quote was in Pennsylvania Dutch. See also my post on this blog from January 20, 2021, “Humility and the Pennsylvania Dutch Language.”

A Grace Jantzen Bibliography (1977-2020)

Grace Jantzen grew up in a Mennonite church in Waldheim, Saskatchewan (either the Mennonite Brethren church or the General Conference church), but she left the Mennonite church and spent most of her career as a feminist philosopher of religion at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. As I write at the conclusion of my update to the GAMEO entry on philosophy, and as I argue in my dissertation “Ontologies of Violence,” Jantzen is an important but neglected voice in Mennonite-adjacent philosophical and political theology, both because her work is expressly concerned with the problem of violence and because she sympathizes with the Anabaptist peace witness. Strangely, the reception of Jantzen’s work by Mennonites has been very limited, and so in the interests of furthering the reach of her work I provide the bibliography below.

This bibliography builds upon the one included in the edited volume, Grace Jantzen: Redeeming the Present, and also includes a developing list of secondary sources. When I have been able to find them, I have included links to Jantzen’s publications so that interested readers can access them. If readers of Anabaptist Historians are aware of other scholarly works by Mennonites that engage with Jantzen’s work please let me know by email or through the comments section.

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An Anabaptist Anti-Racist Reading List

Rowena Lark teaching Bible school. Lark’s husband, James, was the first African American minister ordained in the Mennonite church (1944). [Caption edited 6/19/2020]

The brutal murder of George Floyd has exposed again the systematic injustices perpetrated by institutions of power against black and brown people in the United States and around the world. We, the board of Anabaptist Historians, are enraged and heartbroken. To stand in solidarity with those protesting police violence and interrelated forms of institutionalized racism, we have put together the following Anabaptist Anti-Racist Reading List. We have been inspired by other anti-racist reading lists recently circulated, and we hope our contribution will be as useful as possible for readers. We have thus compiled specifically Anabaptist ways of saying: Black Lives Matter.

This Anabaptist Anti-Racist Reading List features short and online-accessible articles and essays on the relationships between Anabaptist history and matters of race, racism, and violence. Each thematic section also includes suggestions for further readings, including articles and books that may require purchase. In such cases, we recommend supporting local bookstores, ordering used copies, or you can submit a purchase or interlibrary loan request through your local library. And of course, if you like what you read, be sure to share recommendations with friends and family!

Overview

Anabaptists over the past five hundred years have been deeply entangled with racism and racial violence. From European imperial expansion and the Dutch slave trade to settler colonialism and displacement of native peoples, the origins and development of Anabaptist churches have been shaped and reformed in crucibles of injustice. As individuals and as communities, Anabaptists have struggled with these contexts, often developing sophisticated ways of naming and resisting state violence although more typically deploying such strategies to serve themselves than others.

If the story of Anabaptism is inextricably bound to race and racism, then the process of doing Anabaptist history must be understood as an anti-racist calling. The readings highlighted below share a common mission to bring about a more equal church and a more just future. Historians may take different approaches toward this end. Some uncover troubling examples of racism in the church. Others explore cases when Anabaptists meaningfully spoke truth to power within their own denominational contexts or beyond. All recognize that these stories resonate today.

We acknowledge the profound incompleteness of this anti-racist reading list. The brokenness of our wider society impedes efforts to fully grasp systemic injustice. Working toward restitution will mean changing how we think about the Anabaptist past alongside reformulating our public institutions. We invite readers to submit further reading suggestions in the moderated comments section. We also welcome submissions and pitches for short historical essays and think-pieces. Anabaptist Historians looks forward to publishing a new anti-racism series over the coming year.

Readings by Topic

1) African Americans and Anabaptism

Melody Marie Pannell, “A Radical Love in Harlem: Resolve, Resilience and Restoration (Part 1: 1952-1975),” Anabaptist Historians, November 24, 2017.

Regina Shands Stoltzfus, “Mennonites, Mission and Race: The Cleveland Experiment,” Anabaptist Historians,November 15, 2016.

Further Reading:

  • Regina Shands Stoltzfus, “The Unexpected and Complicated Presence of African American Women in Mennonite Churches” (PhD diss., Chicago Theological Seminary, 2017).
  • Jeffrey Phillip Gingerich, “Sharing the Faith: Racial and Ethnic Identity in an Urban Mennonite Community” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2003).

2) Anabaptists and the Black Freedom Struggle

Tobin Miller Shearer, “Martin and the Mennonites: Lessons From King’s Legacy for Today,” Anabaptist Historians, January 20, 2020.

Tobin Miller Shearer, “State of the Race: A Short History of Mennonite Racial Statements, 1940-1979,” Anabaptist Historians, October 3, 2019.

Further Reading:

  • Tobin Miller Shearer, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2010).
  • Tobin Miller Shearer, Two Weeks Every Summer: Fresh Air Children and the Problem of Race in America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017).

3) Imperialism, Slavery, and Settler Colonialism

Marvin E. Kroeker, “Natives and Settlers: The Mennonite Invasion of Indian Territory,” Mennonite Life 61, no. 2 (2006): online.

Ben Goossen, “Mennonites and Empire,” Anabaptist Historians, September 21, 2018.

Further Reading:

  • James Lehman, Mennonites, Amish, and the American Civil War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).
  • Anthony Siegrist, “‘Part of the Authority Structure’: An Organizational History of Mennonite Indian Residential Schools in Ontario,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 93, no. 1 (2019): 5-38.

4) Anabaptists, Immigration, and Nativism

Felipe Hinojosa, “Place Matters,” Anabaptist Historians, September 22, 2016.

Felipe Hinojosa, “Hazel’s People,” Anabaptist Historians,January 12, 2017.

Further Reading:

5) Gender, Race, and Anabaptist Women

Regina Shands Stoltzfus, “Juanita Lark Building Dedication at Goshen College,” Anabaptist Historians, February 16, 2017.

Regina Shands Stoltzfus, “Telling All of Our Stories as a Movement To Peace,” Anabaptist Historians,August 24, 2017.

Further Reading:

  • Anita Hooley Yoder, “In A Reunion Like This We Can Share,” Anabaptist Historians, August 31, 2017.
  • Kimberly Schmidt, “Moneneheo and Naheverein: Cheyenne and Mennonite Sewing Circles, Convergences and Conflicts, 1890-1970,” Great Plains Quarterly 31, no. 1 (2011): 3-22.

6) Anabaptists and White Supremacy

Ben Goossen, “The Pacifist Roots of an American Nazi,” Boston Review, May 2, 2019.

Tobin Miller Shearer, “On Being a Watch Listed Historian in the Age of Donald Trump,” Anabaptist Historians, December 8, 2016.

Further Reading:

  • Damon Berry, Blood and Faith: Christianity in American White Nationalism (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2017): 74-101.
  • Ben Goossen, “Mennonite Fascism,” Anabaptist Historians, April 27, 2017.

7) Ethnic Shibboleths and Racial Exclusion

Austin McCabe Juhnke, “Rethinking 606, the ‘Mennonite National Anthem,’” Anabaptist Historians, November 28, 2017.

Ben Goossen, “Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege,” Anabaptist Historians, November 3, 2016.

Further Reading:

8) Interracial Alliances and the Problem of Tokenism

Tobin Miller Shearer, “A Prophet Pushed Out: Vincent Harding and the Mennonites,” Mennonite Life 69 (2015): online.

Tobin Miller Shearer, “Mennonites and the Magical African-American Friend,” Anabaptist Historians, April 10, 2019.

Further Reading:

  • Philipp Gollner, “How Mennonites Became White: Religious Activism, Cultural Power, and the City,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90, no. 2 (2016): 165-193.
  • Steve Heinrichs, ed., Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2019).

9) White Mennonites as Allies

Tobin Miller Shearer, “The Deepest Dichotomy: How A Sixty-Five-Year-Old Essay on Racism Helped Me Learn A Lesson From Before I Was Born,” Anabaptist Historians, September 8, 2016.

Tobin Miller Shearer, “Confronting the Confessional Catharsis: David A. Shank and the Legacy of ‘Race Criminals’,” Anabaptist Historians, April 19, 2019.

Further Reading:

10) Anabaptists, Antisemitism, and the Holocaust

Mennonites and the Holocaust Syllabus,”Anabaptist Historians, April 7, 2018.

“Lisa Schirch, “How Mennonites Reckon with our History in the Holocaust,” Anabaptist Historians, March 23, 2018.

Further Reading:

  • Mark Jantzen and John D. Thiesen, eds., European Mennonites and the Holocaust (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020).
  • Benjamin W. Goossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).

11) Anabaptism, Race, and Overseas Missions

Danang Kristiawan, “The Faint Past and Constructed Identity: The Challenges of Historical Awareness in Javanese Mennonite Church,” Anabaptist Historians, May 21, 2020.

Lucille Marr, “Mysticism and Evangelicalism in the Writings of a ‘Spiritual Mother,’” Anabaptist Historians, January 28, 2020.

Further Reading:

12) Building Coalitions

Felipe Hinojosa, “Freedom Dreams: On the Legacy of the Minority Ministries Council,” Anabaptist Historians, April 24, 2017.

Tobin Miller Shearer, “Money, Sex, and Power: The Black Manifesto and the Minority Ministries Council,” Anabaptist Historians,April 13, 2017.

Further Reading:


We hope that these readings offer entry points into deep, long-lasting movements that address racism and violence in Anabaptist communities and beyond. We see scholarship and education as elements of larger struggles against structural injustice that also include organizing, protests, voting, and other strategies for systemic change. We hope that this Anti-Racist Reading List will inspire fresh research into the subjects covered here as well as new areas like Anabaptism and policing. If you are conducting such scholarship, please contact us about featuring your work.

This Anabaptist Anti-Racist Reading List was compiled by the Board of Anabaptist Historians: Ben Goossen, Simone Horst, Ted Maust, and Christina Entz Moss, as well as by Coordinating Editor, Joel Horst Nofziger. Thanks to Rachel Waltner Goossen and Madeline J. Williams for providing comments.

New Research on Early Modern Religious Radicalism: A Report from the 2019 SCSC

From October 17-20, the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference held its annual meeting in St. Louis, Missouri. Over the past several years, the so-called Radical Reformation has been a topic of considerable discussion at SCSC annual meetings, as scholars (chief among them Michael Driedger) have challenged the applicability of term, which suggests a more coherent and unified movement than actually existed in the sixteenth century and hews too closely to the descriptions promulgated by the radicals’ contemporary opponents.1 As such, scholars who write on individuals and groups on the margins of the Reformations have been forced to grapple with the labels they apply to their objects of study. While the terminology used remains in a state of flux, the study of religious radicals, whether Anabaptist, Anabaptist-adjacent, or wholly unconnected to Anabaptism, continues to generate considerable interest, as was evident at this year’s gathering.

The conference took place at the Hyatt Regency in downtown St. Louis, near the Arch and the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.

The Society for Reformation Research sponsored two panels on the subject. The first of these, entitled Mysticism, Dissent, and Rejection of the Ecclesiastical Order, included papers by Roy Vice (Wright State University), Christopher Martinuzzi (DePaul University), Marvin Anderson (University of Toronto), and Archie MacGregor (Marquette University). Vice’s paper, entitled “The Peasants’ War and the Jews,” examined the ways in which peasant revolutionaries—though their principal targets were their ecclesiastical overlords—also targeted Jews, particularly those who worked as moneylenders and pawnbrokers.2 Martinuzzi’s paper, entitled “Why Did Conrad Grebel Write to Thomas Müntzer in 1524?,” argued that Grebel’s letter appealed to a shared identity as a persecuted minority. Both Grebel and Müntzer saw the persecution they experienced as proof of their faithfulness.3 Anderson’s paper, entitled “‘Hidden Under a Bench:’ The Radicals’ Retrieval of the Inner Word à la Eckhartian and Taulerian Mysticism” revisited how Karlstadt and Müntzer appropriated the mystical notion of the Inner Word in contrast to Luther’s Outer Word, in light of Luther’s rhetorical lament about how the pure and Holy Word of God had been shoved and “hidden under a bench,” a charge he directed against the medieval church as well as Karlstadt and the Radicals.4 MacGregor’s paper, entitled “‘Take, Then, the Body of the Lord:’ the Unusual Liturgy and Theology of Thomas Müntzer,” examined Müntzer’s liturgy and argued that it demonstrated a conservative sacramental theology (particularly in its elevation of the Eucharist, which suggests that Müntzer may have retained belief in the Real Presence in some form).5

The second sponsored panel, entitled Constructions of Radicalism in the Long Sixteenth Century, included papers from Jonathan Trayner (University of Reading), Adam Bonikowske (University of Arizona), and Jessica Lowe (Vanderbilt University). Trayner’s paper, entitled “The Sword in the Ragged Sheath: The Motif of the Peasant Radical in Sixteenth-Century Prints,” examined how images of swords in damaged sheaths—emblematic of peasants—were used in early modern prints, in both positive and negative depictions connoting alternately sexuality, conflict, and deference.6 Bonikowske’s paper, entitled “Anabaptist Recanters: Masculine Identity and the Maintenance of Dishonor,” argued that the penalties imposed on Anabaptist men who recanted—such as inability to bear arms or do business, or visible marks of shame like placards or brands—were designed to insult their masculine honour.7 Lowe’s paper, entitled “Münster but not Münster: A Case of Property Dispossession and Anabaptist Contention in the 1550s,” examined a lawsuit brought by Heinrich auf dem Berg, field marshal of Essen and accused Anabaptist (a charge he now denied) against his sister and brother-in-law for appropriating his home during his imprisonment. Heinrich’s case was an unusual example—it was more the children of Anabaptists, rather than the accused Anabaptists themselves, who sued for the return of property.8

In addition to the two sponsored panels, several other panels featured individual papers of interest to scholars and enthusiasts of the phenomena formerly known as the Radical Reformation. At a roundtable entitled Rewriting Reformation Textbooks, Geoffrey Dipple (University of Alberta, Augustana) addressed the challenges of talking about radicalism in the Reformations in light of recent critiques of “The Radical Reformation” as a concept. In a panel on charity and poor relief, David Y. Neufeld (Conrad Grebel University College) gave a paper entitled “‘Under the Guise of Christian Charity:’ Anabaptist Responses to Poverty in Reformed Zurich, 1570-1650,” in which he described the voluntary systems of charity that Zurich’s Anabaptists developed in parallel with the Reformed State (which saw those systems as a threat and worked to dismantle them.9 Patrick Hayden-Roy (Nebraska Wesleyan University) gave a paper entitled “Everything Falls Apart: Sebastian Franck’s Vision of the Apocalypse” as part of a panel on Protestants and Mysticism in Reformation Europe, in which he detailed Franck’s pessimistic view of human history. Franck saw human institutions as irredeemably evil, and the best hope of the faithful lay in quiet submission to this evil order of the world until God finally destroyed it all.10 Finally, in a panel on Trajectories of the European Reformation: Disputation, Biography, and Martyrdom, Jennifer Otto (University of Lethbridge) gave a paper entitled Ethics and Exhortation to Martyrdom, which compared the Church Fathers’ writings on martyrdom and Menno Simons’ writing on martyrdom in The Cross of the Saints. While Church Fathers such as Origen had urged caution, viewing martyrdom as the path of a chosen few, The Cross of the Saints presented the risk of martyrdom as the norm for all true Christians.11

Even as we struggle to find a new name for it, this is an exciting time for our subfield of Reformation history. The lives and beliefs of Anabaptists and others on the fringes of the Reformations in the sixteenth century continue to provide ample opportunities to ask new questions and pursue new avenues of research.


  1. Christina Moss, “Current Research on Early Modern Anabaptist and Spiritualist History: A Report from the 2016 SCSC,” Anabaptist Historians: Bringing the Anabaptist Past Into A Digital Century, published September 15, 2016, https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2016/09/15/current-research-on-early-modern-anabaptist-and-spiritualist-history-a-report-from-the-2016-scsc/; David Y. Neufeld, “New Approaches to the Radical Reformation: Report from the Sixteenth Century Society & Conference 2018,” Anabaptist Historians: Bringing the Anabaptist Past Into A Digital Century, published November 24, 2018, https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2018/11/24/new-approaches-to-the-radical-reformation-report-from-the-sixteenth-century-society-conference-2018/  
  2. Roy Vice, “The Peasants’ War and the Jews” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, St. Louis, Missouri, October 17-20, 2019).  
  3. Christopher Martinuzzi, “Why Did Conrad Grebel Write to Thomas Müntzer in 1524?” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, St. Louis, Missouri, October 17-20, 2019).  
  4. Marvin Anderson, “‘Hidden Under a Bench:’ The Radicals’ Retrieval of the Inner Word à la Eckhartian and Taulerian Mysticism” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, St. Louis, Missouri, October 17-20, 2019).  
  5. Archie MacGregor, “‘Take, Then, the Body of the Lord:’ the Unusual Liturgy and Theology of Thomas Müntzer” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, St. Louis, Missouri, October 17-20, 2019).  
  6. Jonathan Trayner, “The Sword in the Ragged Sheath: The Motif of the Peasant Radical in Sixteenth-Century Prints” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, St. Louis, Missouri, October 17-20, 2019).  
  7. Adam Bonikowske, “Anabaptist Recanters: Masculine Identity and the Maintenance of Dishonor,” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, St. Louis, Missouri, October 17-20, 2019).  
  8. Jessica Lowe, “Münster but not Münster: A Case of Property Dispossession and Anabaptist Contention in the 1550s” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, St. Louis, Missouri, October 17-20, 2019).  
  9. David Y. Neufeld, “‘Under the Guise of Christian Charity:’ Anabaptist Responses to Poverty in Reformed Zurich, 1570-1650” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, St. Louis, Missouri, October 17-20, 2019).  
  10. Patrick Hayden-Roy, “Everything Falls Apart: Sebastian Franck’s Vision of the Apocalypse” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, St. Louis, Missouri, October 17-20, 2019).  
  11. Jennifer Otto, “Ethics and the Exhortation to Martyrdom” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, St. Louis, Missouri, October 17-20, 2019).  

Reflections on Selective Immigration and Questions of Belonging

There is a strange thing about academia, namely, that once a book or article is published, one’s research has often moved to other topics. My research remains related to larger questions involved in my book about Mennonites and Mormons in Mexico, such as the relative power or weakness of the nation-state, and how and why a nation-state might include or exclude various minority groups, but no longer focuses on a group of people related to the topic of Anabaptism. More importantly, for the purposes of this short post, none of my recent research would help me write a post for this blog.

Then, last week, I received an invitation to speak about the work that led me to this blog in the first place, and I am reminded that while Mennonites are not the largest or most important group in Mexico (my area of study) let alone anywhere else, the questions that came up in my research for Liminal Sovereignty, remain relevant. The country where I live (the USA), the country I’m from (Canada), and the country I study (Mexico) are all trying to regulate who gets to come in.

I am particularly struck by the commonalities between my own experience as an immigrant to the United States, and those of early Mennonite immigrants to Mexico. I moved to the US for a job, and my current employer was willing to sponsor me to become a permanent resident. This process – which is inaccessible to millions of undocumented immigrants, and incredibly lengthy for people who immigrate for the purposes of family reunification – was remarkably easy for me. My employer has an office to do most of the work, to coach me for my interview, to make sure every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed. I also am white, middle class, educated and speak English in a way that makes people immediately realize these things about me.

I think again about the Low German Mennonites who migrated to Mexico. They also had “brokers” who dealt with the Mexican government to negotiate their initial immigration and “brokers,” like David Redekop, who could assist them with their dealings with Mexican officials once they arrived. I still wonder, though, how with all the troubles that these people face how they went about creating a new life, how they went about trying to understand the ways that Mexican agrarian reform would affect them, and how, in more recent years, their lives would be changed by drug trafficking.

All this wondering is because I want to understand who these people were, what they were doing, and why. Sometimes, the way the past resonates with our lives today can give us some indications.

Early Modern Anabaptists: Syllabus Draft

This fall I’m teaching HIST 348: The Radical Reformation at Conrad Grebel University College. Given how much I’ve benefited from other instructors’ pedagogical transparency, in this post I’m sharing an early draft of the syllabus. As I describe here, the status of the “Radical Reformation” as a recognizable historical phenomenon and framework for research is a matter of current discussion. I intend to involve students in this debate in class, but have decided to center the course itself on early modern Anabaptists and Anabaptism. The course is twelve weeks long, and students meet twice a week for eighty minutes. The content and structure of the course reflects my intent to help students both master the subject matter and engage in tasks of historical investigation and interpretation. I welcome comments and suggestions. 

Expected Learning Outcomes

At the conclusion of the course, students will be able to:

  • Identify questions that animate the scholarly study of early modern Anabaptism and pose their own
  • Assess the impact of context on the content of primary source evidence
  • Critically evaluate and compare the content of other historians’ written argumentation
  • Synthesize evidence from various sources of information about the past to produce a historical argument
  • Communicate original and persuasive historical interpretations in oral, written, and visual form

Assignments

Class Participation (15%)

Writing Assignments: Historiographical Workshops (20% each)

1. Secondary source scavenger hunt and analysis (1000 words)

Students will select two articles from the assigned essay collections (see course schedule below). They will identify the following elements related to the mechanics of scholarly writing: the author’s field and affiliation; the volume’s intended audience; the essay’s argument; the location and scope of the article’s literature review; and three pieces of primary source evidence. The analytical portion of their essay will address the authors’ approaches to the question of “radicality” in relation to their historical subjects. 

2. Primary source analysis (1000 words)

Students will select a pair of primary sources with a theological focus from distinct regions, time periods, or Anabaptist writers/groups (I will provide a list of source pairings). In their essays, students will (1) contextualize the sources, (2) describe their contents, and (3) formulate a conclusion about Anabaptist theological commonalities and differences, using chapter eight from Snyder (1997) as a framework for comparison.

3. Additional syllabus unit (3 pages)

Students will create an additional unit for the course syllabus, which includes a topic/theme, lecture/activity outlines, and reading(s). The scholarship on which this unit is based will have been published in the last ten years. Students will include a one-page reflection in which they explain their choices. 

Final: Timeline JS Assignment (25%)

Students will select a course topic (theme, theological position, or Anabaptist group or figure) and create a visual representation of 10-12 related historical developments using the open source tool Timeline JS. In addition, they will submit a three-page essay in which they explain the significance of the events they have selected and explore the interpretive implications of their work. The purpose of this summative exercise is to lead students to make an argument about the meaning of continuity and/or change over time in relation to the historical subject they have selected. 

Course Texts

  • C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: Revised Student Edition (1997)
  • Other readings listed in course schedule below

Course Schedule

I. Origins

1. Introduction

  • Sept. 5 – Presentation of course themes

2. Context

  • Sept. 10 – Late Medieval European Religion
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapters 1 and 2
  • Sept. 12 – The Reformation, 1517-1525
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 3, 4, and 5

3. Polygenesis

  • Sept. 17 – Origin Stories: South
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 6 and 7
  • Sept. 19 – Origin Stories: North
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 11

4. Spread and Development

  • Sept. 24 – Persecution, Migration, and Missions
    • Reading: Martin Rothkegel, “Pilgram Marpeck and the Fellows of the Covenant: The Short and Fragmentary History of the Rise and Decline of an Anabaptist Denominational Network,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 85, no. 1 (2011): 7-36
  • Sept. 26 – Conversion
    • Reading: “Hans Fischer Responds to Questioning (1548),” in C. Arnold Snyder (ed.), Later Writings of the Swiss Anabaptists, 1529-1592 (2017), 57-67.

5. Historiographical Workshop #1: A “Radical Reformation”?

  • Oct. 1 – Definitions of Reformation Radicalism
    • Readings: student selections from Bridget Heal and Anorthe Kremers (eds.), Radicalism and Dissent in the World of Protestant Reform (2017) and James M. Stayer and John D. Roth (eds.), A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism (2007)
  • Oct. 3 – Conversation with Invited Guest

II. Anabaptist Religious Cultures

6. Authority and Gender

  • Oct. 8 – Scripture, Prophesy, and Communal Practice and Belief
    • Readings: “Margret Hottinger of Zollikon” and “Ursula Jost and Barbara Rebstock of Strasbourg,” in C. Arnold Snyder and Linda A. Huebert Hecht, Profiles of Anabaptist Women (1996), 43-53 and 273-87
  • Oct. 10 – Courtship and Marriage
    • Lyndal Roper, “Sexual Utopianism in the German Reformation,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 42, no. 3 (1991): 394-418
  • Oct. 22 – Münster

7. Communication

  • Oct. 24 – Orality and the Written Word
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 9 

8. Historiographical Workshop #2: “Anabaptist Theological Divergences and Commonalities”

  • Oct. 29 – A Common Anabaptist Theological Core?
    • Readings: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 8; selected primary source pairings
  • Oct. 31 – Conversation with Invited Guest

9. Anabaptist Minorities in Conflict and Coexistence

  • Nov. 5 – Swiss Brethren
    • Reading: “Strasbourg Discipline,” in Snyder (ed.), Later Writings, 92-99
  • Nov. 7 – Dutch Mennonites
    • Reading: Piet Visser, “Mennonites and Doopsgezinden in the Netherlands, 1535-1700,” in Stayer and Roth, 299-345

10. Identity Formation

  • Nov. 12 – Hymns and Martyr Stories
    • Readings: Ausbund, number 17; Erin Lambert, “Friction in the Archives: Storytelling in Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism,” Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme 41, no. 2 (2018): 113-138
  • Nov. 14 – Transnational Disputes and Convergences
    • Reading: Troy Osborne,  “The Development of a Transnational ‘Mennonite’ Identity among Swiss Brethren and Dutch Doopsgezinden in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 88, no. 2 (2014): 195-218

III. Continuing Anabaptist Traditions

11. Historiographical Workshop #3: “New Directions”

  • Nov. 19 – A Short Historiography of Anabaptism
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, appendix
  • Nov. 21 – New Approaches
    • Readings: Mathilde Monge, “Research Note: Who Is in the ‘Society of Christian Brothers’? Anabaptist Identity in Sixteenth-Century Cologne,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 82, no. 3 (2008): 603-614; Kat Hill, Baptism, Brotherhood, and Belief in Reformation Germany: Anabaptism and Lutheranism, 1525-1585 (2015), chapters 5 and 6

12. Continuing Anabaptist Tradition

  • Nov. 26 – Genealogies: Visit to “Growing Family” Exhibition at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Conrad Grebel University College
  • Nov. 28 – Global Anabaptisms
    • Reading: Felipe Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture (2014), chapter 5