In his most recent book, World of Trouble, Richard Godbeer tells the story of Elizabeth and Henry Drinker, a respectable, upwardly-mobile Quaker couple in Philadelphia’s merchant class whose lives were inextricably bound with the economic strife, social upheaval, political chaos, and violence of the American Revolution. Godbeer, a leading scholar of early American history and a Professor of History at the University of Kansas, “resists the familiar story of the American Revolution” by presenting it through the eyes of religious pacifists who remained neutral during the imperial crisis.1 This rich and striking narrative, intimately following the lives of Elizabeth (1735-1807) and Henry Drinker (1734-1809) for over fifty years, is reconstructed from dozens of Elizabeth’s diaries and thousands of letters that Elizabeth and Henry penned in their personal and professional lives. From such a unique vantage point, Godbeer lays bare a difficult reality of the American Revolution: its turbulence and violence were virtually inescapable, whether one wore a uniform or not. In this addition to recent scholarship on the violence of the American Revolution, Godbeer shows how Quakers experienced violence as Patriots suppressed dissent before, during, and after the war through threats, imprisonment, and even killings.2
Although the Drinkers were deeply affected by the decades of revolution, their lives were not entirely defined by it. Elizabeth and Henry lived before and after the Revolution—and even during the years of revolutionary upheaval, their day-to-day lives were not entirely halted. Reflecting this, Godbeer opens their story with the courtship and early married life of Henry Drinker and Elizabeth Sandwith. Married in 1761, the Drinkers’ first years together were marked by remarkable affection for each other and considerable anxiety about social, economic, and spiritual strictures. They wed at a time when the Society of Friends was becoming increasingly insular and sought to “reinvigorate their distinctive spiritual identity through a renewed stress on marriage within the faith.”3 Elizabeth knew the social and spiritual importance of marriage as well as Henry, but for her, as was the case for most women in her time, marriage also brought a significant loss of personal independence. Once married, Elizabeth spent the next twenty years becoming and being a mother—she was pregnant eleven times, but only five of her children reached adulthood. Henry, along with his business partner Abel James, spent the decades before the revolution building their transatlantic trading business and, like many Quaker merchants at midcentury, sought to “balance Quaker values with the practicalities and opportunities of international commerce,” which they achieved with mixed success.4 Henry and Elizabeth accumulated and displayed a great deal of material wealth, letting the religious scruples of outward simplicity fall away to demonstrate their upward mobility and gentility.
The conflicts between their Quaker conscience and the socio-political milieu became even more pronounced for the Drinkers beginning in the 1760s. Godbeer describes how their Quakerism influenced James and Drinker’s politics and business, which, as taxation and importation emerged as touchstones of revolution, were becoming increasingly entangled. The two Quaker merchants saw the royal government as the source of political salvation, rather than that of the crisis. Although they joined the boycott movement in opposition to new Parliamentary taxes, they hoped that such protests would lead to a peaceful resolution within the empire. However, their refusal to endorse heavy-handed threats and violence against royal officials, compounded with the widespread suspicion and resentment that many Pennsylvania Quakers faced, made James and Drinker visibly unpopular among Patriots. Patriotic hostility toward those who showed anything but unconditional support for revolution and independence reached a new height for Quakers in 1777 when Congress connected Quaker pacifism to loyalism and arrested Drinker and ten other leading Quakers, exiling them to Virginia. This move against these Friends was founded on decades of political conflict, accusations of hypocrisy, and suspicion toward Quakers as Pennsylvania became more religiously and ethnically diverse. It was these same pressures that factored into James and Drinkers’ decision to become tea consignees in the first place. Their year of exile was likely “monotonous and anxiety-ridden” for the Quakers. Although they were imprisoned far from home, Godbeer describes their time in captivity as “an extremely relaxed version of imprisonment, based on a gentlemen’s agreement that the exiles would not try to escape.”5 Meanwhile, Quakers and other perceived opponents to independence faced trials, prison, fines, forfeiture and destruction of property, and even execution during Philadelphia’s Continental occupation.
Elizabeth, too, was deeply affected by the throes of Revolution, but in different ways than her husband. From her copious diaries, Godbeer finds that Elizabeth’s wartime concerns lay primarily with “her husband’s situation, the safety of her own household, the fate of other Friends in and around the city, and the outrage at the cruelties inflicted by both sides in the conflict.”6 While Henry was in exile, Elizabeth was forced to quarter Continental and British soldiers in their home, deal with the supply shortages during the British occupation of Philadelphia (September 1777-June 1778), and cope with and protect her family from the persecution and violence that Continents exacted on Loyalist, neutral, and pacifistic Philadelphians once they regained control of the city. Godbeer argues that Elizabeth’s attention was not limited by any distinction of gendered spheres. Rather, he casts Elizabeth as a deeply politically-informed person who applied such knowledge to those affairs she was most familiar with and affected by. In fact, Elizabeth powerfully challenged Quaker sensibilities and American socio-political gender roles when she and three other Quaker women traveled to General George Washington’s headquarters in Valley Forge to parlay with Washington for her husband’s release from exile. In telling the Drinkers’ remarkable story, Godbeer keeps a constant eye on the Drinkers’ community of faith, declaring that the “distinct and deeply felt nationhood” of the Society of Friends that triggered so much outside resentment and hostility also brought a sense of “true freedom within themselves through trust in God” and “liberated from dependence on worldly comfort and security.”7
In his final chapters, Godbeer describes the Drinkers’ lives after the Revolution, which were unfortunately no less tumultuous than those before and during the war. Henry left his career as a merchant behind him in hopes of reinventing himself in order to, prove “his worth to the new republic and [show] that Quaker values could enrich the nation morally while also turning a handsome financial profit.”8 One such project was to invest in American maple sugar, which Drinker hoped would out-compete slave-produced sugar from the West Indies and undermine the entire slave trade. This and other ventures failed because, as Godbeer argues, Henry was a poor judge of character and far too trusting and forbearing with his investors and debtors, all qualities which left him ethically and financially spent.
Godbeer also traces Elizabeth’s difficulties in the new republic as a mistress and a matron. As in many households after the war, the domestic servants of the Drinker household were swept up in the liberating rhetoric of the revolution and began to expect different treatment—treatment which Elizabeth was reluctant to give. Her attitude toward her servants—Black or white, man or woman—“reflected a blend of maternal benevolence and distrustful condescension.”9 Throughout the 1780s and 1790s, while supporting abolition and free labor, Elizabeth held firm to her vision of society in which people knew their place and did not challenge their lot in life. Despite such tumult, Godbeer’s narrative emphasizes the centrality of spirituality, a strong faith community, and the persistence of the patterns of daily living in the Drinkers’ lives, even as they entered the final years of their life at the dawn of the nineteenth century.
World of Trouble forcefully and painfully confronts the fact that “however noble its official founding ideals, the United States was born in blood, its midwife a campaign of terror” (4). Moreover, as Godbeer elucidates, the writings of the Drinkers “remind us that the fraught political issues of their era had personal, spiritual, and emotional ramifications that played out in private as well as public spaces.”10 These powerfully important themes are woven into Godbeer’s wonderfully enjoyable narrative that sheds light on far more than the experiences of one Quaker family. A World of Trouble is not only a meaningful contribution to the scholarship of the American Revolution, but also offers a great deal to anyone interested in the contours of religious pacifism in early American life.
1 Richard Godbeer, World of Trouble: A Philadelphia Quaker Family’s Journey Through the American Revolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), 8.
2 See, for example, T. H. Breen, American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2010) and Holger Hoock, Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth (New York, NY: Broadway Books, 2017).
In August 2018, Brethren in Christ History & Life published “Henry R. and Frances Rice Davidson: Life and Vision.” In that article I explore the contributions of my ancestor who became the first editor of the denominational publication that came into Brethren in Christ homes for one hundred and thirty-one years, from its launch in August 1887 until it was replaced in in 2007 by a periodical called In Part.1Publication is a milestone, not necessarily the end of the research process; and so I continue to puzzle over these ancestors lives. One question for me, still unanswered,2 is how did the Reverend Henry Davidson, of Scots-Irish Presbyterian descent, come to be ordained in 1846 as a minister in the tiny community of River Brethren, virtually unknown until 1860 when they identified as Brethren in Christ? How did his nearly seventy years of leadership, that I have argued was significant in bringing the denomination into nineteenth century evangelicalism, begin?3In this post I explore that question and offer suggestions as to why knowing this matters.
As I have been researching and writing on Henry Davidson how I have wished that he had preserved his experience of having “moved into the church,” as his friend and colleague William Baker put it.4 The only record we have, as far as I can find, is in family historian Earl Brechbill’s geneological history.5 I have long puzzled over this short acknowledgement: “Henry was ordained a minister in the Brethren in Christ church at the age of twenty-three.”6 His father Jacob, a farmer and millwright, was a minister of the United Brethren in Christ, and his grandfather Robert Davidson had been a Presbyterian minister. Not even Henry Davidson’s obituaries agree on his denominational history, with the Evangelical Visitor putting Henry’s father in the Brethren in Christ church, and the Wooster Weekly Republican saying he was a Presbyterian minister.7
The confusion is hardly surprising, with the influence of the German Pietist movement that reflected Enlightenment values of subjectification and emotion, and the variety of expressions of personal faith that arose, as individuals studied the Bible for themselves.8 In the immediate post Revolutionary era, the evangelical preaching of Reformed leader William Otterbein and Mennonite Martin Boehm gave rise to a number of denominations in the United States including Presbyterians, German Reformed, and Mennonites uniting into a body “vague and undefined” until they organized in 1815. This conglomeration, which identified as United Brethren in Christ, illustrates the freedom fostered by democracy and populism that Mark Noll has noted caused “the churches [to be] strongly identified with the common people.”9Adhering to no church doctrine beyond the New Testament, accepting all modes of baptism including sprinkling, pouring and immersion, the movement quickly spread, including to Western Pennsylvania’s Westmoreland County where the Davidsons lived.10
Henry Davidson’s silence about his experience and motives for moving from the United Brethren in Christ to the small enclave of German speaking “thrifty tillers of the soil” with their fear of “popularity of any kind,” reflects the practice of the River Brethren, thus named by outsiders because they baptized new members in the closest creek or river.11 When Henry joined their numbers in the 1840s, sixty years had passed since Jacob Engle and others had been baptized in the Susquehanna River, keeping who was first in their hearts to the grave.12 Evidently Davidson was attracted to this humble group, at that time virtually unknown, judging by John Winebrenner’s History of All the Religious Denominations in the United States, first published in 1844. When Davidson “moved into the church,” to use Baker’s words, Winebrenner’s recently published history had missed them altogether. They were unique in the 1848 edition of the six hundred page compendium, with anonymous authorship by “A Familiar Friend,” whose six page article remains, in Brethren in Christ historian Carleton Wittlinger’s words, “the most reliable secondary source for early Brethren in Christ history.”13 No other group, including the Mennonites and the Amish, avoided identifying the author describing the polity, practice and history of their particular group.
Fast forwarding to August 1887 with the launch of the Evangelical Visitor, we can glean insight into the experience of early converts into the River Brethren. Davidson’s friend and colleague W.O. Baker, a medical doctor who practised medicine in Ashland, Ohio and preached for the congregation in Stark County, recounted his conversion and baptism three decades earlier in Sugar Creek, where it meandered by Wayne County’s Paradise, Ohio. Baker’s note that Henry Davidson, editor of the new paper, had been among those present in late February  at his baptism, confirms Davidson’s long history with the denomination.14
In my mind’s eye I see the senior minister Jacob Hoffman standing with red topped boots reaching his knees standing in the cold creek, possibly supported by an overhanging branch, baptizing the most recent convert to the small community of River Brethren. I see Henry Davidson, a young minister in the group, standing among others, uniform grey overcoats overlapping red topped rubber boots, large capes draping each man’s shoulders, broad brimmed hats in hand, witnessing this powerful moment when a new member submitted to the triune immersion that confirmed his conversion experience, a ritual done in a way that separated the River Brethren from other groups. Baptism in cold waters, the first time in the name of the Father, then in the name of the Son, and finally in the name of the Holy Spirit, confirmed Baker’s commitment to living out his faith in this particular community of believers.15
It remains unclear exactly where Henry Davidson encountered the German community of River Brethren; perhaps it was in German township, located just south of Redstone township where the Davidson’s lived.16 Whatever the case, we must assume that as a young man Henry Davidson, similar to his friend William Baker, was attracted to the warmth of these people and the way that they lived out the particular convictions that set the River Brethren apart from other groups.17 The similarity of emphasis on a new birth before baptism must have felt familiar to the young Henry. Somehow the clarity of conviction that church order must insist on a single mode of baptism, triune immersion, appealed to him, as it had to his friend William Baker.18 Davidson’s attraction to the clarity of conviction that allowed for the warmth of testimonials where members told of their conversion experiences, their “sorrows, joys and future hope,” yet insisted on ordinances such as river baptism and foot washing rituals would have a far reaching impact on the denomination; fifteen years later in the 1860s it would claim the name Brethren in Christ, remaining distinct from the United Brethren in Christ of Henry Davidson’s origin.19
Although River Brethren pietism distinguished them from their Mennonite relatives with the insistence of the former, as Wittlinger has put it, on “a personal, heartfelt experience of the new birth as normative for the beginning of the Christian life,” their evangelism was practised in a quiet, relational way.20 It was the way they lived their faith that attracted others. Some, similar to William Baker and Henry Davidson, expressed the desire to become a part of a particular congregation, joining in the “full fellowship” that meant choosing to be baptized by triune immersion and to adopt the practices of those particular Brethren.21
It is impossible to fully understand the motives of another, but history does provide a way to know ourselves as individuals, as families, as churches, as societies, a way into becoming more deeply rooted as we are intentional about understanding faith in the context from which we came. In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmerhas wisely suggested that “Knowing of any sort is relational, animated by a desire to come into deeper community with what we know.”22 The formative role that Henry Davidson and his friend William Baker took in introducing to the Brethren in Christ changes that had marked the pietist movement from the eighteenth century, including communication through print culture, missions, and opportunities for women to serve in public ways, had far reaching effects on the denomination.23 As the Brethren in Christ (in Canada Be in Christ) continue to develop during these fast-changing and tumultuous times, with secularism and evangelicalism in head to head combat, both shaped by the pietist impulse with their privileging experience over authority, it is essential that we know our history.24
On a personal note as I have explained in the occasional series “Growing up Brethren in Christ,” published in Brethren in Christ History & Life, it is in the on-going attempt to come to deeper understanding of my own spiritual journey and the denomination in which I grew up that I continue to explore the lives and spirituality of my ancestors Henry Davidson and his daughter Frances Davidson.25 Indeed, my journey has taken me in the opposite direction to Henry Davidson with my journey away from my Brethren in Christ roots to eventually be ordained in the Mennonite Church, while serving as chaplain and professor in a Presbyterian theological school. As I reflect on how my spiritual journey has taken me out of the Brethren in Christ to the Mennonites and Presbyterian communities, I am curious about my ancestor’s journey. Henry Davidson’s spiritual quest took him away from his Presbyterian and United Brethren in Christ roots to a group founded by Jacob Engel, another seeker whose journey brought from his Mennonite roots, to establish a tiny group convicted of the efficacy of triune baptism. Thecuriousity of the detective continues to motivate me as I continue to explore, as Palmer has put it, “how much of the past lives in us today,” and to seek community among the great cloud of witnesses.26
1“Henry B and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson: Life and Vision,” Brethren in Christ History & Life, Volume XLI, no. 2 (August 2018), 115-54; See also Micah B. Brickner, “One of God’s Avenues of Progress: Exploring the Outcomes of the Evangelical Visitor, Brethren in Christ History & Life, Volume XLI, no. 2 (August 2018), 323.
2Nancy Theriot has explored the potential in reading texts in ways that the historian can attempt to understand something of how people from the past were making meaning from their lives. See her Mothers&DaughtersinNineteenth-CenturyAmerica:TheBiosocialConstructionofFemininity (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1996).
3Paul Hoffman, compiler, “History of the Davidson descendants,” printed in Earl Brechbill, “The Ancestry of John and Henrietta Davidson Brechbill: A Historical Narrative,” Robert K. Brechbill, printer (July 1973), 55.
7Hoffman, “The Davidsons,” 53, 55; “Henry B. and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson,” 127, n 41.
8Douglas Shantz, An Introduction to German Pietism: Protestant Renewal at the Dawn of Modern Europe (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press, 2013), 205, 277, 278-79.
9Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 68.
10Paul A. Graham, “The Beginnings,” 45-46 and Raymond Waldfogel, 130, in Paul R. Fetters, TrialsandTriumphs:HistoryoftheChurchoftheUnitedBrethreninChrist (Huntington, IND: Church of the United Brethren in Christ Department of Church Services, 1984); See also William Hanby, “The United Brethren in Christ, in John Winebrenner, History of All the Religious Denominations in the United States (Harrisburg, PA: John Winebrenner, 1848), 550, 561; Carlton Wittlinger, QuestforPietyandObedience:TheStoryoftheBrethreninChrist (Nappanee, Indiana: Evangel Press, 1978), 129-33.
13Wittlinger, Quest, 14, n. 41; see “A Familiar Friend,” in Winebrenner, History, 550-56.
14Evangelical Visitor I, 1 (1 August 1887), 9; In his biography, D. Ray Heisey, Healing Body and Soul: The Life and Times of Dr. W. O. Baker, 1827-1916 Grantham, PA: The Brethren in Christ Historical Society, 2004), 22, places 1854 as the year that Baker was baptized.
15A. W. Climenhaga, History of the Brethren in Christ Church (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1952), 55-56, 69.
16Homer Rosenberger, “Migrations of the Pennsylvania Germans to Western Pennsylvania,” Part II, 61 file:///C:/Users/lucille.marr/Downloads/3099-Article%20Text-2944-1-10-20121002%20(2).pdf Accessed August 2020.
22Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 54.
23Shantz, Introduction to German Pietism, 238, 275, 278-79, 285.
24Shantz, Introduction to German Pietism, 275-76; Indeed, in the view of McGill Emeritus professor philosopher Charles Taylor, both modern secularism and modern evangelicalism with their privileging experience and action are rooted in the seventeenth-century Pietist impulse. See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 26-27.
25“Growing up Brethren in Christ,” Brethren in Christ History & Life, Vol. XLI, no. II, no 1 (April 2020), 118-25.
26Palmer, Courage to Teach, 54. See, for example, Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers: sayings, lives, and stories of early Christian women, (New York: Paulist Press, 2001), 4.
Recent revelations that Mennonites participated in the crimes of National Socialism seem to fly in the face of common beliefs about this historically pacifist Christian denomination. Mennonites today are often advocates for peace. So what are we to make, for example, of a forthcoming book from the University of Toronto Press entitled European Mennonites and the Holocaust? A gulf looms between what we believe we know about peaceful Mennonites in the twenty-first century and what historians have begun revealing about the entanglement of a substantial minority within that same community with National Socialism during the 1930s and ‘40s. How can we bridge the gap? One path is to ask why this story has not been widely told until now. Who hid it and how?
After the Second World War, the primary narrative that Mennonite leaders in Europe and North America crafted about their churches’ activities in the Third Reich emphasized repression and hardship. The denomination’s leading aid organization, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), worked during the late 1940s and early 1950s to help resettle thousands of European Mennonites who had become displaced as a result of the war. MCC relied on financial and legal assistance from larger refugee agencies affiliated with the United Nations in order to pursue this task. In dealing with their United Nations colleagues, MCC officials insisted most of their wards “were brutally treated by the German occupation authorities” and “did not receive favored treatment.”1
One of Mennonite Central Committee’s star witnesses was a refugee named Heinrich Hamm. Like tens of thousands of other Mennonites who had experienced the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe, Hamm was from Soviet Ukraine, and he had retreated westward with German troops in 1943 to avoid again coming under communist rule as Stalin’s Red Army advanced. Five years later, Hamm had become an MCC employee, helping to run a large refugee camp in occupied Germany. Hamm wrote down a version of his wartime experiences that aligned with MCC’s overall message that its charges deserved aid. MCC’s Special Commissioner in Europe passed to United Nations officials Hamm’s story of evacuating from Ukraine to more western areas:
It is quite an erroneous idea to think that all Mennonites were brought to Poland to be settled on farms. I and my family came to a camp Preussisch-Stargard in the Danzig area. Immediately representatives of various works and concerns came to fetch cheap labour. I had to work in a machine factory where I remained until the end of the war. Besides the four Mennonite families many Ukrainians, Frenchmen and Poles worked there also. There was no difference in the way these various national groups were treated.2
The efforts by Mennonite Central Committee to portray refugees like Heinrich Hamm as victims of Nazism were largely successful. Based on statements from MCC officers and many migrants themselves, refugee agents affiliated with the United Nations believed that “the majority of those [Mennonites] who found themselves in Germany at the end of the war had not come voluntarily to that country. They were deported alongside other Russians to be used as slave labourers.”3 As another evaluation concluded, Mennonites were fundamentally “an un-Nazi and un-nationalistic group.”4 MCC ultimately succeeded in relocating most of the refugees under its care with United Nations assistance to new homes in West Germany or overseas, mostly in Canada and Paraguay.
But should we, like United Nations refugee agencies seven decades ago, trust statements written after the Third Reich’s fall by Mennonite individuals such as Heinrich Hamm? When he wrote his account for MCC, Hamm was fifty-four years old. He was not some young hothead. He was a leader in the Mennonite church. He was an MCC employee with deep ties to the denomination’s respected aid community on both sides of the Atlantic. Hamm should have been as trustworthy as anyone MCC could have put forward to speak truthfully and extensively about the experiences of tens of thousands of fellow Mennonites in Eastern Europe during the Second World War. The United Nations took Hamm at his word. We today, however, should take a more skeptical look.
I have been following Heinrich Hamm’s wartime paper trail for the past seven years. It is not easy to track the movements of someone so mobile as Hamm. I now know that Hamm was born in Tsarist Russia in 1894. He served as a medic in the First World War and took up arms as part of a Self Defense unit during the Russian Civil War, abandoning pacifism like many other young Mennonite men. When Bolshevism emerged victorious, Hamm lost his farm near the Ukrainian city of Zaporozhe. He and his family moved to another city, Dnepropetrovsk, after Stalin’s rise. Hamm continued working in Dnepropetrovsk after the Nazi invasion of 1941. He eventually left Ukraine with his family, and in 1944, they settled in a village called Stutthof on the Baltic coast.
Another document I encountered while researching Mennonite history prompted me to suspect that the postwar autobiographical sketch Hamm penned for MCC might obscure more than it revealed. This other document had been written shortly after Hitler’s invasion of Soviet Ukraine by an “Ethnic German Heinrich Hamm.” Preserved in the records of the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories, the six-page typed manuscript tells of horrors experienced under “Jewish-Bolshevik rule.” It argues that the USSR repressed Ethnic Germans more than other groups. It describes how young men were shot or deported and how mismanagement brought economic ruin to all Ukraine. The author was unsparing in his conviction about whom to blame:
This is how the Jewish Bolshevik beasts destroyed German families [during communist times]. The expression ‘beasts’ is not even correct, since animals kill for the sake of nourishment, while these Jewish murderers and misbegotten bastards kill and annihilate for sport, practicing the worst kind of cruelty as their life’s handiwork.5
Could these be the words of a later MCC employee? An upstanding pillar within the worldwide Mennonite community? When I first saw this document, I was not convinced it had been written by the same Heinrich Hamm. Hamm was a common surname among Ukraine’s Mennonites and Heinrich a common first name. Surely there were multiple Heinrich Hamms. Nor was I sure that the author was even Mennonite at all. His report to Nazi officials mentioned other people with names common among Mennonites, but the document referred only to “Ethnic Germans,” not to Mennonites explicitly. Given the repression of Christianity in the Soviet Union in the proceeding decades, perhaps the author no longer identified with what had likely been his childhood faith.
I wondered, moreover, what should I make of the virulent antisemitism of this wartime Heinrich Hamm? Most published literature I had read about Mennonites in Ukraine claimed that they had not been particularly antisemitic. One historian characterized anti-Jewish prejudices among this group as “relatively benign.”6 But Hamm’s antisemitism was unrelenting. The report stated that Hamm lived in Dnepropetrovsk. Less than a month earlier, Nazi death squads shot ten thousand of that city’s Jews.7 The murder of Jews around him made Hamm’s concluding remarks chilling: “Only those who experienced [Soviet tyranny] can fully grasp the phrase, ‘Liberation from the Jewish yoke of Bolshevism,’ in its truest sense.”8 He finished by praising Hitler and all German soldiers.
My next clue was a 1943 letter—also penned by a “Heinrich Hamm”—posted from a refugee camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. This letter seemed to provide a link between the Hamm who had denounced Jews at the height of the Holocaust in Ukraine and the man who subsequently worked for MCC, claiming after the war that Mennonites were an un-Nazi group that suffered under the Third Reich. The author of this letter was clearly a Mennonite. He had relocated westward with other Mennonites from Ukraine to escape the advance of the Red Army. The author said he had traveled from Dnepropetrovsk, and details of his story overlapped with the account written two years earlier for Nazi occupation officials by a man of the same name in the same Ukrainian city.
The 1943 letter convinced me that Heinrich Hamm was not only a practicing Mennonite; he was a denominational leader. It also confirmed that this man—who would go on to work for MCC—was implicated in Nazi crimes. Hamm and his family were among the first Mennonite refugees to be relocated from Ukraine to Nazi-occupied Poland after the contraction of the Eastern Front. Temporarily housed near the city of Litzmannstadt in the wartime Wartheland province, Hamm wrote to a contact well connected with other Mennonites across the Third Reich. Copies of his letter soon circulated widely among the country’s church leadership. Part of Hamm’s letter even appeared in print, helping inspire humanitarian support for the refugees arriving from Ukraine.
Hamm reported that he and fellow refugees from Ukraine had been well received in Wartheland: “Upon arrival, we experienced unexpected love and a moving reception. Our camp—if it can even be called that—lies in the forest near Kirchberg (14 km. east of Litzmannstadt) and consists not of barracks encircled by barbed wire, as many expected, but of beautifully appointed houses (formerly for Jewish summer vacationers).” Hamm acknowledged that not all were satisfied with their new quarters. But he disparaged complainers as racial dregs. The “true Germans,” he wrote, “thank God and the Führer daily with tears in their eyes for the great privileges they enjoy.”9 In his view, the best Mennonites were those most thankful to receive plunder from murdered Jews.
Far from receiving criticism from Germany’s Mennonite leadership, Hamm’s 1943 letter helped integrate him into the local denominational fold. Mennonites who had lived in Germany since Hitler’s rise to power had enjoyed the privileges of racial hierarchy for over a decade. That these same advantages would be extended to fellow German-speaking Mennonites from Ukraine in the form of homes and goods taken from Holocaust victims seemed only natural by the middle years of the war.10 Hamm was intimately acquainted with Mennonite life in Ukraine, and he had ties to occupation officials.11 When religious leaders from Germany traveled to Poland in 1944 to meet with Nazi politicians about new waves of refugees from the east, they first consulted Hamm.12
By early 1944, Hamm and his wife, Anna, had moved from the formerly Jewish summer camp near Litzmannstadt to the coastal town of Stutthof, two hundred miles to the north. Stutthof had a longstanding Mennonite population, including one of Anna’s aunts. In Stutthof, Hamm became friendly with a prominent Mennonite businessman named Gerhard Epp. Prior to the First World War, Epp had worked in Russia, and he remained greatly interested in Mennonite coreligionists from the Soviet Union. Epp offered Hamm a job in a large machine factory that he owned and operated. This was the very establishment that Hamm would later mention in the memo he wrote for MCC, claiming he was coerced into providing cheap labor for greedy German war profiteers.
Closer inspection reveals Hamm was neither a lowly laborer nor does he seem to have opposed war profiteering that actually did occur in Epp’s factory. Three years after the Third Reich fell, shortly before boarding a steamship bound for Canada, Hamm wrote a long letter to his two sons. They had been serving in German uniform, and both had gone missing in the last months of the war. Hamm did not know when or if he would ever see his sons again. But he left his letter with a local Mennonite leader for safekeeping, hoping that if either of his sons ever resurfaced, they would read it. Hamm’s letter is dated July 23, 1948. He signed it just days after authoring his exculpatory memorandum for MCC. Writing privately to family, he told a very different story.
Hamm’s letter to his lost sons told of his final days in Stutthof, before the Red Army’s advance forced him to flee with his wife and her aunt, along with thousands of other Mennonites and non-Mennonites by ship across the Baltic to Denmark. In the winter of early 1945, Soviet air raids wrought havoc on nearby large cities like Danzig, driving city dwellers to the countryside even as others arrived pell-mell from the east. Gerhard Epp shipped his machinery west and converted his factory into a makeshift refugee camp. Hamm reported that Epp and his entire staff worked frantically to save the needy. The packed factory halls offered good targets for Soviet airmen, Hamm reported, and every bomb that struck the establishment killed or wounded hundreds:
The great number of bodies and the frozen ground made it impossible to bury them, and so specially appointed commandos for clearing away bodies brought these to the concentration camp for gassing [Vergasung].13
This casual reference to an unnamed nearby concentration camp is curious. Hamm seems to have expected his sons to understand the reference. Having visited their family in Stutthof before their final deployment, Hamm’s sons would have known about the large Stutthof concentration camp, which had been established in 1939 in connection with Germany’s invasion of Poland and which over the next five years would become a major site of slave labor and murder in Hitler’s empire of death. Gerhard Epp’s factory had grown along with this concentration camp. Epp served as a general contractor for the camp, and he leased hundreds of prisoners to produce armaments in his factory. Jews and other inmates were the true cheap labor. Hamm helped oversee their slavery.14
Hamm later expressed regret for the death and dying that pervaded the Epp factory in Stutthof. Yet he explicitly named only German victims of Soviet air raids, not Jewish concentration camp prisoners. “[M]uch, much blood of innocent women and children flowed on Epp’s land,” Hamm told his sons. “Uncountable, nameless dead… No one asked who they were, where they came from, nothing was recorded.”15 One wonders about the goal of this private postwar accounting. Was Hamm helping himself forget about Jews worked to the bone in Epp’s factory by recalling refugees he and Epp tried to save? His use of the word “gassing” suggests this possibility, since bodies of refugees could have been cremated, whereas exhausted Jews would have been gassed.
What is clear is that the Mennonite-owned factory in Stutthof was a place of terror. For hundreds of prisoners enslaved there, the factory’s Mennonite managers were responsible for much of that terror. It is also clear that after the war, Hamm tried to distance himself from this responsibility. He instead emphasized the suffering of his own family, which fled Stutthof in April 1945. As they crossed the Baltic under cover of night, a Soviet submarine torpedoed their ship. Hamm praised God for allowing the damaged vessel to make it to Denmark. The family remained in Denmark for the next eighteen months. Hamm emphasized his gratitude for the comfort he found during these lean times through worshiping with fellow Mennonite refugees and other Christians.
Hamm remained in touch with Mennonites in multiple countries during the early postwar years. From Denmark, he wrote to relatives in Canada, who published his communication in a church newspaper. Letters and material goods soon arrived both for the Hamms and other Mennonites in the area. Hamm coordinated this aid, disbursing dozens of food packets from North America to fellow refugees. When his family received permission to leave Denmark for Germany, they lived with Mennonites in Bavaria. Eight months later, the director of a Mennonite Central Committee refugee camp in Gronau, near the Dutch border, invited Hamm to be his deputy. Hamm took the job, and he worked for MCC in Gronau for nearly a year until leaving to join relatives in Canada.
Tracking Heinrich Hamm and his wartime activities has taught me that catching a Mennonite Nazi is hard work. Piecing together Hamm’s past took many years of laborious sifting through thousands of pages of historic documents. I found pieces of Hamm’s story scattered across half a dozen archives in four countries. The reason this search took so long and required such effort is that Hamm did not want me or anyone else to know his full tale. Collaborating with Nazism made sense to Hamm during the Second World War, when he denounced Jews in Ukraine, lived in housing confiscated from Holocaust victims in Poland, and helped to administer a factory run with slave labor in Stutthof. After the war, Hamm was not fully honest even with his own sons.
The rewards of studying Hamm’s complete wartime trajectory—not just what he wanted others to learn afterwards—are substantial. Hamm and his colleagues at Mennonite Central Committee wanted United Nations-affiliated refugee organizations and other interested parties to think that any collaboration by members of the denomination with National Socialism was exceptional and insignificant. They implied that if some young men had perhaps gotten carried away, surely this was because they had been drawn away from their faith during earlier experiences in the Soviet Union through the atheist policies of Bolshevik rule. This narrative may seem compelling if we only consider documents written after the war. But wartime records do not corroborate this story.
Hamm was a leader at the heart of Mennonite institutional life in Europe both during and after the Second World War. He and his family had certainly suffered under the Bolshevik regime. There is no question that he and tens thousands of other Mennonites experienced atrocities in the Soviet Union, and that this history of suffering conditioned their positive reception of National Socialism. Indeed, Hamm’s wartime writings show that he considered his support for the most heinous crimes of Hitler’s state to be directly related to his own efforts to aid fellow Mennonites. Hamm saw Jews and Bolshevism as being part of a single evil cabal that threatened his ethnic and faith communities, and he welcomed Nazi efforts to redistribute Jewish plunder as welfare.
Understanding Hamm’s wartime activities also helps to clarify the significance of Mennonite Central Committee’s European refugee operations. Were we to consider only MCC’s postwar reports to bodies like the United Nations, we might assume that the denomination’s premier aid organization was acting in good faith—that leaders were unaware of the Nazi collaboration of refugees like Hamm. But this reading cannot be supported. In a very literal sense, Hamm was MCC, a paid employee and spokesperson. And that was precisely the point. The very purpose of MCC’s refugee program was to assist people facing legal or material hardships because of their associations with Nazism. Employing wartime leaders like Hamm provided valuable expertise.16
Catching a Mennonite Nazi is not easy. It is not the kind of thing most people can accomplish in their spare time. It is only possible because of the enormous resources that states, universities, and churches have put into building and maintaining archival collections. Accessing these files often requires professional skills, such as the ability to read multiple languages. Guessing when a historical person may not have been telling the truth requires familiarity with what scholars have already written. And following up on such hunches frequently demands financial support from competitive grants. At a time when the humanities are increasingly under pressure, it is more important than ever to affirm the value of institutional support for deep investigative research.
The reach of the far right is often longer than we think. It has included influential leaders within the Mennonite denomination, including in its best-known humanitarian aid organization, MCC. That knowledge alone should justify robust support for strengthening commitment to academic scholarship in our current time of resurgent global intolerance and repressive authoritarianism.
Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University. He is the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published in 2017 by Princeton University Press. Thanks to Laureen Harder-Gissing for providing sources for this essay and to Madeline J. Williams for her comments.
1 C.F. Klassen, “Statement Concerning Mennonite Refugees,” July 19, 1948, AJ/43/572, folder: Political Dissidents – Mennonites, Archives Nationales, Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, France (hereafter AN).
2 Quoted in ibid. Hamm signed other documents on MCC’s behalf while working at the Gronau refugee camp. For example, Heinrich Hamm to Walter Quiring, September 29, 1947, Cornelius Krahn Papers, box 5, folder: Walter Quiring Correspondence 1946-50, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas, USA.
3 Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, “Mennonite Refugees from Soviet Russia,” AJ/43/49, AN.
4 Martha Biehle to Herbert Emerson, August 9, 1946, AJ/43/31, AN.
5 Heinrich Hamm, “Schilderung vom Volksdeutschen,” November 12, 1941, Captured German and Related Records on Microfilm, T-81, roll 606, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland, USA (hereafter NARA). Subsequent research confirms that this report was written by the same Heinrich Hamm who later worked for MCC. In ibid., for example, the author identified his father-in-law as David Schröder. David Schröder was also listed as Hamm’s father-in-law in genealogical materials submitted at the time of his (successful) application for German citizenship in Litzmannstadt. Heinrich Hamm, “Feststellung der Deutschstämmigkeit,” October 11, 1943, Einwandererzentralstelle Collection, A33420-EWZ50-CO46, Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo, ON, Canada. Notably, Hamm listed “men[nonite]” as his religious denomination on multiple documents submitted to Nazi offices. See for example a racial evaluation completed in Preußisch Stargard: “Hamm, Heinrich,” February 1, 1944, A3342-EWZ56-CO27, NARA.
6 Harvey Dyck, “Introduction and Analysis,” in Jacob Neufeld, Path of Thorns: Soviet Mennonite Life under Communist and Nazi Rule (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 47.
7 SD, “Ereignismeldung UdSSR Nr. 135,” November 19, 1941, R 58/219, Bundesarchiv, Berlin, Germany.
9 Heinrich Hamm to Franz Harder, October 6, 1943, German Captured Documents Collection, Reel 290, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., USA (hereafter LoC). Hamm’s contact, Franz Harder, was a Danzig-based genealogical researcher. Since 1942, Harder had been helping Hamm to compile a genealogical list proving his Aryan ancestry—a document useful for Hamm’s wartime employment in Nazi-occupied Ukraine as well as his eventual application for German citizenship. Hamm’s letter came to the attention of the leadership of Germany’s two largest church conferences via Benjamin Unruh to Vereinigung and Verband, October 18, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, Mennonitische Forschungsstelle, Bolanden-Weierhof, Germany (hereafter MFS). It subsequently appeared in print as Heinrich Hamm, “Die Umsiedlung der Volksdeutschen aus Dnjepropetrowsk im September 1943,” Nachrichtenblatt des Sippenverbands Danziger Mennoniten-Famlien 8 (December 1943): 3-4.
10 Thousands of Mennonites in Ukraine had already received gifts of clothing and household goods taken from Holocaust victims, including Jews shot by mobile killings squads in Ukraine as well as others deported to industrial-scale concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Poland. Some Mennonite families in Ukraine had also moved into houses made available by the murder of previous Jewish residents. Privileges provided by Nazi occupiers to Ukraine’s Mennonites thus already depended on mass expropriation of supposed non-Aryans, so in 1943 when the retraction of the Eastern Front forced tens of thousands of Mennonites and other Ethnic Germans westward, the redistributive welfare practiced by Hitler’s functionaries again relied on plunder acquired through large-scale racial crimes. The Governor of the District of Galicia, for example, wrote during high-level debates about where to resettle Mennonites from Chortitza: “New settlements can currently only be facilitated through radical removal of the local population with no possibility of return…. In the longer term, around 20,000 hectares [50,00 acres] for settlement purposes could be made available through use of the former Jewish properties that are now under German administration.” Otto Wächter to Rudolf Brandt, October 21, 1943, T-175, roll 72, NARA.
11 For instance, a handwritten remark on a letter from Franz Harder to the German Foreign Institute identified Hamm as a confidant of Karl Stumpp, who led a Dnepropetrovsk-based commando of the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories. Franz Harder to Deutsches Ausland-Institut, Forschungsstelle Danzig des DAI, and Kurt Kauenhowen, October 10, 1943, German Captured Documents Collection, reel 290, LoC. On Stumpp, see Eric Schmalz and Samuel Sinner, “The Nazi Ethnographic Research of Georg Leibbrandt and Karl Stumpp in Ukraine, and Its North American Legacy,” Holocaust & Genocide Studies 14, no. 1 (2000): 28-64.
12 “I now also intend to travel to Stutthof [prior to meeting with the political leadership of Reichsgau Wartheland] to visit Gerhard Epp and Heinrich Hamm (from Dnepropetrovsk). The latter has resettled there from Litzmannstadt. Would you come with me?” Benjamin Unruh to Abraham Braun, February 23, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS. Unruh and Braun visited Epp and Hamm in Stutthof from March 23 to 25, 1944. Benjamin Unruh “Bericht über Verhandlungen im Warthegau im März 1944,” March 30, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS.
13 Heinrich Hamm to Benjamin Unruh, July 23, 1948, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 2, folder 7, MFS.
14 Gerhard Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetuation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 4 (2010): 512-525. Although Hamm did not precisely describe his duties in Epp’s business (which he called “our factory”), he appears to have acted in an administrative capacity. “How wonderfully [God] saved us,” he remembered. “How often shards and bullets flew into our office, where I worked.” Hamm to Unruh, July 23, 1948.
15 Ibid. On the evacuation of Stutthof, see Danuta Drywa, “Stutthoff: Stammlager,” in Der Ort des Terrors: Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager, vol. 6, ed. Wolfgang Benz and Barbara Distel (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2007),516-520; Marcin Owsiński, “Die Deutschen in Stutthof und Sztutowo,” in Die deutsche Minderheit in Polen und die kommunistischen Behörden 1945-1989 (Paderborn: Schoeningh Ferdinand, 2017), 292-296.
16 Hamm reported that as deputy director of the MCC’s Gronau refugee camp, where he worked from August 1947 until July 1948, his major activities included establishing a catalogue of all known Mennonite refugees in Europe and corresponding with multiple Allied governments to release Mennonite prisoners of war. “The MCC was able to secure many an early release for these men [who had served in Hitler’s armies] from all Allied authorities,” Hamm wrote of his work. “How radiant with joy all these boys were when they arrived in Gronau, where they were warmly welcomed.” Hamm to Unruh, July 23, 1948. Hamm and his family remained connected to the Mennonite church and to trans-Atlantic refugee operations after arriving in Canada in 1948. See for example Hans Werner, “Integration in Two Cities: A Comparative History of Protestant Ethnic German Immigrants in Winnipeg, Canada and Bielefeld, Germany, 1947-1989” (PhD diss., University of Manitoba, 2002), 111-112.
This past summer I found myself reviewing a number of classic early Anabaptist works as I researched and wrote a chapter on Anabaptist eschatology. As I researched and read I was struck by an unrelated phenomenon—the prevalence of the creeds in several of these writings. In the four years since I first began attending a Mennonite Church, I have sometimes heard Anabaptists referred to as non-creedal Christians. It is certainly true that, when asked to describe what it means to be Anabaptist, most Anabaptists will understandably give an answer that prioritizes doctrines and practices that are not common to the majority of Christian churches, particularly pacifism or credobaptism. Similarly, when drawing doctrinal boundaries around their churches (something they were as ready to do as the state churches, though not at the point of a sword), Anabaptists have tended to appeal to Scripture directly, since its authority superseded any creeds and confessions, however valuable.1 Nevertheless, insofar as the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds can be said to summarize the essentials of the Christian faith, the earliest Anabaptists upheld these teaching with only a few exceptions.
Of these exceptions, the anti-Trinitarianism of Adam Pastor and of the Polish Brethren was never particularly popular, and in Pastor’s case resulted in his being banned. The more significant exception is Melchior Hoffman’s Christology—his assertion that Christ took no human flesh from Mary, who served only as a vessel, and instead possessed his own, celestial flesh. Menno Simons also adopted and promulgated this Christology—indeed it was one of the most significant features the Mennonites inherited from their predecessors the Melchiorites as they sifted through the legacy of Münster and determined what to retain and what to rebuke. Despite Menno and Dirk Phillips’ defense of this doctrine, support for it faded over the ensuing centuries, as the Dutch Mennonites made common cause with Swiss Anabaptists.2 This teaching was not necessarily irreconcilable with the letter of the Apostles’ Creed (they did still believe Christ to be born of the virgin Mary) but it was unquestionably a departure from the way these creeds had historically been interpreted. Nevertheless, the Dutch Anabaptist Thieleman Janzs van Braght, writing in the seventeenth century, had no trouble including the Apostles’ Creed in the Martyrs’ Mirror as a distillation of true, simple faith, and he described the three representative seventeenth-century confessions of faith that followed as elaborations on this core creed.3
The most enthusiastically creedal of the early Anabaptists was undoubtedly Balthasar Hubmaier. He referred often to the Apostles’ Creed, or the Twelve Articles of the Christian Faith. He considered acquiescence to and understanding of these articles a prerequisite for baptism and included them in his Christian Catechism, published in early 1527.4 During his 1526 imprisonment in Zurich, he even produced a devotional writing centered entirely around the Apostles’ Creed. He expanded upon the creed’s articles and transformed it into a prayer by changing the pronouns for God from the third to the second person, expressing the comfort and hope that he found in these doctrines.5 He also found the Apostles’ Creed polemically useful and appealed to it to advocate against the doctrine of transubstantiation and for believers’ baptism.6 As far as Hubmaier was concerned, the form of Christianity for which he advocated was not only compatible with these twelve articles, it was in fact more faithful to them than Catholic, Zwinglian, or Lutheran forms of Christianity.
The Hutterite Theologian Peter Riedemann likewise drew extensively on the Apostles’ Creed when he wrote his Confession of Faith during his imprisonment in the early 1540s. The Creed formed the scaffolding of the first part of the confession, as he elaborated on each clause: his beliefs on God the Father, the creation of Heaven and earth, Christ the son, the incarnation, and so forth. In choosing this framework, Riedemann appealed to many beliefs he held in common with his captors, but he also provided a distinctly Anabaptist gloss on these beliefs, emphasizing the importance of gathering a church without spot or wrinkle.7 He then went on to elaborate the points where Hutterite teaching diverged, including believers’ baptism, community of goods, and opposition to warfare.
Hymnody has long been a method of doctrinal formation for Anabaptists, and the second hymn of the Ausbund provided the faithful in Switzerland with the opportunity to rehearse the teachings of the creeds. The hymn is described as “the Christian faith, in song form,” and consists of three verses, one for each person of the Trinity. It appears to be an attempt to harmonize the two principal Christian creeds: it contains elements unique to the Apostles’ Creed, such as Christ’s descent into hell, as well as to the Nicene Creed, such as the description of Christ as “begotten, not made” and “of one substance with the Father” and the mention of baptism. At times, it elaborates further than either Creed. Nearly half of the stanza on God the Father lists “things visible” he has created—plants, sun, moon, stars, animals, and humans—before concluding with a mention of “things invisible.”8
The first generation of Anabaptists all converted as adults, after having already received some amount of Christian spiritual formation. These creeds formed part of the foundation that they brought with them into their new understanding of Christianity. Even as they were foundational, however, they were largely taken for granted—unlike nonresistance or believers’ baptism, the creeds were never under attack by either Catholics or magisterial Protestants. The creeds, then, could be seen as a quieter, less visible part of early Anabaptist identity—not particularly useful to distinguish Anabaptists from other Christians or explain the persecution they suffered, but nevertheless a useful description of the God in whom they trusted and the future for which they hoped.
1 They did, however, consistently engage in the work of attempting to formulate confessions that they felt faithfully reflected Scripture. See Karl Koop (ed.), Confessions of Faith in the Anabaptist Tradition, 1527-1660, second edition (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2019).
2 For more, see C. Arnold Snyder, “Christology” in Anabaptist History and Theology: Revised Student Edition (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 1997), 375-390.
3 Thieleman Janzs van Braght, Het Bloedig Tooneel of Martelaers Spiegel der Doopsgesinde of Weereloose Christenen (Amsterdam: Hieronymus Sweerts et al., 1685). https://books.google.com/books?id=UxmlV7PyedoC Support for the Melchiorite formulation of the Incarnation was already reduced by this point. The seventeenth-century van Braght includes take no firm position but instead acknowledge the longstanding debate among the Brethren on this question and content themselves with describing Christ’s incarnation as miraculous, however unknowable the specifics might be.
4 Balthasar Hubmaier, “A Christian Catechism which Everyone Should Know Before He Is Baptized” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 349; Balthasar Hubmaier, “A Form for Baptism in Water of Those Who Have Been Instructed in Faith” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 387.
5 Balthasar Hubmaier, “The Twelve Articles of the Christian Faith, Phrased in the Form of a Prayer at Zurich on the Water Tower” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 235-240.
6 Balthasar Hubmaier, “A Letter to Oecolampad” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 70.
7 Peter Rideman, Confession of Faith, translated by Kathleen E. Hasenberg (Bungay, Suffolk: Hodder and Stoughton, 1956), 38.
8Ausbund, Das Ist Etliche Schöne Christliche Lieder, Wie Sie in Dem Gefängnis zu Passau in dem Schloss von den Schweizer-Brüdern und von Andern Rechtglaubigen Christen Hin und Her Gedichtet Worden (Lancaster: Johann Baer and Sons, 1856), 5-8. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Ausbund/VKZXSla-jKoC
The pamphlet reproduced below was first published by the U.S. Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section in 1976. Collecting papers from a 1974 conference at Koinonia Mennonite Church in Clinton, Oklahoma, In Search of Peace: A Challenge from Four Non-white North American Mennonites was a challenging document when it was first published, and it remains so today. The brief chapters below, which readers can navigate to using the table of contents links, will be relevant for historians who concern themselves with Mennonite life in North America during the 1970s, for Mennonite theologians who are search for anti-racist resources in the tradition, and for peace workers and advocates who are interested in the history of Mennonite activism, especially in relation to the Mennonite Central Committee’s Minority Ministries Council.
In a letter from the MCC Canada offices in Winnipeg, Daniel Zehr, director of Peace and Social Concerns, recommends the pamphlet, warning that “To the extent that we white Mennonites have unwittingly or consciously become part of the oppressor, much of what is written here will be disquieting.” My hope in preparing this online edition is that by making its contents accessible this text can resume its disquieting task of unsettling the social and epistemic violence of white supremacy – especially following the Trump administration’s egregious “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping” of September 22, 2020.
The Preface by Hubert Schwartzentruber sets the stage for the pamphlet by pointing to the framing idea of the conference from which the contributions are drawn: “Peace is meaningless unless we work to end the reasons for violence.” His closing line ought to resonate even more deeply during this unprecedented year of protest against police violence: “Until there is justice there will be no peace.” Chapter 1 then provides “A Native American View” of peace and justice from Lawrence H. Hart, in which the author argues for a de-mythologizing revision of white history to account for the peace work of American Indians – a task that Hart has since undertaken in his work through the Cheyenne Cultural Center. Following Hart’s call to active peacemaking, Chapter 2 offers “An Afro American View” by Tony Brown. Brown too calls for active peacemaking, while speaking against the racism of the American military and calling for critical peace education against the appeal of the military life. The “Chicano View” provided by Lupe De Leon, Jr. in Chapter 3 further resists American imperialism and militarism, calling members of historic peace churches to “go beyond mere humanistic values and incorporate the values of ‘carnalismo’ into our ethics.” Lastly, Chapter 4 by editor Emma LaRocque outlines “Dynamics of Oppression,” clearly presenting the complex problems of oppression, colonization, and suffering in terms that would have been – and may yet be – accessible to a wide readership of both laypeople and academics. My hope in providing this digital edition is that its contents would be read and considered again today, just as MCC and the authors hoped in the 1970s.
The following is a faithful copy of the original pamphlet. I have preserved the spelling and paragraphing of the original, and indicated pagination in square brackets where the first number refers to the page that has ended and the second refers to the page that follows (excluding blank pages like page 4). I have corrected only a few typos (‘acheive’, ‘succesful’, ‘agressively’, ‘suffiency’) and I have retained the use of underlining that appears in the original. I am happy to provide a PDF scan of the document for anyone who is interested. With the exception of the bibliographical entries, I have also silently updated the spelling of the editor’s name to accord with how it appears on her current faculty profile (which in the document reads ‘Emma LaRoque’). I have also provided a few footnotes with references to sources used in the text, as well as slightly updated contributor bio notes below. Lastly, I would like to thank Joel Nofziger for his editorial efforts, and Laura Kalmar from MCC Canada for permission to reprint this resource.
Dr. Emma LaRocque (now professor in the Department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba).
Hubert Schwartzentruber (served with his wife June Schwartzentruber at Bethesda Mennonite Church in St. Louis, and then on the Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries).
Lawrence H. Hart (a traditional peace chief of the Cheyenne Nation and founder of the Cheyenne Cultural Center in Clinton, Oklahoma).
Tony Brown (a baritone singer and peace advocate who teaches at Hesston College and directs the Peacing It Together program).
Lupe De Leon, Jr. (a Mennonite minister and Chicano activist, former co-executive secretary of the Minority Ministries Council, a project within the Mennonite Board of Missions until 1973).
In Search of Peace
A Challenge from Four Non-white North American Mennonites
Emma LaRocque, Editor.
Originally published in 1976 by the Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section (U.S.).
A man in the Baltic town of Gdańsk sits at the bedside of his son and weeps. It is the morning of October 26, 1709. The young man is ailing with plague which has swept through the region. The son’s affliction follows the death of his mother a few weeks prior in early September. As the son lies dying, the door to the parlour opens and closes. The father sees no one. But the son sets eyes on his mother, bright and clear, a vision of hope who reassures him that he will soon be with her again. They talk for some fifteen minutes. The clock chimes and the door open and closes. The bright spirit of the woman is gone but she leaves behind the promise that the son will join her soon. And true to her word, the disease takes him too.1
In 1709 deadly plague came to the Baltic regions, spreading up along trade and military routes from southern Poland, part of a larger pandemic which spread through central Asia and the Mediterranean in the first two decades of the eighteenth century. Though it took time to reach the city, and despite control measures, Gdańsk did not escape. In March 1709 a family in a district of the old town fell sick, seven people died, and it was evident that the plague had come to the city. Despite this, one pastor still held a sermon to celebrate the city’s escape, perhaps a ‘super spreader’ event in today’s parlance. The disease’s inevitable growth turned into a twenty-five-week epidemic with twenty-five thousand dead in the city out of a population of only fifty thousand.2
The plague hit the Mennonites hard, as it did the rest of the city of Gdańsk. In the records kept by the Flemish branch of the Danzig (Gdańsk) Mennonite church, a total of 409 people died in this community alone in one year, with most of those deaths concentrated in the last quarter. September, the month that the unnamed man’s wife died, was particularly bad, with 6 or 7 people often dying in one day in this small community. By the end of 1709 the figures amounted to 66 men deceased, 72 women, 18 young women and 4 young men. 249 people died who are not listed separately as they were unbaptised, mostly children.3 The extent of loss is evident from the stark reality of the numbers, but rarely do we see material like this document, a letter written by the man to his relatives in Altona. It is a special testimony to experiences of death and illness amongst these Mennonites. The man lost his wife, his two sons, Johann and Cornelius, his sister Sara, his brother Johann, his brother-in-law Paul and his mother. He was left alone to contemplate his grief.
The letter underscores the physical impact of a devastating illness but also the power of emotional deterioration. These experiences paralleling one another. Both seem to break down the boundaries between the spirit and the body, the dead and the living. Visions abound in the story that the man relates to his relatives. The unnamed man described the worsening state of his son saying that he ‘raged’ or was delirious, using the verb ‘rasen’ suggesting he had lost his senses. However, the son’s delirium was mirrored by the derangement of the father who wept at his son’s side and was distraught. His grief had some of the same symptoms of his son.4 And it was in a dissociative state, in a dream, that the father’s grief led to visions which mirrored the fevered conjurings of his son. His brother-in-law Paul appears to him three times—once after his wife’s death, once after his son Johann’s, and once in the summer of 1720. On the second visit, the spirit of Paul says:
“Your son Johann has also come to us. I cannot describe to you the joy, which your wife had with little Cornelius, when she saw Johann arrive.”
These visions and visitations are a strange mix of emotional and physical derangement, disassociation and altered states of consciousness when margins become blurred at moments of stress and conflict. The dream-state seems to be a way in which this man expresses his deep loss and grief, his despair contrasted with the joy of his dead family.5 Telling stories seems to soothe his pain. He retells the dream narrative in his letter but dreams themselves can also be seen as subconscious stories we tell ourselves. The father weeps but Paul tells his brother-in-law that, “Our spirits coalesced in love ( he uses the verb ‘verschmelzen’) and there was the greatest joy.” In the dream where he can contact the other world, the father can touch the blessed happiness of the afterlife. The whole letter is steeped in anguish and despair but also hope and love. Does narrating the pain in these tales ease his grief, or merely make him relive it?
The visiting spirits bring knowledge hidden from living men. The mother’s spectre seems to know who will die, although the brother-in-law Paul is only able to give notice of who has arrived in his spiritual world and does not have news of the future. The man even confesses he had made a strange pact with his relative, a pact which looks something like a devilish deal to know the unknowable—what life after death was like. The writer interjects a warning that this should not be copied by others. There is no suggestion that the pact was to be frowned upon in his case but dealings with the world of spirits were dangerous. That the spirits and dreams coincide with the striking of the clock makes it read like a ghost story and there is an otherworldly element to the narrative.6
The powerful interaction between the living and dead is perhaps surprising in a Mennonite letter, but the vision painted evokes a world of light, love and truth. The brother-in-law’s spirit describes the afterlife as if there were first a waiting room, a cavern to which he goes before he is transported to the community of the blessed. The spirit stresses that the wonderful place he now inhabits is the kingdom of the elect. Yet he also reminds his relative that human action on earth could not affect one’s fate beyond the veil. All the weeping and sighing is useless unless there is an inherent unity with the elect.
The father seems to have a longing for death; there is a glimmer in the letter of the transformation that comes with dying and his desire to join the elect.7 Perhaps he just wished to be with his family again but there was a clear sense of the unity of the true community in the afterlife. The son Cornelius also has a moment of joyous realisation when he feels the symptoms of illness and sees his mother. He shouted:
‘‘Dear father, thank God, I am also now so ill, now I will die, and be with my dear mother. O, if I were only already there.’
These are not the words of a man filled with fear and worry but of expectation at being reunited with his mother. There is something deeply touching and personal in these confessions, the suggestion of the tension in the joy the father should feel in the knowledge that his dead family are in the community of the elect and his conviction that he will perhaps soon join them. After all, he is part of the true church on earth. But yet the letter suggests he is not fully comforted; at the level of individual experience, the chasm still remains between the living and the dead.
This is a profoundly moving letter written in a moment of crisis, laying bare the grief and loneliness of a man nearly all of whose family have died and left him on earth. This is also why it so revealing as it throws up questions about the interplay between death and life, presence and absence, the individual and the community, grief and hope. But it is also in these moments of loss, suffering and emotional crisis that we can examine the threads that kept Mennonite communities together. Particularly striking, is the brother-in-law’s description of the marvellous number of those in the afterlife – more than the sand at the sea or the stars in the sky. The widower without his children though remains, as he says, completely alone.
1 ‘Copeij eines Schreibens aus Danzig’, 1720, Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Small Archives, Box 1733, Folder 2.
2 Karl-Erik Frandsen, The Last Plague in the Baltic Region 1709-1713 (Copenhagen, 2010), 26. On the plague in Danzig see also E. Kizik (ed.), Dżuma, ospa, cholera. W trzechsetną rocznicę wielkiej epidemii w Gdańsku i na ziemiach Rzeczypospolitej w latach 1708–1711. Materiały z konferencji naukowej zorganizowanej przez Muzeum Historyczne Miasta Gdańska i Instytut Historii PAN w dniach 21–22 maja 2009 (Gdańsk 2011) and the contemporary account Johann Christoph Gottwald, Memoriale Loimicum, Oder Kurtze Verzeichnüß, Dessen, LoimicumWas in der Königl. Stadt Dantzig, bey der daselbst Anno 1709. hefftig graßirenden Seuche der Pestilentz, sich zugetragen, Nach einer Dreyfachen Nachricht, aus eigener Erfahrung auffgesetzet und beschrieben (1710).
3 H.G. Mannhardt, The Danzig Mennonite Church: Its Origjn and History from 1569-1919, trans. Victor G. Doerksen, ed. and annotated Mark Jantzen and John D. Thiesen (Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas, 2007; co-published with Pandora Press, Kitchener, Ontario).
5 On sleep, dreams and visions see Sasha Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England (New Haven, CT, 2016); Janine Riviere, Dreams in Early Modern England (London and New York, 2017).
6 On dealing with the discernment of spirits see Sasha Handley, Visions of an Unseen World: Ghost Beliefs and Ghost Stories in Eighteenth-Century England (London and New York, 2007); Laura Sangha, ‘ “Incorporeal Substances”: Discerning Angels in Later Seventeenth-Century England’, in Clare Copeland and Jan Machielsen (eds), Angels of Light? Sanctity and the Discernment of Spirits in the Early Modern Period (Leiden, 2012), 255–277; Elizabeth Tingle, ‘Ghost Stories: Noël de Taillepied’s Pischologie ou apparition des esprits (1587) and the Rehabilitation of Purgatory in Late Sixteenth-Century France’, in Elizabeth Tingle and Jonathan Willis (eds), Dying, Death, Burial and Commemoration in Reformation Europe (Abingdon and New York, 2015), 175– 196
7 On grief and suffering in Protestant theology see Ronald K. Rittgers, ‘Grief and Consolation in Early Modern Lutheran Devotion: The Case of Johannes Christoph Oelhafen’s Pious Meditations on the Most Sorrowful Bereavement (1619)’, Church History 81.3 (2012), 601-630.
The following is the third article in the series Trachtmaokas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos
The 1960s and 70s were a turbulent time within the Mennonite settlements in the Tres Culturas Region of Chihuahua, Mexico. Communities split over the introduction of electricity and running water, which were previously forbidden. Excommunications for putting rubber tires on tractors and buying cars and trucks were so common that colony land directly adjacent to the outskirts of Cuauhtémoc was settled by excommunicated people and became known the Quinta Lupita colony. For poor, landless young men in the colonies, referred to by some as “Mennonite cowboys,” semi-truck driving became a path to economic and social freedom. With newfound access to vehicles, families began joining migrant farm labor circuits in the U.S. and Canada, earning more in a few months than they could earn in years in Mexico.1 Suddenly, the Campos weren’t so isolated from Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, and the rest of the world. Commerce between Mestizos and Mennonites exploded since it was no longer limited to the distance that could be covered by a horse and buggy.
However, this increased mobility did not typically extend to women in the colonies, particularly young, single women like Aganetha Loewen Wiens. Aganetha grew up in a traditional Old Colony community during these tumultuous years and feeling the buzz of this movement around her, she was determined to pursue and education beyond the sixth grade. Although she didn’t speak Spanish and was the only Mennonite in the school, she insisted on attending the only accredited secondary school in the area at the time, in the village of Alvaro Obregon. She told the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project (REBB) in 20182:
I did it practically without speaking any Spanish and all of school was in Spanish. I struggled a lot in those first months to understand the teachers. Sometimes, I would find out later that they assigned homework. But I had some good classmates who saw I was struggling who came and asked me if I understood what homework we were supposed to do. It was an extraordinary experience.
Aganetha always pushed against the boundaries of what was acceptable in her community, moving to Chihuahua to attend college after completing secondary school, years before anyone else, male or female, would do so.
I had the idea of going to Chihuahua to study nursing, I had a lot of obstacles, especially from my family, there was no economic support, nothing. Nobody supported me when I had this idea, but there was a teacher from the Campo 101 school who gave me economic support and support in every sense of the word to be able to study there. During those years, I learned that, yes, change is possible, yes, that it’s possible to live differently. Afterwards, I told myself: Yes you can, if you want to, anything is possible.
She became a nurse and married a Mestizo man, a doctor, whom she met at the hospital during her year of assigned government social service and had three children. She also trained to be midwife during an era in Mexico, the second half of the twentieth century, which historian Ana Maria Carillo referred to as “the death of the midwife.”3 Aganetha described the dynamics with the traditional Ojo de la Yegua Colony where she and her husband moved and opened a clinic in the 1980s:
It was a very traditional community. When we started there, there was no highway, no electricity. . . . In the practice we had a room where we attended births. The women were very isolated. I had been rejected because I left the community. But they came for medical attention. That was not rejected. They accepted that. There was no problem. Lots and lots of people came. Those who didn’t know Spanish struggled a lot to go to the doctor. For this reason, they sought us out. We had the advantage that we could communicate with them in their language.
When Aganetha began attending births in the Mennonite Campos in the 1980s, it was nearly impossible for Mennonite women, traditional or non-traditional, to have any formal medical training and those who would have wanted to obtain it would have had to go to Chihuahua to receive it. During this period from the 1980s to the early 2000s, the gap between the Spanish speaking medical establishment and Low-German speaking Mennonite women remained wide, and at the same time, many birthing and post-partum practices traditionally practiced in Mennonite culture, such as home births and breast feeding, were becoming less and less common in many colonies for a variety reasons internal and external (following contemporary national and global trends), leaving many Low-German speaking Mennonite women, particularly in the most conservative communities, without adequate access to care from either the Spanish speaking medical establishment or from traditionally trained Mennonite midwives.4
Aganetha’s training as a nurse and cultural and linguistic background gave her the ability to provide maternal care to women who would not have otherwise had access. Running the clinic with her husband, a medical doctor, provided her with a framework for acceptance within the professionalized, male dominated medical establishment and gave her credibility in an environment that was increasingly skeptical of midwifery. Her training as a nurse; however, provided her with skills and knowledge unavailable to previous generations of traditional midwives and was a pre-cursor to later movements in maternal health care that would incorporate modern medicine with the care, skill, support and advocacy provided by midwives to give women a voice known in their pre and post-natal care and in the birthing process. In Mexico, this movement toward a more woman-centered standard of maternal became known as the fight for “partos humanizados,” or “humanized births.”5 During the time Aganetha and her husband ran their clinic in the Ojo de la Yegua Colony, Mennonite women wanted hospital births, but did not have access to them in their remote location. Aganetha was able to serve as a bridge the medicalization and professionalization of maternal care and midwifery by providing Mennonite women with the culturally appropriate medical care in their language that they were unable to get anywhere else.
After her husband’s death in 1998, Aganetha continued running the clinic and pharmacy and attending births on her own. Though she eventually closed her clinic and pharmacy in the Ojo de la Yegua Colony, she relocated to the Swift Current Colony where she continues to practice to this day. During her interview with the REBB Oral History Project, Aganetha excused herself from the interview to attend to a patient who honked her horn in the driveway to alert Aganetha that she had arrived. After about fifteen minutes, Aganetha returned and poured more coffee before sitting down to finish the interview. Reflecting on how her work as a nurse and midwife has changed over the course of nearly forty years, she smiled and said:
I still work here. I still do what I love and use what I learned. I have a pharmacy and I love working there and seeing people in the practice. Recently, there has been one birth after another. Children are still born here, and I love attending the births. I can’t really say anything has changed about the work itself because I do it the way I’ve always done it. In the thirty-five to forty years since I went to school, things have improved a lot. The mentality is more open. It’s not so closed anymore.
Though Aganetha and became a nurse and midwife against the wishes of her family and community, the transition between the tumultuous times of change and reform in the Mennonite colonies and today, where there is a greater diversity of religious expression, more educational opportunities, and increased access to healthcare, was very difficult, and it would not have been possible without the work of women who left the traditional church (through excommunication or by their own choice, like Aganetha) who later returned to their communities to serve and support the women who still lived there.
Part four of this series on the history of midwifery and maternal health in the Mennonite Campos of the Tres Culturas Region of Chihuahua will explore the dynamics concerning the resurgence of midwifery in Mexico, particularly in rural areas, as well as, the role of Katia LeMone, a Certified Nurse Midwife from New Mexico, whose close relationship with her Mennonite clientele laid the groundwork for the creation of Casa Geburt Birthing Center and Midwifery Training School that serves clients and midwifery students from Mennonite, Mestizo, and Indigenous Rarámuri backgrounds in the heart of the Campos Menonitas.
1. David Klassen, interviewed by Abigail Carl-Klassen, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, 2018.
2. Aganetha Loewen Wiens, interviewed by Abigail Carl-Klassen, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, 2018.
3. Carrillo, Ana Maria, “Naciemiento y muerte de una profesión. Las parteras tituladas en México” (“Birth and Death of a Profession. Certified Midwives in Mexico.” DYNAMIS, 167-190, 1999.
4. Katia LeMone, interviewed by Abigail Carl-Klassen, Rebels, Exiles and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, Mennonite Heritage Archives, 2018.
5. Alejandra Saena Izunza, “Parir en México es un acto de resistencia” (“Giving Birth in Mexico is an Act of Resistance”), Washington Post, Jan. 13th, 2020.
2020 has been a remarkable year. It’s the kind of year that historians will write bestselling books about, as they have for the 1918 influenza pandemic or the global tumult of 1968. The list of events is long and includes pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong; disastrous fires in Australia; impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump; the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns, and continued aftermath; the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the global protests against racism and police brutality that followed; the stock market crash; the soaring profits of the world’s largest and most powerful corporations; more wildfires – unprecedented in scale and intensity due to human-induced climate change – on the west coast of the United States and in South America; a divisive U.S. presidential election campaign; and potentially catastrophic hurricanes on the U.S. Gulf Coast, with more storms on the way.
The list continues to grow. With no end of the pandemic in sight (at least in the United States), the northern hemisphere is bracing for a wintertime resurgence of the virus and long months of separation from friends, family, and community. The U.S. presidential election in November promises to be contentious. While President Trump seeks to rally his base, detractors continue to decry his racism, his climate change denial, his efforts to undermine the U.S. Postal Service, and his authoritarian tendencies. Some, including former President Barack Obama, have even warned that the future of democracy in the United States is at stake.1 The pandemic has exposed multiple fault lines – including systemic racism, gender inequality, and massive economic disparities – that continue to shape societies around the world, prompting some to imagine what a post-pandemic world could (or should) look like.
Indeed, future historians will have much to ponder about 2020 and its significance as a watershed moment in history. They will also have an abundance of sources to consider. The internet continues to democratize access to information and provides a ready platform for any person or organization with an agenda to promote. The proliferation of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and “fake news” will further complicate efforts to understand this moment in history. Despite these challenges, on the surface it seems that access to sources of information will not be a problem.
Yet, as historian Jill Lepore reminds us, historical sources do not preserve themselves, even if they are posted on the internet. Historians of the future will continue to rely on librarians and archivists to preserve and provide access to the primary sources they need for their research. In recognition of this fact, cultural institutions around the world have launched collecting initiatives to make sure that the historical record of the unprecedented events of 2020 is not lost to future generations. To track these documentation efforts, the International Federation for Public History and the Made By Us consortium created a map, which now includes information about almost five hundred different collecting projects. In the U.S. and Canada, colleges and universities, local public libraries, state historical societies, and federal governments are all getting involved.
At the beginning of August, sixteen Anabaptist and Mennonite archives and history organizations in the United States and Canada joined these efforts by launching Anabaptist History Today (AHT). AHT is a collaborative storytelling project that seeks to document the events of 2020 “through an Anabaptist lens.” We created a website where people in the Anabaptist and Mennonite community can submit stories and digital files (photos, audio recordings, videos, screenshots, and more) to illustrate how the events of 2020 have impacted their lives, their congregations, and their communities. After volunteer curators have a chance to review submissions, we post them to the public on an exhibit page.
People and organizations across the Anabaptist community have responded to the crises of 2020 with creativity, compassion, solidarity, and generosity. But the responses have not been uniform. The interconnected events of the last several months have also magnified rifts and strained ties that bind the faith community together. Our job as historians, librarians, and archivists is to document this moment in history in all its diversity and complexity.
Anabaptist History Today has the potential to play a critical role in this regard. The project is open to anyone who identifies as Anabaptist, regardless of political or religious convictions or denominational affiliation. The website also provides an important tool for capturing personal stories and experiences that might not otherwise be recorded or preserved. Due to web-archiving tools like Archive-It, the response of the institutional church (including denominational agencies, conferences, and other partners) will already be well documented. These accounts are important, but we want to create a fuller picture by recording stories and reflections that are happening behind the scenes, ones that capture the daily, lived experiences of people in the Anabaptist and Mennonite community.
As a crowdsourced project, AHT relies on the interest and engagement of the public. We’ve already received some good contributions, including a description of a typical Sunday morning during the pandemic in Harrisonburg, Virginia; an eighty year old Mennonite’s reflection on Black Lives Matter; and a podcast documenting experiences in the Portland Mennonite Church community. At the same time, we realize that these are difficult times. Amid ongoing stresses and challenges and the pressing needs in our communities, documenting our lives for posterity may not be a priority for many people.
I encourage people to view AHT as an opportunity to take an active role in a project that will enrich understanding of the Anabaptist community during a defining moment in history. AHT provides a chance to take a step back and reflect on how your life has changed over the course of this year. You do not have to be a trained theologian to get involved. We are not looking for polished treatises. What we want are individual snapshots that reflect your personal experiences in your local congregation or community. Scroll back through your camera roll and find that photo you took at your church’s physically distanced worship service. Type out that poem or reflection you wrote in your journal in April. Take a screenshot of the Facebook post you wrote after attending a Black Lives Matter protest in June. Record a short interview with your pastor about their experiences. Then take five minutes and submit your story on the Anabaptist History Today website.2
People around the world are coping with new realities in 2020 and hundreds of cultural institutions are working to document the human stories that are emerging. How have you acted on your faith during this time of crisis? How has your local community responded? What has been unique about your experiences? Anabaptists of the future will want to know.
The following is the second article in the series Trachtmaokas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos
In the years following the Mexican Revolution, a Mennonite midwife, Susanna Shellenberg, whose life and work was referenced in Part 1 of this series on the history of midwifery and maternal care, was ordered by the government to stop attending births and providing the local communities of Cuauhtémoc, Cusihuiriachi, and Santa Rita with herbal remedies. What happened next was the result of a perfect storm of contemporary socio-political and religious dynamics unfolding at the national level, as well as changing sentiments about midwifery and traditional healing that coincided with the development of Mexico’s national public health system and its focus on modernizing medical treatment in rural areas.
The years following the Mennonites’ arrival in San Antonio de los Arenales (modern-day Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, Mexico,) from Canada in 1922, were marked by an intense period of national political and social reorganization following the Mexican Revolution. Pancho Villa’s soldiers in the north and Emiliano Zapata’s soldiers in south and central Mexico, returned home to conditions that were similar under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz and continued pushing for increased land reform through armed revolt and political action. Some of these conflicts played out in and near the Mennonite Campos, detailed by local historian José Luis Domínguez in his book The Other History of the Mennonites (La Otra Historia de los Menonitas), and led to the creation of the Two Hundred Colony (Colonia Dos Cientos), so called for the 200 pesos paid for in exchange for giving up their claim to land now occupied by Mennonites.1
President Álvaro Obregón, who during his term (1920-1924) granted privilegium to the Mennonites to settle in the state of Chihuahua, enforced land reform provisions that had been laid out in the 1917 Constitution, but had not implemented in practice into the Mexican government’s infrastructure. He was viewed by many as a force that quelled unrest and that navigated the unification and modernization of Mexico, while negotiating increased commercial relations with the United States. However, in years following his term (1926-1929), an armed conflict, known as the Cristero War (La Cristiada), raged in the western and central regions of the country (excluding border states like Chihuahua) between President Plutarco Calles’ anti-clerical forces that advocated for a secular state and the enforcement of punitive “Calles Laws” and the Cristeros who supported the Catholic Church. In 1928, Álvaro Obregón succeeded Calles and was re-elected president, but was assassinated soon after because of his support of Calles and his anti-Catholic policies. A peace between Calles’ forces and the Cristeros and was brokered in 1929 through a complex web of international negotiations, which included a U.S. ambassador, the Knights of Columbus, and representatives from the Vatican.2
The 1930s ushered in the beginning of a period of relative stability and the election of Lázaro Cardenas in 1934 marked an increased push to modernize Mexico, with special attention to its rural areas. This period of reorganization, while tumultuous, shaped the economic, socio-political and religious dynamics in Mexico to this day and gave birth to some of modern Mexico’s institutions such as the Ejidal public land system and the national public health system3 and serves as the historical backdrop to the following oral history testimony concerning a confrontation between a Mennonite midwife, Susana Shellenburg, two local Cuauhtémoc doctors, and the Mexican government.
Coinciding with the drafting of the 1917 Constitution, which focused on land reform, the roles and responsibilities of the secular, centralized federal government, and the protection, fundamental human rights of Mexican citizens, which included healthcare, Mexico also created the first iteration of its national department of public health (Departamento de Salubridad Pública) that focused on the provision of potable water, the prevention and treatment of contagious diseases, and the launching of vaccination campaigns. By 1931, the State Health Services (Servicio de Sanidad de los Estados) was established to build health infrastructure and access in rural areas and was the precursor to the national public health system that Mexico has today that was created in a variety of iterations beginning in the 1940s.4
The following oral history, which was shared with Casa Geburt Midwifery Training School by Susanna Thiessen, Susana Shellenberg’s great-grandaughter, occurs in the midst of these sweeping national public health campaigns and reforms.
“My great-grandmother [Susana Shellenberg] was born in Canada in 1905 and was the wife of Heinrich Shellenberg. Susana learned how to attend births and how to heal the sick with herbs from two traditional Jewish women in Canada.
In 1927, Heinrich, Susana, and their two daughters came to Mexico. At that time, there were no doctors in the Cuauhtémoc area. She immediately began to care for the sick. After some years in Mexico, she also began to provide midwifery services. She served in the Campos Menonitas, as well as in the Mexican ranches. Sometimes, people came for her in the middle of the night in a horse and buggy to take her to attend births or to heal the sick.
Many times, the people were so poor, they couldn’t even offer her a coffee. She attended many births where she didn’t receive payment of any kind. She also took along baby clothes and blankets because she knew that the people didn’t have anything to keep their babies warm.
Some years later, doctors began to arrive in Cuauhtémoc, including Dr. Cazale and Dr. Barba Cornejo. The city had grown with the passing of time. There were people who were jealous of the type of help that Susana was providing and made a legal complaint against her with the government. She had to stop helping people for a time until some Mexican people that she had helped before said, “This woman saved our families’ lives and we want her to continue helping people.” The Mexicans fought for Susana until after some time, the government gave her a permit to be able to continue working freely.”
Despite tensions surrounding land disputes between Mestizos and Mennonites during this period as well as accusations that the government was giving preference to the Mennonites as a religious group in a state that purported secular governance, Susanna’s rapport with the local Mestizo community was so strong that they came to her defense and demanded that she be allowed to continue to practice. Additionally, the local community’s support of Susanna reveals resistance of many within the rural population to embrace the modern medical infrastructure they felt was being imposed on them by outsiders from Mexico City. To avoid additional unrest in an already delicate socio-political, economic and religious environment, the government conceded to the will of local Cuauhtémoc residents and Susanna was allowed to continue to practice.
Though the Mestizo residents advocated on behalf of Susanna Shellenberg and she was given a special permit by the government to continue practicing, Susana’s story is representative of a common theme occurring at that time in Mexico. As medicine became professionalized in Mexico, midwifery was seen as a threat to medical practice the woman-centered model of maternal provided by midwives was replaced by an almost exclusively male, professional medical establishment, which in keeping with commonly held views of the time, viewed pregnancy and birth through the lens of pathology and did not provide women a voice or position within the new modern medical system.
Doctor María Graciela Freyermuth Enciso, a researcher for Mexico’s National Social Development Policy Institute (CONEVAL) and a social anthropologist who focuses on maternal health and midwifery while simultaneously chronicling the history of midwifery in Mexico writes, “Midwifery almost went extinct in Mexico….midwives were criticized by doctors and didn’t have a voice in that transition.”5 Though Susanna continued to work as a midwife and herbal healer for the remainder of her life, she was the exception not the rule.
Susanna Thiessen describes her great-grandmother’s work after she was given permission by the government to begin practicing again saying,
“My great-grandmother continued her work out of her home where she had a small clinic and saw patients freely. Sometimes, people had kidney problems and she attended to them for weeks in her home. At first, she ordered the products for her natural remedies from Germany, but there was a problem with the package delivery and she began to place orders with Mexican companies. She needed these herbs to care for sick patients. Sometimes, she sold a little of the medicine, but very cheaply, because many times people didn’t have money.
She had two books with medicinal recipes and she made many of the remedies herself. She worked into her old age. She was eighty years old when she attended her last birth and it was the birth of her great-grandson, her granddaughter’s son. This child’s mother said that this child who was born with his great-grandmother was stronger than the other children who were born in hospitals with doctors.”
By the 1980s, when Susanna Shellenberg died, births in the Tres Culturas Region with the exception of the most rural and marginalized women from Mestizo, Mennonite, and Rarámuri backgrounds, were almost exclusively attended in hospitals. The vast majority of these births were performed by C-section, which matched trends nationally. Though the national health system drastically improved health outcomes in many areas, particularly in the prevention and treatment of infectious disease, the maternal and infant mortality rates, particularly in rural areas of Mexico, remain so high that World Health Organization, federal, state and local governments, and health care workers in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors are continuing to seek the development of community health models and culturally responsive maternal care that will improve mortality outcomes.6
Part 3 of this series will explore the beginnings of the resurgence of midwifery in Mexico generally and the Mennonite Campos specifically, exploring the origins nurse midwives who beginning in the 1970s, began practicing integrating the knowledge and community trust held by traditional midwives with modern medical training, giving particular attention to the experiences of a nurse and midwife who is still practicing in the Campos today, Aganetha Loewen Wiens.
[Oral History translated from German to Spanish by Sara Banman, a graduate of Casa Geburt’s midwifery training school, also currently working in the Campos Menonitas.]
[Oral History translated from Spanish to English by Abigail Carl-Klassen.]