Mennonites and Empire

Every Mennonite in the small town of Goessel, Kansas knows the date 1874. It is emblazoned on the “Turkey Red Wheat Palace,” erected on the centennial of Mennonites’ migration to the Great Plains from Imperial Russia. Having spent the first years of my life in Goessel, I happen to take 1874 as a historical benchmark. When I recently was back in the area to give a talk on religion and race, I did some reading on the Kaw (or Kanza) people, for whom my home state is named. White settlement pushed the Kaws south into Oklahoma, where their Nation is located today. The story of the Kaws’ removal from Kansas seemed a bit darker for having occurred in 1873.1

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“Turkey Red Wheat Palace 1874-1974,” Goessel, Kansas.

There a common belief among the Mennonites with whom I grew up that our faith has a particular affinity with liberal democracy. This idea owes much to a still-influential 1942 essay, The Anabaptist Vision, by the churchman Harold Bender. “There can be no question,” Bender claimed, “but that the great principles of freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, and voluntarism in religion, so basic in American Protestantism and so essential to democracy, ultimately are derived from the Anabaptists of the Reformation period.”2

It would be hard to write a more misleading sentence about Mennonites. In the centuries prior to the Second World War, which was raging when The Anabaptist Vision appeared, the global Mennonite Church was by far a greater beneficiary and product of empire than of democracy. Bender wrote his landmark essay at a time when he and other peace church leaders were seeking to maintain alternative service options for conscientious objectors.3 Aligning Anabaptism with democracy made strategic sense at a time when the United States was at war with fascism.

But part of the context driving The Anabaptist Vision—Bender’s desire to ensure Mennonites’ exemption from military service—was itself a legacy of the Church’s long entanglement with imperial states. Beginning in the late sixteenth century, Mennonite communities found tolerance in European empires, often guaranteed in formal documents known as Privilegia. These enumerated special rights and duties available to Mennonites, including certain financial and judicial freedoms as well as non-participation in armed conflict.

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Mennonites immigrants from Imperial Russia in Goessel, Kansas, 1896. Source: Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas.

In the 1870s, when 18,000 Mennonites emigrated from the Russian Empire to Canada and the United States, they were largely responding to the institution—contrary to their Privilegium—of universal military conscription. While this has been remembered in places like Kansas as the dictate of an autocratic regime, nineteenth-century drafts were often democratizing events, intended to remove social inequalities by consistently mandating national service. Many Mennonites grasped this dynamic. In Germany, some offered to renounce voting rights to keep the old system.

What drew Mennonite migrants from European empires to North America in the 1870s was not an affinity for democracy, but a desire to settle in new, expanding imperial states. Indeed, some settlers explicitly identified democracy as a draw-back of coming to the United States. What they sought was cheap land, relative freedom from legal strictures, and state protection from indigenous Americans. Records show that some migrants fleeing military conscription were willing to use weapons against natives.4 Today, narratives of dangerous Indians still suffuse white Mennonite memory.

Scholars have recently engaged in ambitious efforts to retell Anabaptist history from beyond single nations. These accounts have made impressive use of “global” and “transnational” analysis. Indicative of the former is the wonderful Global Mennonite History Series, which outlines the story of the Church in five volumes: Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America. This series has shed key light on the world-wide reach of Anabaptism. But with the subject divided by continent, readers miss specificity regarding exactly how Mennonites globalized.5

The outstanding new history of Mennonites from a transnational perspective is Roy Loewen’s Village among Nations, about the hundreds of thousands of conservative Low German-speaking Mennonites scattered from Argentina to Canada. Loewen’s book stresses the separatism of these groups, explaining how they live in states “without pursuing either social or cultural citizenship in them.” For Loewen, “They were thus not Mexican Mennonites or Paraguayan Mennonites as much as Mexico Mennonites and Paraguay Mennonites, a subtle, but significant, difference.”6

But here, too, a transnational approach can elide exactly how these Mennonites have moved through the world—or what citizenship they did hold. The answer in many cases: British. This may seem surprising unless one considers Anabaptist history from an imperial standpoint. It was to the British Empire that most “Swiss” Mennonites moved when they came to colonial America. The founding of the United States led some to relocate to British Canada as “liberty’s exiles.”7 And across the twentieth century, British bureaucrats kept tabs on their Majesties’ Mennonite subjects.8

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Part of a letter to Australia from G.D. Klassen of Mexico, 1927. Source: National Archives of Australia, Canberra.

Why did migrants arrive at certain destinations? The archives of empire are revealing. In 1916, Mennonites in Imperial Russia, unhappy with restrictions imposed during the First World War, considered moving to the British dominion of South Africa. Holding affinity for the Afrikaans-speaking Boer settlers, some Mennonites described themselves as “Russian Boers.”9 Although South African officials ruled that “no obstacle will be placed in the way of these people,” war hindered migration.10 When it finally commenced in 1923, settlers went to the British dominion of Canada.

Australia, another dominion, was less accepting. Mennonites in North America approached Australia in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1960s, often responding to calls for white settlers. In 1927, G.D. Klassen of Mexico wrote to Australian officials after reading a propaganda pamphlet entitled “Australia: The Land of the Better Chance.” He inquired about the quality of available land, and whether Mennonites would be given military exemption and educational freedom. Klassen also wanted to know “if there are many niggers living in your Country.”11 Australian officials, however, consistently opposed group settlement.

Empire mattered. It seized land for settlement. It provided a global set of destinations. It enabled communication and transportation. It said yes, sometimes no. And it persisted. In the late 1950s, British Honduras (later renamed Belize) offered Mennonites a Privilegium and moved 1,700 individuals from Mexico.12 Empire also changed the ethnic and cultural composition of the Church. The first Mennonite mission fields were all located in colonies or territories opened by imperialism: the Dutch East Indies, Indian reservations in the American West, British India, China, and the Belgian Congo.13

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Mennonite missionaries—including my great-great-great uncle Peter Penner (center)—at a leper station in British India, ca. 1903. Source: Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas.

From the Reformation to today, Anabaptist history is inconceivable without robust consideration of empires and imperialism. Even those of us, like Harold Bender, who prefer to think of the Church as a bastion of democratic principles must come to terms with the deep imbrication of Anabaptism and imperialism. You, too, are shaped by empire. This may take on innumerable different forms—whether as someone who inhabits stolen land, or as someone whose own land was taken, or perhaps both. Acknowledging and reckoning with these histories is a task for us all.

Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University and the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.


  1. On the history of the Kaw Nation until 1873, see William Unrau, The Kansa Indians: A History of the Wind People, 1673-1873 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971). A brief history of Mennonite-Indian relations is available here
  2. On Bender and the Anabaptist Vision, see Albert N. Keim, Harold S. Bender, 1897-1962 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1998), 306-331. 
  3. On Mennonites’ navigation of the tensions between Christian pacifism and US nationalism in the mid-twentieth century, see Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998). 
  4. For example, John Gering, After Fifty Years: A Brief Discussion of the History and Activities of the Swiss-German Mennonites from Russia who Settled in South Dakota in 1874 (Freeman, SD: Pine Hill Printery), 1924, 42-43. 
  5. Consider the critique of “globalization” as a historical analytic in Frederick Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 91-112. For a full-length study of world history through an imperial lens, see Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010). 
  6. Royden Loewen, Village among Nations: “Canadian” Mennonites in a Transnational World, 1916-2006 (Buffalo, NY: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 5. 
  7. This was part of a much larger exodus of British loyalists in the wake of the American Revolution. See Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York: Vintage Books, 2011). 
  8. For example, see correspondence regarding Mennonites of British citizenship in Mexico during the 1930s: FO 723/271, The National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom, hereafter TNA. 
  9. See James Urry, “Russian Mennonites and the Boers of South Africa: A Forgotten Connection,” Mennonite Historian 20, no. 3 (1994): 1-2, 9. 
  10. Acting Under Secretary for the Interior to Principle Immigration Officer, June 2, 1916, BNS 1/2/19 A629, National Archives and Records Service of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa. 
  11. G.D. Klassen to Development and Migration Commission, August 26, 1927, CP211/2 53/61, National Archives of Australia, Canberra, Australia. For an earlier discussion of possible Mennonite migration to Australia, see James Urry, “Bishop Bugnion, the Mennonites and Australia: The Immigration-That-Never-Was, 1873-1880,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 32 (2014): 175-209. 
  12. “Note on Mennonite Communities in British Honduras,” July 30, 1959, CO 1031/2769, TNA. 
  13. Here, too, colonial-era archives provide insight into the mechanics of missionary expansion. For example: “Grant of land to Revd. J.A. Ressler of the American Mennonite Mission at Dhamtari in the Raipur District, Central Provinces,” 1902, Revenue & Agriculture, Land Revenue, 39-40, National Archives of India, New Delhi, India. 

The (Radical) Reformer’s Wife: Katharina Purst Hutter

In the study of women and the Protestant Reformation, the reformers’ wives loom large. For those magisterial reformers who had begun their careers as Roman Catholic priests or monks, the choice to marry was a deliberate rejection of Catholic dogma, and the women who married former priests and monks likewise made a choice that publicly confirmed their break with Rome. Of the women profiled in the Germany section of Roland Bainton’s 1971 Women of the Reformation in Germany and Italy, fully half were reformers’ wives, and many of these women, particularly Katharina von Bora and Katharina Schütz Zell, have also been the subject of full-length biographical treatments.1

In early Anabaptism, pastors’ wives were less prominent. While Anabaptists likewise rejected clerical celibacy and some of the most prominent sixteenth-century Anabaptists—among them Michael Sattler and Menno Simons—were former monks and priests, the pressures of persecution often relegated marriage and family life to secondary theological concerns. Of the women whose stories were included in the 1996 volume Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers, edited by C. Arnold Snyder and Linda Huebert Hecht, only a few were married to Anabaptist leaders (most notably Katharina Purst Hutter, Anna Scharnschlager, and Divara of Haarlem), and many were not married to Anabaptists at all.

The story of Katharina Purst Hutter (the wife of Jacob Hutter, founder of the communitarian Hutterite Anabaptists), however, offers an interesting comparison with that of more prominent magisterial reformers’ wives such as Katharina von Bora or Katharina Schütz Zell. Like her fellow Katharinas, she developed a strong faith of her own, even as the man who became her husband was instrumental in her conversion story. As Katharina Schütz had first been stirred by the preaching of Mathis Zell and Katharina von Bora by the writings of Martin Luther, so Katharina Purst first learned of the Anabaptist faith while working in South Tyrol in the household of Paul and Justina Gall, who hosted Jakob Hutter and other Anabaptist leaders.2 Katharina made a confession of faith and Hutter baptized her.3

Persecution, however, was a far more present reality for Katharina Purst Hutter than for her magisterial counterparts. While the Luthers and the Zells undoubtedly faced opposition, they also enjoyed the protection of Frederick the Wise and the Strasbourg city council respectively. Jakob and Katharina’s situation was not so secure. In 1533, authorities in the Tyrol arrested the Galls and all the members of their household, including Katharina. The Galls and Katharina recanted in exchange for release, only to flee to Moravia in hopes of finding a place to practice their faith more freely. Paul was captured and executed, but Justina and Katharina arrived safely in Moravia where they joined Hutter and his followers.4

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A plaque at the Goldenes Dachl in Innsbruck, Austria, commemorating the execution of Jakob Hutter. Source: Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gedenktafel_Jakob_Hutter.jpg)

Katharina married Jakob Hutter two years later, in the spring of 1535, and the couple soon left Moravia and returned to the Tyrol, where they traveled from town to town visiting Anabaptists and making converts. Jakob, however, was too notorious to evade the authorities indefinitely and, in late November of 1535, he and Katharina were arrested in Klausen, at the house of a family named Stainer.5 After months of torture and interrogation, Jakob was burned at the stake in February 1536, but the authorities elected to keep Katharina alive despite the fact that she had not kept the terms of her previous release and had returned to Anabaptism after her recantation. The authorities sent for priests to convince her to return to the Catholic faith, but this time she refused to make even a pretense of recantation.6 In a statement made shortly after her arrest, Katharina explicitly rejected the mass, the Eucharist, the church building, and infant baptism as useless, abominations before God, and from the devil.7 Katharina escaped from prison in 1536 and evaded the authorities for two years, but, in 1538, she was arrested in the village of Schöneck and executed.8 Unlike her husband, no memorial plaque marks the site of her execution, but Katharina, like so many other sixteenth-century Anabaptist women, proved that she took her faith seriously enough to risk everything for it, without thought of recognition from anyone but God Himself.


  1. See, inter alia, Elsie Anne McKee, Katharina Schütz Zell: The Life and Thought of a Sixteenth-Century Reformer (Leiden: Brill, 1998); Ingelore Winter, Katharina von Bora: Ein Leben mit Martin Luther (Düsseldorf: Droste, 1990). On pastors’ wives in the Reformation more generally see Marjorie Elizabeth Plummer, From Priest’s Whore to Pastor’s Wife: Clerical Marriage and the Process of Reform in the Early German Reformation (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2013). 
  2. Elfriede Lichdi, “Katharina Purst Hutter of Sterzing,” in Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press), 179. 
  3. Katharina Hutter, “Testimony of Katharina Hutter, Given before December 3, 1535, at Klausen (1535)” in Sources of South German/Austrian Anabaptism, edited by C. Arnold Snyder (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2001), 194; Grete Mecenseffy (Ed.), Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer, Österreich III Teil (Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1983), 300. 
  4.   Lichdi, 179. 
  5.   Mecenseffy, 302. 
  6.   Mecenseffy, 323. 
  7.   Hutter, 195; Mecenseffy, 301. 
  8.   Werner Packull, Hutterite Beginnings: Communitarian Experiments during the Reformation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 256. 

Writing History in the First-Person

Nearly a decade ago, in one of Steve Nolt’s classes at Goshen College, I read Hasia Diner’s essay “Insights and Blind Spots: Writing History from Inside and Outside.”1 In just a few pages, Diner succinctly sums up the historian’s complicated relationship with the concept of objectivity and then makes a coherent argument for the relative strengths and weaknesses of approaching a historical project as, first, an insider, and, then, as an outsider.

The piece might be a graduate student’s first-semester essay on the question of objectivity and bias, except for one thing: Diner uses the first-person voice throughout. She illustrates her points with her experiences writing about Jewish history, a subject to which she is an insider, and Irish history, which she has written about an outsider.

It is an instructive essay for the history student, in that it renders the challenge of a scholar’s position to their subject not only in a digestible fashion but in a detailed, compelling, and memorable one. Diner’s name and the title of her essay had long faded from my memory, yet the effect of her words remained and I periodically remembered the general outlines of the piece.

I thought of the essay in the last few weeks and went looking for it. Due to the sadly limited quantity of essay collections about and by Mennonite women with a historical lens (and the relative rarity of overlap between Jewish and Mennonite scholarship), I was able to find it. Diner’s essay came to mind because I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the first-person in preparation for a course I’m teaching: “First Person America.

This class, a general education requirement listed under American Studies in the Temple University course catalog, has been taught in a variety of ways. Typically it involves readings ranging from diaries and recollections of American colonists to late twentieth-century coming-of-age stories. I decided to think about the first-person more broadly and I am assigning texts ranging from visual art to music videos to podcasts. Ultimately I see the course as a primer on critical thinking, historical consciousness, and identity.

In my class, my students and I are exploring the lived experiences of people and how they claim identities based on their place in the world, or in spite of it. We are finding common ground with people whose lives are very different from ours. Perhaps more importantly, we’re trying to understand the limits of our own experiences, the places where our fellow humans face challenges and find motivations that we don’t know. We are looking for the structures which are often invisible to us and oppressive to others, but also learning how responses to those structures vary from person to person. I hope to give my students a window into other people’s realities and a skill set that will help them examine their own existence.

I am choosing to assign a variety of media rather than “breaking”2 historical monographs in part because it will allow us to fit in more people’s views and in part because while first-person writing does find its way into historical monographs, it is typically resigned to the introduction and (occasionally) the conclusion, like a frame narrative. The transition from the introduction, in which the author is present, to the main text, where they are not, is a bit like Sean Connery’s first scene in The Hunt for Red October, where he and his interlocutor switch from Russian to English in the midst of a Bible passage and the audience spends the rest of the movie suspending their disbelief on that particular point. Readers of a history book know that the author’s voice is in there somewhere but it is discreetly hiding. While not every history needs to be a memoir, an author has already inserted themselves into the story by conducting research. Why not acknowledge it?

The historical monograph, as we know it today, came from an era when history was a young profession and its practitioners believed they were working toward a common, universal, truth. They might have understood the folly of this endeavor sooner had they not had so much in common with each other: they were predominantly white men educated in the finest schools in the nation. The identity of any given historical writer could, for decades, be assumed to be something of a cookie-cutter academic. These historians were divided by politics, perhaps, but sought to build their arguments with the illusion of dispassionate facts.

The occlusion of the authorial voice is not only a pitfall of the academy. Public history spaces such as museums have long bolstered their authority in the eyes of visitors by adopting a third-person omniscient perspective to signage and interpretation. The artifacts or images are presented as though they are part of some organic collection, discovered en masse by the visitors, rather than a curated set of available artifacts.

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In historical work as in art, sometimes it is useful to see the artist’s hand. Painting by Dennis Maust.

Our scholarship is much better when we acknowledge our own position in society, our own foibles and petty preferences, and our own deepest-held beliefs, not only in the introduction but throughout our arguments. In museum contexts, labels should come with an author photo and curators should give regular talks about why and how they do their work. I advocate these practices not simply to make history consumers better informed, but in the hopes that historians continue rigorous self-exploration and understand something of the field they work in.

For those of us working from personal histories in the Anabaptist tradition, Diner’s arguments about the relative merits of the insider/outsider dichotomy should linger in our minds. Whether we are tackling subjects of church history or the broader world, we need to acknowledge the tradition from which we come. When I claim Anabaptist roots, I must wrestle with the tendency toward exceptionalism that I absorbed throughout my childhood and adolescence, from my church, my teachers, and my peers. I find this more difficult to reckon with than the history of racial inequality in the denomination as well as the ongoing denial of queer humanity. The more deeply-embedded the assumption, the harder it is to confront in one’s work.

In class tomorrow, I will lead my class in analyzing texts and discussing our own identities. I hope our discussions equip them to recognize their role as historical actors and the forces that have shaped their view of the world. We will talk about ourselves and learn about ourselves, and that is a good thing.


  1. “Insights and Blind Spots: Writing History from Inside and Outside.” in Strangers at Home: Amish and Mennonite Women in History,  ed. Kimberly D. Schmidt, Diane Zimmerman Umble, and Steven D. Reschly (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002): 21-38. 
  2. If you have not heard the term “book breaking,” here is a good summary of the practice: Douglas Hunter, “Book Breaking and Book Mending,” Slate, 15 July 2018: https://slate.com/human-interest/2018/07/academic-publishing-and-book-breaking-why-scholars-write-books-that-arent-meant-to-be-read.html 

Change Without a Bang

As a child, one of the things that fascinated me about Mennonites of the past was dress, particularly the head covering. What would it have been like to be marked, physically, by your religion? To have people look at you and know you were a Mennonite? Head coverings and plain attire were mostly past when I was growing up—the province of grandmothers and old photographs. And so I could romanticize dress regulations a bit—toy with the idea that perhaps there was something desirable in the certainty and identity that rules on dress created. But, as my mother has pointed out, that shows how little acquainted I am with the tedium of listening to long sermons on skirt length.

Dress, any historian of Mennonites will tell you, was a potent symbol of many things: patriarchy, nonconformity, agency, resistance. Given all this weight, I was eager to ask several Mennonite women about when and how expectations about dress shifted in their lives. As I worked with them on oral histories, I was surprised to find that the women I spoke with did not have firm memories about how change had happened.

The women I interviewed were born between 1924 and 1942. They all grew up with the expectation of at least a head covering. Some wore cape dresses, even if only to church or school, while others were only expected to dress modestly in a regular skirt and blouse. Expectations varied depending on family and congregation. But the women shared two things: a vague sense of when and how rules changed and an emphasis on rules as something they followed to get along, not something that they approached with deep personal conviction.

In a group interview with several women from the Denbigh, Virginia, community, several agreed that they couldn’t remember exactly when standards on dress had changed. “I just can’t remember being much bothered by [discussion on dress],” one woman stated.1 Another woman recalled that it seemed like there was a time (around the 1960s) when “it was almost like every woman did was right in her own eyes,” about dress. She took cues from other women in her congregation, particularly women who were respected, and did not necessarily look to church leadership for guidance as things changed.2

These women were not overtly rebelling against dress rules but were happy to find spaces where they could get around rules without notice. One woman recalled that as a nurse in the 1950s she could avoid a cape dress in daily life because she needed to wear a uniform. She also remembered that she quit wearing black stockings “as soon as I could get out of it,” emphasizing how unattractive they looked. Sometime in the 1970s she stopped wearing a covering. Someone at work had asked her why Mennonites wore coverings. She realized she had no good answer and took that as an indication that it was time to change. She continued to wear a small lace covering to church “out of respect” for others.3

Another woman made similar comments about a desire to get along with the church. She stopped wearing a covering (outside of church) her senior year of high school, in the early 1950s. She “didn’t want to disappoint” leaders but also didn’t feel the covering made sense.4 Another remembered relief in leaving Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, for Goshen College and an atmosphere that was less focused on dress.5 Men also lacked attachment to the rules. One woman recalled that once her husband was ordained as a minister in Virginia Conference in the late 1950s he began wearing a plain coat, but “not because of personal conviction.”6 Overall, the women looked back on ideas about dress with some amusement. They emphasized critiques they had held—quietly—in the past and agreed change was a good thing.

A few of the women that I interviewed did indicate some personal conviction about dress. One called the head covering a “symbol of my relationship” [with her husband]. She explained she did not stop wearing it until she checked with her husband, who told her it should be up to her what she wore.7 Another told the story of the last cape dress she made. She had trouble getting it to fit right and prayed for the Lord to help her: “if he wanted me to wear a cape he’d help me. And I had more trouble with that cape than any.”8 She took it as a sign that cape dresses were not an essential part of Christian life. But, even these women described an overall change process that was subtle and without moral distress. I was left with the impression that dress regulations faded away—and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

So what interpretations can a historian draw? Of course, there are some caveats. Firstly, my sample was quite small (about 15 women) and I did not attempt to find women from the same communities or same age cohorts (they ranged from birth years 1924 to 1942 and came from home communities in Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and Ohio; all grew up in old Mennonite—MC—congregations). Secondly, none of the women came from the generation that did the most to push outright against rules on dress—although those born in the early 1940s came closer to that age cohort, and had more tales to tell about the tricky ways they got around rules. Moreover, most of the women remained Mennonite their entire lives; I might have found different stories if I had interviewed women who left the Mennonite church. Another point is that my sample skewed toward the college educated; several of the women had professional careers. Finally, oral histories often tell us as much about the present as the past. Regulating religious dress seems far away. It maybe that, feeling no attachment to head coverings now, it is difficult to remember a time when perhaps one did find meaning in them.

My working theory, however, is that there were a lot of people in the Mennonite church donning plain coats and head coverings not out of conviction but out of a desire to remain in fellowship. My evidence speaks most to the period of the 1950s-1970s— although given some of the comments women made about their mothers’ attitudes toward dress, I have cause to suspect there was never full consensus on the matter. Change sometimes comes with a bang. And sometimes it comes quietly. I doubt there is anything particularly Mennonite about a pattern where a few people openly push for change while many more change slowly, perhaps all the while seeming to be not changing at all. I leave it to the sociologists to say for sure, but I suspect this is a common social pattern.

But change without a bang does raise some questions relevant for the Mennonite church today. In our current conflicts over embracing and including LGBTQ persons in church life it is tempting to think only those who are the most vocal seek change. But is it possible that we have pews of people quietly wondering why sex is such a big deal for church membership? Who may not be asking for change but would be okay if it came? Could we apply the concept of a silent, questioning majority to other conflicts in church history: women in leadership or divorce and remarriage? The value is not in finding perfect historical parallels—often a futile task, anyway—but in being attentive to the range of ways change develops.

The silent majority trope should be used with some caution, given its history. Richard Nixon used it to galvanize support as he argued against cultural and political change in the 1960s, but naming a silent majority of supporters obscured as much as it illuminated. For one, if a group is “silent,” it is conveniently easy for politicians to speak for it, in ways that may or may not accord with reality.9 There are philosophical issues with silent majorities as well: are they necessarily noble or wise? Does elevating them ignore the importance of prophetic minorities? But, despite the complexity, the concept of a silent majority can be useful in thinking about how change happens, particularly if we remember this: silent majorities are not static. They are made up of real people who change and respond to change over time. Just because people don’t protest something does not mean that they like it. Most Mennonite women in the 1950s didn’t openly push the boundaries on dress, but it would be a mistake to read that as true belief in the rules.

Silent majorities can be real or invented. They can resist change or form a backlash. But they can also be a key part of how change unfolds. They can embrace change. As one group of women I interviewed put it, “we were the good kids.”10 Would anyone have guessed, in the 1950s, how many good girls wearing coverings were ready to take them off?


  1. Group interview with women who have roots in the Denbigh Colony (Newport News, VA), oral history interview by Holly Scott, February 12, 2014, archived in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University Historical Library and Archives, Harrisonburg, VA. All interviews cited in this post can be found in this collection. 
  2.  Janet Yoder, oral history interview by Holly Scott, December 5, 2013. 
  3. Mary Reitz, oral history interview by Holly Scott, January 29, 2014. 
  4. Ruth Stauffer, oral history interview by Holly Scott, December 2, 2013. 
  5. Vera Kauffman, oral history interview by Holly Scott, February 5, 2014. 
  6. Ruth Heatwole, oral history interview by Holly Scott, January 29, 2014. 
  7. Ruth Heatwole, oral history interview by Holly Scott, January 29, 2014. 
  8. Janet Yoder, oral history interview by Holly Scott, December 5, 2014. 
  9.  At the time Nixon made his silent majority speech a majority of Americans thought the Vietnam War was a mistake, even if they didn’t endorse the antiwar movement. Some historians argue that Nixon didn’t so much describe a silent majority as he did create it. On broad antiwar sentiment, see Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), 293-294. On Nixon directing, not describing, the silent majority and the use of silence to speak for others, see Penny Lewis, Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks: the Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 159-163. 
  10. Eastern Mennonite High School class of 1959, oral history interview by Holly Scott, March 14, 2014. 

An Accusation, an Apology, and a Dismissal: Mennonite Patriarchal Authority in the Archives

Jason B. Kauffman

Nelson and Christmas Carol Kauffman

Nelson E. and Christmas Carol Kauffman (Mennonite Church USA Archives)

In March 1960, Nelson Kauffman (1904-1981) received a letter from a young woman he met twelve years earlier during a revival meeting in Harrisonburg, Virginia. A well-known figure in the old Mennonite Church, at the time of their meeting Kauffman was a missionary pastor and bishop in Hannibal, Missouri. By 1960, he had relocated to Elkhart, Indiana, where he served as the Mennonite Board of Missions Secretary for Home Missions (1955-1970) and President of the Mennonite Board of Education (1950-1970). Kauffman thus occupied a position of considerable power and authority within the institutional Mennonite Church.

The woman who wrote the letter (unnamed to protect her privacy) did not occupy a position of power or authority in the Mennonite Church, a disparity of which she was acutely aware. The subject of the letter was a private meeting she attended with her mother, Kauffman, and a group of local Mennonite ministers. At the meeting, Kauffman took the young girl to task for writing false letters, “pretending they were from a minister that was interested in [her].” Rather than attempt to summarize this detailed letter, I include the full text below.1 Its contents and Kauffman’s response provide a window into the dynamics of patriarchal authority in the Mennonite Church at mid-twentieth century and parallels the many ways in which patriarchy continues to impact the Mennonite church today.

March 18, 1960

Dear Sir:

I am writing a L.O.N.G overdue letter to you, Mr. Kauffman.

You may or may not remember the “Revival?” Meeting [sic] you held at Weaver [sic] Mennonite Church near Harrisonburg, Va., some years ago. I think perhaps it may have been around 1948-1949 in Nov [sic]. If you have forgotten it I have far from forgotten. I am the “little girl” that caused so much trouble. The one that wrote those letters to Mrs. [redacted] pretending they were from a minister that was interested in me.

The purpose of this letter is not to justify my act of deceit. I feel that my side of the case was not heard at that meeting in that living room at my mother’s home that cold, winter day. You may never have experienced the feeling I did that day so many years ago – but it is an awful one. I had the feeling that I was the dirtiest thing walking or crawling. I was alone – not one person in that room was really interested in me! They were more interested in the “crime” I had committed. No one concerned themselves with why I did such a thing. I was a teenager at the time. I was so confused. There was no love in my home, and oh how I craved love. Is it a sin to desire your mother to kiss you or put her arm around you? To talk things over with you?

I don’t know when it was that this whole affair started. I think, perhaps, it was when I went along with my parents to visit the [redacted] one Sunday. I saw how she treated her daughters and I wanted it to be that way in our home. I did all sorts of things for attention at home. I got “attention” alright, but not the kind I had hoped for. I ran away from home several times. I wanted mom to miss me and to be glad when I was found – but it didn’t seem to work out like I had hoped it would. After all efforts at home failed I started looking elsewhere. I don’t really know when or how I figured up such a fantastic scheme as the letters but the answers to them certainly did thrill me.

It helped more than anyone that has not experienced love of any sort for so many years can ever know, what it means to suddenly see in black and white that someone is worried about you. It seemed that I had at last become someone! I was important to someone! That, in a very small part, is what I feel brought the letters about.

Now we come to the second act. The place where you appear on the “stage.” You sat there in my mother’s living room and told me how awful I was. You said: “You imagined that men wanted to put their arms around you. You dreamed of having affairs with older men.” You made me feel pretty dirty. Let me repeat again: What I did as far as the letters and the lies are concerned was very, very wrong. I’ll not waste ink and paper in defending a sin, but Mr. Kauffman, my feelings as far as wanting to be loved by men or women, especially men at the age of sixteen is the most natural feeling or desire on the top-side of God’s green earth! (If Mennonites are humans they feel the same way!)

Those words of yours that day burned their way so deeply into my very being that I can still hear them tonight. When I went out on dates after you spoke those words, it seemed I was cheap and dirty. I won’t begin to tell you the misery it has caused me. I stepped on this natural desire ever since that day you called it sin until it began to affect my very womanly nature. My desire turned from men to desire women in the way I should desire men.

I kept fighting it. I kept telling myself it was not wrong to desire the attention of a man. For the past few years I’ve lived in a hell of some sort as far as my emotions are concerned. Thanks to the help of a real friend, I’m on my way back to the natural ways, however I think it’s only fair that I should have my say. Yes, I’ll freely admit I sinned in lying, etc. But your wife also lied in those books she wrote that raised such a stir in Mennonite circles a few years ago. I suppose that was quite alright, seeing that she is your wife.2

I’ve suffered much at the hands of Mennonites. I have long since severed any connections with them. They have caused much damage to my emotional life as a well-known doctor here in [redacted] can testify. In fact your wife could have quite a lot of material for one of her famous books from the experiences in my life brought about as a direct result of yours and other Mennonite ministers’ blunders. If my name was Heatwole or Shenk or Showalter or some other Mennonite name I would have been treated differently but I was only a nobody by the name of [redacted].

It is pointless for me to continue this letter as you have stopped reading it long ago. I’ve never met a Mennonite yet that could take a fact and look it in the eye as far as they were concerned.

Of all those ministers in the room that day that had set themselves up to be judge and jury over the natural desires of a 16 year old girl, Reverend [redacted] is the only one that had enough of the grace of God in his heart to step out and shake the hand of a “fallen woman” like myself. I’ll always remember him for that. I’ll bet it took a lot of GUTS.
Yours truly,

[Redacted]

P.S. I have long ago forgiven my mother for her failures as I am sure she did not mean it or realize what was happening to me. I love her.

Kauffman sent a response to the letter on April 1, 1960. In it he asked for the young woman’s forgiveness and apologized for his “failures at that time.” He thanked the woman for explaining her home situation further and acknowledged that his response in the moment was inappropriate:

I am sure that if I was to counsel someone like that again I would do differently than I did at that time. I feel that persons with problems like you had need professional help and often we ministers endeavor to help persons as best we can without professional knowledge of the kind that is available today through doctors, and so we often do less than the best.

I want to confess that often we Mennonite ministers are not as aware of the problems people face as we should be, because cases such as yours do not come to us frequently enough, and so we do not learn fast enough from experience. . . .

. . . I hope you will believe me when I say that I am very sorry for my failures to be understanding at that time, and to be of help to you. I hope you will believe me when I say I sincerely wanted to help, but can see now that undoubtedly I was not using the best method in trying to help you see your own problem.

He went on to address the woman’s accusation of Mennonite superiority and ended by expressing his hope that the young woman could find a “Christian fellowship” to provide support in her ongoing faith journey.3

Several weeks later, Kauffman received a short letter from a Virginia Mennonite minister whom he had copied on his correspondence with the young woman. In contrast to Kauffman’s admission of his mistake and his request for forgiveness, the minister dismissed the young woman’s letter as irrational and questioned her mental state, writing “I am sorry for the attitude she takes but one must just overlook that because she is mentally sick.” He ended the letter by again downplaying the seriousness of the young woman’s accusations:

Don’t take her charges too seriously. I felt at the time that you did a good job in dealing with her the way you did. It may be there would have been a better way, but we all did the best we knew. Let us continue to pray for [redacted] that she may come to herself and come to a real knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.4

Clearly, there is much going on in this brief exchange of correspondence between a young Mennonite woman and two male Mennonite leaders. The young woman’s letter names the power that Mennonite ministers held to shape personal understandings of right and wrong, sin, and sexuality. Rather than offer care and concern for the young woman as a person, Kauffman used the tool of guilt to shame her for her alleged sins. The letter also draws attention to the insider-outsider dynamics that privileged members with “Mennonite names” over others.

To his credit, Kauffman offers what appears to be a sincere apology for his role in the meeting, but his letter does not provide a satisfying rationale for the practice of male Mennonite ministers acting as “judge and jury over the natural desires of a 16 year old girl.” The Virginia Mennonite minister’s dismissal of the young woman’s accusation likely mirrored those of many of his male contemporaries across the church (“…we all did the best we knew”). Institutionalized patriarchy was so normalized in their minds that neither questioned the established pattern of male leaders admonishing sinful congregants in their homes.

The letters also highlight how leaders commonly dealt with issues when they arose in the life of the church. Much of the discussions and decision-making happened between male leaders behind closed doors. In such matters there was little transparency between ministers and their congregations or the broader community. A report this week from a Pennsylvania grand jury detailing decades of systematic abuse and cover up in the Catholic Church highlights the very real dangers of not having systems in place within church institutions to hold leaders accountable for their actions. While it may not rise to the same systematic level as it has in the Catholic Church, the Mennonite community continues to grapple with its own histories of sexual abuse and cover up.

While these three letters do not deal with accusations of sexual abuse, they do offer a fascinating window into the dynamics (and material for a gendered analysis) of patriarchal authority in the Mennonite Church. At the same time, however, they do not provide a complete picture of historical events as they occurred and as those involved perceived them. A more complete picture – extending beyond this specific event – would require sustained research in archival and published sources produced by Mennonite men and women as they created and acted within Mennonite institutional structures over time.

It is obvious that patriarchal authority existed and continues to exist in the North American Mennonite community. The task of the historian is to historicize patriarchy, piecing together the specific ways in which it manifested in the life of the church and how and why it changed over time. Otherwise we risk reifying patriarchy as an ahistorical power structure that has operated in the same ways across time and space. Such historical work could complement the work that individuals, congregations, and organizations are already doing to raise awareness about the sobering toll that patriarchal authority, intersectional oppression, spiritual abuse, and sexual violence have had on the personal and sexual identities of individuals connected to the Mennonite church.


  1. Letter from [redacted] to Nelson Kauffman, 3-18-1960, Box 3, Folder 73. Nelson E. Kauffman Papers, 1911-1981. HM1-324. Mennonite Church USA Archives. Elkhart, Indiana. Conditions of access to this folder require that researchers agree not to publish personally identifiable information. Aside from Nelson Kauffman and his wife Christmas Carol Kauffman, I have removed the names of all people identified in the original letter. 
  2. This is a reference to Nelson Kauffman’s wife, Christmas Carol Kauffman, who published several semi-biographical novels on Mennonite themes between the 1940s and the 1960s. 
  3. Letter from Nelson Kauffman to [redacted], 4-1-1960, Box 3, Folder 73. Kauffman Papers, HM1-324. On Mennonite superiority, Kauffman wrote “As far as feeling ourselves above you, we have plenty of failures in our own church that no one of us should feel that we are better than any other persons we meet.” 
  4. Letter from [redacted] to Nelson Kauffman, 4-18-1960, Box 3, Folder 73. Kauffman Papers, HM1-324. 

A Song for Brother Julius, Revisited: On Growing Up On the Community Farm of the Brethren

My father turned 60 this past year, and my husband and I were tasked with sorting through pictures of his life to create a slideshow for his surprise party. As I sorted through the photos, particularly the few we were able to gather from his childhood, I was reminded again of how foreign his upbringing would have been to many of his contemporaries. My father, John Entz, was born in Big Bend Colony, a Lehrerleut Hutterite Colony near Cardston, Alberta, and spent most of his growing-up years in the Hutterite-adjacent Community Farm of the Brethren near Kitchener, Ontario.1 The Community Farm of the Brethren was founded in 1939 (and established at its present location in 1941) by Julius Kubassek, a Hungarian communist turned Nazarean, who became fascinated with the Hutterites’ communal lifestyle and commitment to apostolic Christianity. He and his followers lived for a year in West Raley Hutterite Colony in Alberta before leaving (with material support from the Hutterites) to form a new community in Ontario.2 Although the Hutterites formally severed ties with Kubassek in 1950, my father and his family, who joined the Community Farm of the Brethren a decade later, continued to view themselves as part of the Hutterite tradition. The Community Farm was the subject of a 1967 CBC documentary by filmmaker Chip Young entitled A Song for Brother Julius.

The Hutterites, like their Anabaptist counterparts, the Amish and Old Order Mennonites, are a fairly separatist group, although their degree of engagement with the world, uses of technology, acceptable education levels, and other such details vary somewhat from colony to colony. Unlike the Amish and Old Order Mennonites, the Hutterites practice a form of Christian communism; they hold lands and most goods in common as a community, they share communal meals, and they divide the labor of running a large farm amongst themselves. The Hutterites have not generated the same level of cultural fascination as the Old Order Mennonites or, in particular, the Amish—there is no cottage industry of Hutterite romance novels—but in recent years a few memoirs, and documentaries have brought attention to aspects of Hutterite life in North America.3 In the interest of adding to this growing genre, I asked my father to share memories and reflections on his upbringing and the lessons he learned as a child about Anabaptist identity and practice.

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My father (left) with his Uncle George and his cousin Helen in Big Bend Colony in Alberta, taken c. 1959, before my father and most of his family left for the Community Farm of the Brethren in Ontario. In Hutterite colonies, all infants under the age of two wore dresses, regardless of gender.

On his family’s move from Big Bend Colony to the Community Farm of the Brethren

I was born into a Lehrerleut Hutterite colony near Cardston, Alberta. (The Hutterites were the longest-lasting of the communal Anabaptist groupsthe foundation of the movement was the description of the community of goods in the earliest church in Acts 2 and Acts 4 and 5.) Uncle John had entered into a dispute with the leadership of the colony, calling into question their faithfulness to Hutterite teachings, which resulted in his complete excommunication (Ausschluss). When his father and brothers (my grandfather and uncles) objected that they ought to have taken my uncle’s concerns seriously instead of resorting to excommunication, they also were excommunicated, together with their wives and children. Our family was in a slightly different position, as my mother was Uncle John’s sister; she was married to a man who had not associated himself with Uncle John, as was my aunt Sarah. When Mom and Aunt Sarah were tainted by their family ties, which they refused to renounce, they were also put into Ausschluss, but their husbands were not. This made for a very uncomfortable situation in the colony, as there was a large segment of the colony under excommunication but refusing to leave. At that point, my grandmother’s sister and her husband, both members of a colony near Kitchener, Ontario composed mostly of people who were not from a Hutterite background (my great-aunt Elizabeth was the exceptionthe Hutterites basically bought the land for them in Ontario to get them out of the way) approached my uncles and grandfather and extended an invitation to them to move to Ontario. In order to get out of a very difficult impasse, they accepted. My Dad and Uncle George, Aunt Sarah’s husband, remained behind with the three oldest boys (then six and seven years old), while Mom with her daughter and the four youngest boys (the youngest less than one month old) and Aunt Sarah with her two daughters and a few months pregnant with another child went to Ontario, to Community Farm of the Brethren.

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Students at the Community Farm of the Brethren School, which ran until eighth grade. My father is seated in the middle, reading. Taken c. 1962.

On Economic Activity at the Community Farm of the Brethren

Community Farm, as it was commonly known, had originally been about half a dozen farms with a combined area of around 1,500 acres or 7 sq. km. About 1/3 was river bottom or bushland. On the remainder, 120 people (with the influx from Alberta, and including close to 50 children of school age or younger) ran several farm-related industries. Uncle Joe and Uncle John, together with a couple of teenagers, ran the dairy barn, with a milking herd of close to one hundred Holsteins. They also took care of the beef herd, mostly Holstein steers. Alex Bago, Great-Aunt Elizabeth’s husband, ran the large market garden with the help of the women and school-age children (we had regular weekend chores during the school year and a daily routine 6 days per week in the summer from the time we were 9 or 10). Many men worked in the normal routine of planting and harvesting crops, cutting hay, plowing, cultivating and fertilizing the land (we used almost exclusively “natural” fertilizer from our extensive barns). Another man was in charge of the mechanical repairs of all the machinery, with a few younger men to help him as needed. Still another man, with help from a couple of teenagers, was responsible for the industry for which the farm was probably the best-known in the area, the large goose herd, with around 1500 laying birds and another 10 000 or so young meat birds; during the late summer and throughout the fall, all available hands would slaughter the geese and any other meat birds (ducks, chickens, turkeys and the like) in the large abattoir on the Farm. The meat would then be stored in a massive walk-in freezer, as big as a small house with two or three large rooms. The “greaseless geese” (so called because large quantities of fat were removed during the killing process, to be used for other things, like cooking) provided the staple of the well-known stall of the Brethren at the Kitchener Farmers’ Market for many years. They also sold seasonal fruits and vegetables, baked goods, pillows and comforters made from goose down and feathers (although most of the comforters were made to order and sold directly on the Farm), and anything they could think of that would sell. Still another man ran the massive water boiler which provided steam heat for all of the buildings on the main farm, and some steam power in a few places. He also ran the massive backup generator in case of a power failure, making sure it was cleaned and fueled up in case of need. Since that was not really a full-time job, he was also responsible for the one hour of religious instruction before the school day started and another hour after the school day ended for all of the school-aged children. The women mostly worked on a six-week rotation, one week in the kitchen in teams of about 4 or 5 providing the meals, one week where they baked several days to provide the Farm with fresh-baked goods as well as a substantial part of the Market sales, and the other four weeks doing whatever work was in season: gardening, slaughtering birds, canning, regular large-scale cleaning, as well as running their respective households. The Farm secretary, chief cook, chief baker, child-care providers (daycare was provided from a very early age by three or four young unmarried women), and the running of the Salesroom for feather and down products by the wife of the Farm’s Chief Operating Officer were more or less permanent positions. This gives a good, though not necessarily exhaustive, idea of the daily economic running of the Farm.

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Children’s mealtime at the Community Farm of the Brethren. Taken c. 1962.

On Religious Observance and Daily Life at the Community Farm of the Brethren

We were first and foremost a religious community, and, for all of us, our life centred around religious observance. We had two preachers, a father and son, both named Fred Kurucz, though we called the older one Nander Bacsi (Hungarian for Uncle Fred), whose task it was to look after the community’s spiritual life. The day would begin with a loud steam whistle calling the adults to breakfast, which began and ended with prayer (and you had better make sure you ate when you had the chance, because the second prayer signalled the end of the meal); all meals, by the way, were gender segregated, except for the preschoolers. Then the men and most of the women would go to their work, and the children came in to eat. (With the adults, mealtime silence was largely habit and necessity, with children, it was enforced with corporal punishment—you were not allowed to talk between prayers except to ask for food in the rare case when it was not within reach). Then the children went off to one hour of religious instruction before school, followed by the morning school routine. In mid-morning, the steam whistle would call all of the adults who could come to a coffee break, still segregated, the only “meal” where you could chat with your neighbours and workmates. At noon, lunch was served to the adults first, then to the children, followed by a rest break. At 1 o’clock, the routine would continue, with adults going to work and children to school. At 3 o’clock, the steam whistle would call the adults in to an afternoon coffee break, then back to work. Shortly after, school would finish for the day, followed by another hour of religious instruction for the kids. Then at 5, the children would eat supper, followed by the adults just before 6. After supper and some time to clean up from the day’s work, there would be a church service from 7 to 8 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

The weekday church service routine was invariable: a song from the Zion’s Harp, the sanctioned hymnbook, a lengthy sermon, a lengthy prayer on your knees (the preacher did the praying), followed by a second hymn, then dismissal. Funny story here: because Uncle Joe was the dairyman, his day began early, and he was often tired in church. He sat with his oldest son, who also worked in the dairy and struggled to stay awake, and each one had a pin with which he had to poke the other if he fell asleep. Of course, not infrequently, both would fall asleep at the same time, to the great entertainment of the kids sitting nearby. Saturday afternoon was bath time, so Sunday would find you reasonably clean and in your best clothes. After breakfast, around 9:30, the steam whistle would call all except the cooks and maybe a couple other essential workers to church. There the routine was slightly different: one song, followed by a long sermon by the younger Fred Kurucz, followed by prayer, also by Fred, followed by a second sermon by Nander Bacsi, long but not as long as the first, followed by a second hymn and dismissal, about 90 minutes all told. The younger Fred was the usual preacher; he was also the man in charge of the mechanical shop. Nander Bacsi preached more rarely, but we children liked him because his sermons were shorter and followed a fairly regular pattern. Then dinner, followed by a quiet afternoon, where we were not allowed to play any games, but were expected to sit quietly and rest, and, most importantly, allow our parents to rest. After supper, there was a second service, which involved one hour of singing songs from the Zion’s Harp, or, very occasionally, a second hymnbook, called the “Red Hymnbook” because the cover was red, most noteworthy for its shorter songs (some songs in the Harp ran to fifteen or twenty verses). That was the religious life. It centered very much on the fact that we were a visual representation of the community of goods, but as you may have gathered, the day to day life was very bland and monotone. Of course, this description centers around the early days (basically until I was in eighth grade); there were MANY changes during my teen years, as we moved further away from our roots. But this was the community we moved to when we left Alberta.

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My father (left) on a trip to Austria in 1986, in search of his Hutterite roots.

On the Lessons He Learned, Implicitly and Explicitly, about Anabaptist Faith and Identity

As to the absorbance of Anabaptist teaching from the Hutterite perspective, the lifestyle had a lot to do with that. I will start with something very negative that I struggled with for a very long time. We saw ourselves as the TRUE people of God. Everyone else was on a somewhat lower level, as far as holiness and Christian living were concerned. As Uncle John put it, we were the “new Israel.” God had become somewhat dismissive of His first covenant people Israel, and modern Christianity in general, and had set us up as the new covenant people. From my reading of at least the early Hutterite teachings, this was often more or less implicitly assumed, if not actually explicitly taught. Our visible communal life was, we were convinced, God’s ideal for His Church. I am still convinced in my heart that this is His ideal, but not just as a visible outward expression. He intends us to “be members of one another”; two of the strongest images of the Church for us were the one-body ecclesiology most fully developed by Paul, and the family of God. And in our interdependent lifestyle and in the sharing of goods, that is what we were living out. And yet, in an ironic way, we were just as individualistic as the culture around us, except our “individual” was the community we belonged to. This was exacerbated by our isolation, both from the culture immediately around us, and, by our physical distance and by the makeup of outsiders in the membership of our particular community, from the broader Hutterite context. Being a part of a larger community than just our own microcosm would perhaps have mitigated somewhat our unconscious and unquestioned sense of superiority. Then again, it may have made it worse.

(An aside here: in one way, I think the Mennonites probably exemplify body life in the Anabaptist sense, probably better than any group I know. The Mennonite Church is truly international in a way that the Hutterites are not. And the ties that bind them together are much more extensive and sensitive than those among the Hutterites. I used to say that if a Mennonite in Honduras stubs his toe, a Mennonite in Ontario winces. Witness the immediate response of Mennonites, across the entire spectrum from very conservative to liberal, to any large disaster. This, I think, expresses the true ideal of community expressed by the early Anabaptists better than the more “colonized individualism” of the Hutterites. But I think that there too, especially in the more conservative branches, there is an innate sense of their special place in God’s heart.)

The other aspect of Anabaptist life among that branch of the movement was a strict devotion to pacifism (they called it non-violence, but there were some aspects of corporal punishment being practiced among us that went sort of over that line). We were very strict about that. I remember once playing at cops and robbers behind the school, pointing a stick at other kids and yelling “bang, bang!” I was so intent on the game that I never noticed the sudden silence of the other players, which should have warned me of the presence of an adult. I was grabbed from behind and “whupped good,” an ironic form of discipline for enforcing non-violence. One of the young men from the Community, the son of the older preacher and brother of the younger one, left the Farm and joined the Kitchener Police (this was before we arrived in 1960); he was permitted to visit his family, but they were kind of uncomfortable with his choice. We imbibed our commitment to pacifism with our daily bread—I am still very uncomfortable holding a gun, even for hunting. It was so deeply ingrained that for a while when I was teaching on the Base, I was somewhat uncomfortable with the fact that I was working for the Canadian Defense Force, even though the military engineers I was teaching were involved in the Construction trades.

Another thing we taught very strongly was that only adults could get baptized and become Church members. This was so strongly ingrained that Grandma and Katie Basel had to get special permission from the head elders of the Hutterite Church to join a baptism class and be baptized at age 19. The usual age for girls was between 21 and 24, and for guys between 23 and 26. Some of the guys would likely have waited longer, but baptism and membership were required for marriage eligibility (that’s why Grandma and Katie Basel jumped the gun, since baptisms were only performed once a year and they did not want to wait another year).4 One of the things we thought rather odd in the conservative Mennonite congregation attended by Carol Grove, my teacher for grades 6 to 8 in the Farm school, was that they regularly baptized teenagers.

We took very seriously the call to be “separated from the World” (by which we meant anyone outside of our community); it is ironic that the word “Pharisee” means “the separated ones.” We were, in the eyes of the people around us, the epitome of the idyllic Christian life, to the extent that CBC even filmed a documentary on the Farm in 1967, while the fuse that shortly after exploded the Farm was already lit. We hid it so well from the people outside that we could even convince ourselves that the conflict was not really there, or could be easily resolved while remaining hidden. One of the aspects of especially conservative Anabaptism, is that the “holy life” can easily be codified and lived entirely apart from a real relationship with God. The hunger and thirst after righteousness that Christ promised to fill cannot be filled apart from a relationship with Him. Anything outside of that quickly becomes a stagnant cistern rather than living water springing up inside us. There is real beauty in Anabaptist thought and practice, but aside from God, it rapidly dies! There are some places where it is alive and really connected with its source; if you can find a community that embodies that, latch onto it.

My father left the community in the early 1980s to study mathematics and education at the University of Waterloo. Today, he works as a substitute teacher in New Brunswick and attends a Baptist church. As for the Community Farm of the Brethren, after several splits, only a very few members of the community remain, and most of my family has left. Most of the buildings, however, are still standing, and the community still maintains some very minimal farming operations as well as the gift shop my father mentioned.


  1. On Big Bend Colony, see David Decker and Bert Friesen, “Big Bend Hutterite Colony (Cardston, Alberta, Canada),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Big_Bend_Hutterite_Colony_(Cardston,_Alberta,_Canada)&oldid=156842, accessed 26 July 2018. On the Lehrerleut, see Harold S. Bender, “Lehrerleut,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Lehrerleut&oldid=117584, accessed 26 July 2018. 
  2. On the Community Farm of the Brethren, see John A. Hostetler, Hutterite Society, 2nd edition (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 279; Rod Janzen and Max Stanton, The Hutterites in North America (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 253. 
  3. See, inter alia, Mary-Ann Kirkby, I Am Hutterite : The Fascinating True Story of a Young Woman’s Journey to Reclaim her Heritage, updated edition (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), the 2013 BBC documentary How to Get to Heaven with the Hutterites, and the controversial 2012 National Geographic reality television series American Colony: Meet the Hutterites.
     
  4. Basel is a Hutterite German term for Aunt, used to refer to mature women in Hutterite colonies. 

“Diddy In A Buggy”: A Rapper, The Amish, and The Fresh Air Fund

Tobin Miller Shearer

Hip-hop artist, rapper, and producer Sean “Diddy” Combs reminisced about his experience with the Fresh Air Fund (FAF) during an interview with talk show host Jimmy Kimmel on August 1, 2018. Combs described his time among the Plain people as a “beautiful” experience that formed his identity. He recalled milking cows, picking berries, riding buggies, and eating large Amish meals, all of which – in the absence of electronics – “taught him how to just relate with each other.” He concluded his reminiscence with a “shout-out to the Fresh Air Fund.”

Combs sounds nostalgic in the interview despite Kimmel’s repeated attempts to poke fun at the experience. Rather than a means to obtain cheap child labor – Kimmel suggested that the Amish had “somehow bamboozled this charity into sending you there to work” – Combs mentioned how often he thought about his host family and how they had contributed to his life. When Kimmel joked that Combs should hitch a horse to his Bentley to recreate the buggy rides of his youth, the rap star and actor stayed serious, emphasizing that he “truly appreciated” his summer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Combs’s memory holds only positive associations with his summer hosting venture.

The juxtaposition of a world-wise, very wealthy, hip-hop artist with the world-wary, frugal, hymn-singing Amish captured the media’s attention. In addition to dozens of accounts on entertainment portals ranging from People magazine to Billboard.com, the venerable BBC News also reported on the exchange five days after the interview appeared. Always media savvy in their fundraising efforts, the FAF tweeted out a link to the Kimmel interview within forty-eight hours.

The story told by Combs echoes the prevailing narrative about the Fresh Air Fund. It is a tale composed with nostalgia, sung without discord, resonate with racial harmony. Since its founding in 1877, the Fund has brought city children to the country for summer stays – most of them of the one- to two-week variety. Combs purported two-month stay is much rarer. Beginning in the 1940s and 50s as white flight resulted in increasingly black and brown urban centers, the Fund shifted from sending white ethnic children from the city to white rural hosts to sending African-American and Latinx children from the city to white rural hosts. As told in thousands of glowing newspaper accounts generated by the Fund for distribution to regional newspapers, happy hosts welcomed happy children to rural and suburban communities invariably happy to host them.

There was no room for another narrative in the Fund’s accounts. Nostalgia from public figures like tennis champion Arthur Ashe, crooner Bing Crosby, comedian Jimmy Durante, actor Lauren Bacall, and singer Ethel Merman only offered positive testimonies.

Photo 1 - Eastern Mennonite Missions Train Station Pick-up

Eastern Mennonite Missions Train Station Pick-up (circa late 1950s): Edith and John Boll with unidentified Fresh Air participant at Lancaster City, Pennsylvania, train station. Used by permission of Eastern Mennonite Missions, Salunga, PA (EMM – Record Room, File Cabinets middle isle, Drawer marked, Information Services Picture File, File: Archives – Home Ministries, Children’s Visitation Program).

And the Amish and Mennonites frequently starred in those accounts. A 1958 press release praised the Mennonite family who hosted a family of five fresh air boys from New York City for an off-season Christmas visit replete with a feast of turkey and stuffing, sweet pickles, peas, carrots, cranberry sauce, plum pudding, fruit cake and ice cream for dessert. Summer’s Children, a 1964 promotional film produced by the Fund, featured Mennonite and Amish families. In 1976, the Fund’s executive director Lisa Pulling noted that Mennonites made Pennsylvania the “most popular place to go” other than New York itself. That same year, newspapers across the country featured a column by popular writer George Will in which he praised the Amish for their Fresh Air hosting in glowing terms every bit as nostalgic as those offered by Combs. After describing the “creak and jingle of harnesses, and the clippity-clop of hooves on pavement,” Will described the family of Benuel Smucker in Ronks, Pennsylvania, who “have no truck with modernity, including electricity, a fact which does not bother their guests from the Big Apple — twin eight-year-old black boys.” Combs was far from the only African-American child to have discovered the appeal of rustic, rural havens.

As the burst of interest in Combs’s story makes evident, the prospect of placing urban children of color with pristine symbols of the nation’s agrarian past – scholar and poet Julia Kasdorf refers to the Amish as “whiter than white:  innocent, pure, plain—Puritans but without their unhappy edge” – has mass appeal. When placing innocents with innocents, everybody wins. There is no racial loser; no antagonist; only the celebration of borders crossed and friendships won.

However, that formula of doubled innocence did not always balance. Children grew homesick and begged to return to the city. Busloads cheered upon crossing back over into New York City. Neighbors, townspeople, and sometimes hosts used racial epithets to refer to their charges. Accusations of theft abounded. Administrators had to remind the hosts that they were not just getting free labor. Assured that they were getting a vacation, some guests balked at the demands of chores and refused to toil without compensation. Up until the mid-1980s, the Fresh Air Fund paid little attention to screening hosts for a history of sexual abuse even while intensively screening the children for STDs and other communicable diseases. The narrative related by Combs is, at the very least, more complex than he suggested.

As much as I was fascinated to hear Combs talk about his Fresh Air experience, it was not the content of the narrative itself that drew my attention. While my research suggests a far more problematic story than the one he told – particularly when the model itself continues to be one-way, short-term, urban-negative, and racially paternalistic – it was the nostalgic way he told the story that I found most gripping.

No matter how hard Kimmel tried to make light of Combs’s reminiscences, he stayed sincere and focused on the positive memories that he held of his time with the Amish. Here was a highly successful entrepreneur whose personal worth tops $800 million, a man who lavishes expensive gifts on his children, a philanthropist who has founded his own program to assist urban youth – one that includes a summer camp each year – and who has given generously to both victims of Hurricane Katrina and students at Howard University. Amid that material success, he harkened back to his time with the Plain people, a group whose lifestyle and commitments seem light years from his own.

But through nostalgia – an emotion defined by sentimental longing and a wistful yearning for better times gone by – Combs made a connection. He saw in his life some measure of charity, hard-work, care for children, and simplicity. He claimed to have learned those values, at least in part, from the Amish; the experience “helped to make me what I am,” he explained in his interview with Kimmel.

Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. Our current president used its appeal to great effect in his most recent campaign. Yet, as was the case with Combs and the Fresh Air Fund, nostalgic appeals often cover over the complexities and underside of history and, in so doing, create a past that never really existed. That’s why the writing and research of history are so critical at this moment. Without a grounding in as much evidence as can be mustered, we risk basing our decisions on fanciful and false presentations of the past.

Combs said in the interview that he would love to know if his host family realized what he grew up to become. Apparently they do, since his sister, who also stayed with the same Amish family in eastern Lancaster County, recently contacted them.

Should Combs talk with his former hosts, I wonder what they would discuss. As is the case in the vast majority of Fresh Air exchanges, long-term relationships are rare, difficult to sustain, and often end when the children enter adolescence. A great deal of evidence shows that white host families are much more reluctant to host teenagers due to the possibility of interracial romance blossoming. Nonetheless, perhaps they would discuss Combs’s efforts to better the lives of other children from the city. Perhaps they would chat about additional memories Combs carries from his sojourn. They might even talk over the ways in which Combs life remains so far from their own.

But, if I had to guess, I would venture that they would spend at least some small measure of their time simply reminiscing about, in the words of Kimmel, the now incongruous image of “Diddy in a buggy.”

Works Cited

Crandell, Richard F., ed. The Frog Log and Other Stories About Children. New York: Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund, 1962.

“Fresh Idea in ’77 Becomes Fun Fund for City Children.” New York Times, Sunday, May 23, 1976, 51.

Hechler, David. The Battle and the Backlash: The Child Sexual Abuse War.  Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1988.

Kasdorf, Julia Spicher. “‘Why We Fear the Amish’: Whiter Than White Figures in Contemporary American Poetry.” In The Amish and the Media, edited by Diane Zimmerman Umble and David Weaver-Zercher, 67-90. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2008.

“Lancaster Holds Film Premier.” What’s In the Air, Fall 1964, 1-2.

Shearer, Tobin Miller. Two Weeks Every Summer: Fresh Air Children and the Problem of Race in America.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017.

Will, George F. “Amish Able Hosts to New York Children.” The Post-Crescent, Saturday, August 7, 1976, A-4.

 

[^1]: Richard F. Crandell, ed. The Frog Log and Other Stories About Children (New York: Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund, 1962).

[^2]: “Lancaster Holds Film Premier,” What’s In the Air, Fall 1964.

[^3]: “Fresh Idea in ’77 Becomes Fun Fund for City Children,” New York Times, Sunday, May 23, 1976.

[^4]: George F. Will, “Amish Able Hosts to New York Children,” The Post-Crescent, Saturday, August 7, 1976.

[^5]: Julia Spicher Kasdorf, “‘Why We Fear the Amish’: Whiter Than White Figures in Contemporary American Poetry,” in The Amish and the Media, ed. Diane Zimmerman Umble and David Weaver-Zercher (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2008), 69.

[^6]: David Hechler, The Battle and the Backlash: The Child Sexual Abuse War (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1988), 29-54.

[^7]: I explore all these themes in my recent book: Tobin Miller Shearer, Two Weeks Every Summer: Fresh Air Children and the Problem of Race in America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017).

[^8]: “Sean Combs, “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sean_Combs#Charity_work_and_honors, Wikipedia, accessed August 7, 2018.

[^9]: Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs wants to find the Lancaster Amish couple he spent summers with as a Fresh Air Kid” LNP Monday, August 7, 2018 https://lancasteronline.com/features/entertainment/sean-diddy-combs-wants-to-find-the-lancaster-amish-couple/article_cd3b8412-9973-11e8-8892-4be24b7102d6.html

[^10]: Shearer, 79.