My Anabaptist Heritage and the Classroom

“Why does a historian study the dead ‘past’? To reveal how much of it lives in us today.”1 Recently Abigail told me that she has this brief quotation posted on her refrigerator. She had noted it during one of my lectures and wanted to keep it where she would see it every time she opened her fridge door. During our conversation, she owned that in the class on “Canadian Church History” that she had recently completed with me, she had learned for the first time that slavery is a part of our nation’s past. North of the 49th parallel, we prefer to focus on our role in helping enslaved people towards freedom through the Underground Railroad.2 As the hard truth was exposed, she confided, a new awareness of her own racism began to emerge. Our conversation confirmed for me that some of my passion for the classroom had stuck. My sense of mission had born fruit.3

My life in university classrooms spans five decades. Early on in my student life I began to imagine myself in the role of professor. I recall sitting in a class on “Canadian Indian History,” as it was called then, observing Professor Palmer Patterson and admiring his passion. As a quiet, reserved young woman sitting towards the back of the room, I remember thinking how I’d like to end up where he was, behind the podium – teaching. Not long after that Professor Patterson began to draw me out of my reserve; he assisted me in moving forward, helping to kindle the passion that he had observed in that student in the back of the classroom. His invitation to work under him as a graduate student, and to fill the role of teaching assistant was a critical moment in my development. As an undergraduate, I also admired Professor Frank Epp’s clear understanding of the multiple expressions of Mennonites in Canada and their common Anabaptist heritage that tied them together. He, too, would become a significant mentor.

Decades later I reflect back on being at the front of countless classrooms, attempting to kindle in my students some of the passion that had sparked mine as a young undergraduate. In my development as a teaching professor, I have been inspired by many scholars. Some of those are Anabaptist. But the two thinkers that I find myself returning to again and again are neither Brethren in Christ nor Mennonite. They are Jewish and Quaker. This is hardly surprising, I suppose, with the cultural connections shared between Jewish and Mennonite communities, and shared principles in Anabaptist and Quaker perspectives on peace.

A secular Jew who narrowly escaped the Nazi invasion of Austria, Gerda Lerner’s career as a historian that included the founding of women’s studies, played itself out in the United States. I share Lerner’s feminist principles. But I am a Canadian historian, formed by my Brethren in Christ background and adult academic and faith journey shaped, in part, in Mennonite communities. Although the classrooms where I have taught have been in Liberal Arts institutions and a School of Religious Studies, and they have rarely included Anabaptist students, it seems that whether I’m teaching women’s studies, Canadian history or church history, I come back to Gerda Lerner’s stimulating essay collection Why History Matters, again and again.4

Lerner has spoken to my desire to kindle in students a sense of knowing who they are in relationship to their own past, and that of others. Her work has provided a paradigm for incorporating into my course syllabi those who have suffered intolerance and persecution in the past – indigenous peoples, people of African-Canadian heritage, Asian Canadians, those with Eastern European roots, and the women who comprise more than fifty per cent of every cultural group.5 Lerner’s insistent plea, that the failure to give expression to the underside and dark moments of the past – the horrors of wars, holocausts, genocides, slavery, rape, sexual abuse – will allow such atrocities to happen again and again, reinforces my Anabaptist beliefs.6

Including voices infrequently heard means making hard decisions. What do I omit, so I can do this work? Who decides what is critical? How does one integrate the previously voiceless into the canon? Although none of this is obvious, my Anabaptist background means that from childhood I have viewed the world from outside the mainstream. I have known myself as ‘the other’. This formation has trained me to see the hidden dark places in history; it has planted in me the hope that exposure will promote healing. My Anabaptist background has me teaching in trust that creating an environment that allows students to do some of their own reconciliation work will do its small part in working towards healing and justice.

Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach provides a helpful paradigm for this reconciliation work in the classroom: “Knowing of any sort is relational, animated by a desire to come into deeper community with what we know.”7His insistence that in the classroom the student and the teacher must be in relationship, not just with each other, but with the knowledge that they are together deepening into, provides a model for a community of learners. Abigail responded with surprise as she began to own her previously unnamed racist attitudes; I have also heard students’ gratitude for the naming of their personal hurts and sense of exclusion. As we grow in community with each other and our subject matter, students come to know themselves in a deeper way, even as I do, semester after semester.

In my academic journey teaching mostly Canadian history and Women’s Studies in the Liberal Arts in a variety of universities and colleges in three Canadian provinces, the student with Anabaptist background sitting in my classrooms has been rare. But as I often hear from students whether they are theology, history, women’s studies, Canadian studies majors, that they’ve come out of our experience together in the classroom with a deepened sense of community. They have entered into relationship with me and with each other, as we together deepen our knowledge. Some, like Abigail, tell me that they have gained a new awareness of the necessity to hear the voices of the marginalized and oppressed. Others come to a deeper sense of their own experience of being ‘the other’, sometimes hurt deeply by their experience.

Are my classrooms Anabaptist? I have come to see that at least in part, my attraction to both Gerda Lerner’s insistence on exposing the dark side, and Parker Palmer’s relational way of knowing is a product of my Anabaptist formation shaped by my Brethren in Christ and Mennonite background heritage. As I reflect on my Anabaptist heritage and how it has shaped my experience of the classroom, I, too, come into a deeper knowing and relationship with the past.


  1. Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 54.
  2. Denise Gillard, “The Black Church in Canada,” McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry, Vol. 1 (1998).
  3. See, for instance, my Presidential address to the 1917 meeting of the Canadian Society of Church History published as “Reflections on the Necessity of Canadian Church History, Historical Papers, Canadian Society of Church History (1917).
  4. Thirty-five years ago, on 1 April 1982, Gerda Lerner spoke to the Organization of American Historians in Philadelphia, on “The Necessity of History and the Professional Historian.” It has since been published in her thought-provoking Why History Matters: Life and Thought (NY: Oxford University Press, 1997): 113-28.
  5. For a helpful discussion on the Canadian history of discriminatory legislation, please see Allan Levine, “Slow Road to Tolerance” Canada’s History (April-May 2016), 41-47.
  6. It also parallels the work of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where the revisionist work of numerous Canadian historians figures prominently. See “Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,” Vol. I: Summary “Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future,” (Toronto: Lorimer, 2015). J.R. Miller, Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools (University of Toronto, 1997) and John S. Milloy, A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 – 1986 (Winnipeg, MB: University of Manitoba, 1999) are key in this work.
  7. Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach, 54.

Mennonites and the Magical African-American Friend

The Mennonite church in the United States has established a record from the middle to the end of the twentieth century of welcoming, celebrating, and then frequently discarding charismatic, provocative African-American leaders. Most – but not all – have been men. Some went on to established and well-respected careers outside the confines of the denomination. Few stayed within. Evangelist and seminary professor William E. Pannell provides one such example. I contend here that many of these figures offer striking parallels to the phenomenon of what journalist and author Christopher John Farley has called “magical African-American friends” or MAAFs.1

A MAAF, also referred to more problematically as a “magic negro,” is a well established Hollywood trope in which an African-American character plays a salvific role in the life of a White person, often through magic or supernatural means, even if it means sacrificing themselves to do so. In the 1958 crime drama, The Defiant Ones, Sidney Portier’s character sacrifices his chance at freedom to save the life of the White convict played by Tony Curtis. In The Green Mile (1999), John Coffey as played by Michael Clarke Duncan exercises his healing powers on behalf of a White inmate, White death row guard, and the White wife of the prison warden before being executed. The MAAF trope crops up in a host of other Hollywood dramas such as Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost (1990), and Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption (1994). The list goes on. The comedy duo Key and Peele spoof the Hollywood archetype in a hilarious 2012 skit the skewers the trope’s reliance on stereotypes.

Of particular importance to the function of a MAAF in these films is that the Black figure – again most often male but not always, note the Whoopi Goldberg role in Ghost – usually comes into the life of the White protagonist from outside. In the case of Will Smith’s Bagger Vance, he literally approaches the White lead played by Matt Damon from out of the dark of the night. In few of the films does the Black savior figure stay around in the life of the White person he or she has saved.

William E. Pannell came into the White Mennonite community having spent time with Brethren Assemblies in Detroit. By the end of the 1950s, already a well known evangelist, he began to show up at Mennonite sponsored meetings such as the 1959 round table discussion entitled “Program of Witness to and With Negroes,” held in Chicago and sponsored by the Home Missions and Evangelism Committee of the Mennonite Church.2

Although in these early meetings, his voice in the minutes comes across as reconciliatory and appeasing, that would change over time. While in 1959 he commented, “We should remember that our primary problems are the spiritual, and here we must make our basic contributions,” a year later in the pages of the Mennonite Church news outlet, the Gospel Herald, he caricatured White people as being held hostage by an insurmountable “basic fear” of Black people expressed by trembling “slightly” and mumbling “nonsense about intermarriage.”3 By 1968, an excerpt from his controversial book My Friend, The Enemy criticized White-dominated missions conferences sponsored by congregations that relocated from Black neighbors even as they claimed to minister to them.4 As of 1971, he appeared in the pages of the General Conference news magazine, The Mennonite, with a reflection on the need for the Black community to have “power, control, the sharing of power.”5 That same year he also participated in the AFRAM conference held near Nairobi, Kenya, to bring together African-American and African Mennonites.6

Pannell’s Mennonite connections were more extensive than these publications and meetings suggest. He counted White Mennonite church planer Vern Miller as a “friend and brother,” even indicating that Miller introduced him to Martin Luther King, Jr.7 He recalled conversations with theologian John Howard Yoder while visiting Goshen College and referenced talks he gave at nearly every Mennonite college and high school as well as most Black Mennonite congregations in the U.S.8 Even more importantly, Pannell credited Mennonites with forming his “understanding of servanthood, of discipleship, of dimensions of faith in practice,” going so far as to exclaim in the course of an oral history interview, “Ah, boy, that was good stuff. I watched them live that stuff out in very uncomfortable circumstances. It helped me enormously.”9

And the exchange between Pannell and the Mennonite community wasn’t just one way. His invitation to participate in the 1973 AFRAM conference was only one indication of the trust that Black Mennonites placed in him. Already in 1968, leaders of the racially integrated Broad Street Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, had invited him to consult with them to discern their role as a church in their immediate neighborhood.10 White Mennonites also found Pannell’s contributions helpful. One reader praised Pannell for “Telling it as it is and honestly facing” racism present within the Mennonite community.11

The connection I make between Pannell and the trope of the Magical African-American Friend has less to do with the nature of Pannell’s specific interactions with both Black and White Mennonites than it does with a larger pattern into which his interaction with Mennonites fits.

Consider the following list: Hubert Brown, Curtis Burrell, Rosemarie Harding, Vincent Harding, Warner Jackson, James Lark, Rowena Lark, Joy Lovett, Stan Maclin, Charles McDowell, Dwight McFadden, John Powell, Ed Riddick. Every one of these high-profile African-American individuals appeared on a national Mennonite platform between 1950 and 2000 either as a speaker, author, evangelist, or church official. Every one of them then left the church for at least a stretch of time or disappeared from national attention.12 In the case of Pannell, he had never officially become Mennonite.

So this is my question. What does this pattern tell us about the White Mennonite church during the second half of the twentieth century? Each one of the individuals listed here is worthy of much fuller attention than what this column can offer. The reasons for their specific departures from the Mennonite world range from the most problematic of personal failings to decisions to pursue alternate career paths. But what troubles me as I review this list and ponder the tenure of William Pannell in the Mennonite world is that, like MAAFs, high-profile Black Mennonite leaders have rarely found a long-term home in the church.

And, the historical record would suggest, there is a through line in the personal narratives behind these names that speaks of White Mennonites being willing to be challenged for a period of time but only, in the words of Pannell, in “relationship to a suitcase.”13 Here is what Pannell wrote back in 1968. His words are worth quoting in full:

It took considerable time, several years in fact, before I began to realize that there were any number of people whose acceptance of me was conditioned by my relationship to a suitcase. A singing Negro has always been welcome as long as he is a vagabond, and has no intention to settle with his family. Again this is an overstatement since many would have been delighted if I would have stayed. But they too disappoint me when I discover their unwillingness to fight for my right to stay against those entrenched local forces of bigotry. They handcuffed me to my suitcase by their silence.14

He wrote these words now more than fifty years ago. The Mennonite community today counts a host of African-American leaders who have stayed and are leading the church: Michelle Armster, Leslie Francisco, Glen Guyton, Cyneatha Millsapps, Regina Shands Stoltfzus. There are many others.

Yet, for those of us who are White and Mennonite, the history of Black Mennonite leaders who have left after performing important leadership roles in the church – often at significant psychological and spiritual costs to themselves – is a cautionary tale, one that points to how easily even the best of intentions to welcome and embrace can all too quickly fall into the same traps of paternalism, exclusion, and stereotyping that are at the root of the highly problematic and ultimately racist portrayal of Magical African-American Friends.

In a community that continues to find it far easier to speak of and respond to racism in interpersonal rather than systemic terms, the trap of the MAAF will be one that we will have to work hard to avoid.


  1. Gayle R. Baldwin, “What a Difference a Gay Makes: Queering the Magic Negro,” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 5, no. Fall (2003), http://www.usask.ca/relst/jrpc/art5-whatagay.html.
  2. Linden M. Wenger and Virgil Brenneman, “Program of Witness to and with Negroes,” (Chicago: Home Missions and Evangelism Committee Round Table, 1959), 1.
  3. Ibid.; William Pannell, “The Evangelical and Minority Groups,” Gospel Herald, March 8, 1960, 205.
  4. William E. Pannell, “Somewhere in the Middle,” Christian Living, September 1968, 24.
  5. William Pannell, “Little Black Sambo Still Lives,” The Mennonite, February 16, 1971, 100.
  6. John Powell, “AFRAM to Bring Blacks Together,” Gospel Herald, July 31, 1973.
  7. William E. Pannell, interview by Robert Shuster, April 21, 1998, in person, Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton College, Collection 498, Pannell, William E.; 1929-Interviews; 1995-2007, Audio Tapes, Tape 3, https://ensemble.wheaton.edu/hapi/v1/contents/permalinks/Ne5q4L7G/view.
  8. William E. Pannell, interview by Robert Shuster, February 28, 2000, in person, Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton College, Collection 498, Pannell, William E.; 1929-Interviews; 1995-2007, Audio Tapes, Tape 5, https://ensemble.wheaton.edu/hapi/v1/contents/permalinks/Dz2e8FCa/view.
  9. Ibid.
  10. John S. Weber, “The History of Broad Street Mennonite Church 1936 – 1971” (Senior Thesis, Eastern Mennonite College, 1971), 46.
  11. John E. Fretz, “Hard to Face It as It Is,” The Mennonite, March 2, 1971, 150.
  12. John Powell, for example, returned to the church, fulfilled a variety of leadership roles, and continues to write a column for Mennonite World Review. James and Rowena Lark started a church in Fresno, California, in the mid-1960s that did not have a Mennonite affiliation.
  13. William Pannell, My Friend, the Enemy (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1968), 55.
  14. Ibid.

On Naming Early Modern Anabaptists

What ‘Anabaptism’ means in an early modern document is often ambiguous – a problem which is only compounded when looking at secular bureaucratic sources. Who did early modern authorities think they were dealing with, or talking about, when they issued mandates or negotiated tolerance?

The study of early Anabaptism in Emden is stymied by a paucity of documents. More thorough record-keeping, or record-storing, coincided with the later influx of Dutch Reformed refugees in the 1550s.1 One of the earliest extant documents is a letter dated 12 May 1534, in the midst of the crisis of the Kingdom of Münster but concerning baptisms happening within Emden itself.2 Sent by East Frisian Count Enno II and addressed to the chief magistrates of Emden, it offered an “admonishment” against the continued existence of Anabaptists in the city.3 The letter uses the catch-all term of “wider doper,” but does not identify any leaders of, or even adherents to, this movement. This general reprimand thus suggests either that the leaders’ identity should have been obvious to the magistrates, or that perhaps Enno had only a vague understanding of the matter.

A hybrid document concerning the nearby city of Oldenburg, however, indicates that individual charismatic leaders were indeed traveling through the surrounding area during the 1530s, even if they were not immediately identifiable to authorities. A nineteenth-century excerpt and copy of an eighteenth-century edition of a text, this document was originally assembled by seventeenth-century theologian Gottfried Arnold. This nesting doll-like document nevertheless presents “David Joris’s singular life,” described in the nineteenth-century introduction as originating from a “very old Dutch-language written manuscript.”4 Arnold’s work was undoubtedly some sort of pastiche, as the excerpt included in this document is actually the sixteenth-century “Anonymous Biography of David Joris,” available in translation and edited by Gary K. Waite.5 Waite suggests in the introduction to this piece that the author may well have been Joris himself.6

Joris’s biography describes an Oldenburg still in turmoil following the violence and upheaval of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster. A number of refugees from Münster had found some toleration in Oldenburg, which Waite attributes to an ongoing feud between the Bishop of Münster and the rulers of Oldenburg.7 Joris was ministering to the local Anabaptist and spiritualist congregation, and pushed his claim on authority through an interpretation of signs and mystical interventions that occurred during their discussions – including an incident where a Bible belonging to the Münsterites fell off a table.8

Joris’s reputation would certainly grow in East Frisia. A letter from Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, again addressed to the chief magistrates and city council of Emden, directly addressed the disruption and unrest that imperial authorities expected from Anabaptists in general and Jorists in particular.9

Dated 15 October 1543, it began by greeting the relatively recently widowed Countess Anna von Oldenburg, who assumed the regency of East Frisia following her husband Enno’s death in 1540. The imperial letter expressly demanded the “confession of Anabaptists and other agitators,” which the emperor believed Anna had the power to arrange and compel. Charles identified the ‘ringleader’ as David Joris himself, and requested Joris’s writings, along with the names of other prominent members and journeymen.10 This letter thus establishes the fragmenting groups of ‘agitators’ under charismatic leadership as a phenomenon legible to authorities. Although shielded by official inaction, the followers of Joris as well as other Anabaptists and dissenters existed on the margins of legal residence.

The specifics of naming and differentiating amongst these marginalized religious groups became almost immediately important. Menno Simons arrived in Emden in late 1543 or early 1544 and advocated on behalf of his followers in front of the newly appointed Zwinglian pastor, Jan Łaski. Menno and Łaski had a number of “semipublic” discussions and debates over theological points, and despite significant differences Menno and his followers continued to enjoy some sort of toleration in Emden. Łaski was the first to use the term ‘Mennisten,’ in 1545, apparently as part of a larger scheme to separate these more moderate Anabaptists from their potentially violent brethren.11 When his attempts to debate and persuade these ‘Mennonites’ failed, however, Menno and his followers were ordered out of East Frisia – though many remained.12

By 1556, however, perhaps not coincidentally corresponding with the largest influx of Dutch Calvinist immigrants and the pressures of the Interim, Countess Anna found herself at least performing an insistence on tighter residential controls. In an edict dated 10 January 1556, Anna identified both David Joris and Menno Simons as leaders within the larger frame of Anabaptism.13 Within the text of the edict itself she separates out the “Mennonites, Davidites, Batenburgers, and other damned sects” who were ordered to leave within fourteen days or face punishment.14 The inclusion of the Batenburgers – a violent remnant of the Münsterites who most probably were no longer extant – is curious, and again highlights the problem of bureaucratic knowledge. The boundaries between these groups were recognized by authorities, but only in so far as they cohered as outsiders who were variously tolerated in the city of Emden.


  1.  For secondary reading on Emden, see especially Andrew Pettegree, Emden and the Dutch Revolt: Exile and the Development of Reformed Protestantism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), as well as a recent chapter by Timothy G. Fehler, “Coexistence and Confessionalization: Emden’s Topography of Religious Pluralism,”in Topographies of Tolerance and Intolerance: Responses to Religious Pluralism in Reformation Europe, ed. Marjorie Elizabeth Plummer, and Victoria Christman (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 78-105. 
  2.  Stadtarchiv (StA) Emden, I. Reg. Nr. 415, 1-2.
  3.  StA Emden, Nr. 415, 1: “wir offtmals ein vermanu[n]g doen latenn als der wider doper halben” 
  4.  Niedersächsisches Landesarchiv (NLA) Oldenburg, Slg. 10, Best. 297, Nr. A 54, 1r-3v.
  5.  Gary K. Waite, The Anabaptist Writings of David Joris:1535-1543 (Waterloo, Ontario: Herald Press, 1994). The section that is reproduced in the Oldenburg manuscript runs from pp. 66-70.
  6.  Ibid., 32: “Joris clearly played a major role in the formulation of the anonymous account.”
  7.  Ibid., 302, fn. 94.
  8.  NLA Oldenburg, Slg. 10 Best. 297, Nr. A 54, 3r; Waite, The Anabaptist Writings, 69.
  9.  StA Emden, I. Reg. Nr. 415, 3-4.
  10.  Ibid., 3: Wir schreiben hieneben der Edler unserer lieben Andechtigen Anna gebornen zu Oldenburg und Grauin zu Ostfrisen wittib Das Sy uns die vrgicht der widerteuffer vnd anderer Anfruerischen […] Aber volgendenen widerums auskomen sein mit sambt amer verzaichnus der Namen Irer Mitverwandten vnd gesellen, desgleichen Ires Haubts vnd Redelfuerers Joristen Glaßmachers Buecher zuschicken solle Inhalt vnsers schreibens.”
  11.  George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), 732-734.
  12.  Pettergree, 33. 
  13.  NLA Aurich, Rep. 4 BII d Nr. 1, 2: “Vnnd wi dan befindenn, dat bouen alle vnnse vorigenn Mandata vnnd vtgegangene gebot breue, der Wedderdoperie also Menno Simons vnnd David Joris vnnd anderenn secten anhegiche”
  14.  Ibid., 2: “dat so alle vnnd jder [illeg.] sienn Mennonisten, Davidianen, Baterberger, vnd andere vordampn secten”

APASA Conference: “Theory and Practice in Amish Research”

Friday, August 2, 2019
The historic Hotel Millersburg, Holmes County, OH

Conference hosted by the Amish & Plain Anabaptist Studies Association

Proposals are due by Friday, April 5; registration will follow.

For more details, see: www.amishstudies.org

The ongoing growth of the plain people—the Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, German Baptists, Apostolic Christians, and others—means that more and more people are encountering these subcultures in the public sphere. For this reason, those who specifically study or work with the plain people—including health practitioners, public servants, and social researchers—must continue advancing our bodies of knowledge and best practices through critical evaluation of old paradigms and introduction of new concepts. The goal of this conference is to discuss advances in theory—the conceptual understanding of the plain people—and practice—the hands-on experiences of practitioners working with the plain people. We will also explore the connection between the two, how the lessons of one can be used by the other.

The conference is located in the sizeable Holmes County Amish community, providing opportunities for both leisure and research. For the convenience of attendees, the bi-annual Amish Health Conference of the Center for Appalachia Research in Cancer Education (CARE) will be held back-to-back, on Thursday, August 1, with this conference.

Hitler’s Mennonite Physicist

A Mennonite named Abraham Esau headed the Nazi nuclear program during much of the Second World War.1 Esau’s activities contributed to Albert Einstein’s decision to warn US President Franklin Roosevelt on August 2, 1939, that Hitler’s government was studying atomic chain reactions that might lead to “extremely powerful bombs.”2 The program Esau ran in the Third Reich constituted a prime justification for the United States’ secret Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic weapons. After the war, the North American-based Mennonite Central Committee helped rehabilitate Esau, who in turn downplayed Mennonite involvement in Nazism. 

Abraham Esau, Mennonite physicist. One 1944 article described Esau as “a stocky man with a solid peasant’s skull,” the ideal of a Nazi scientist.

Abraham Esau was born in 1884 to a respected Mennonite family in eastern Prussia. His paternal grandfather was elder of the large Tiegenhagen congregation. He was raised by his father, a local bureaucrat.3 During Esau’s adolescence, Mennonites across Germany adopted nationalist ideals.4 Esau, perhaps more than anyone else, benefitted from the denomination’s new enthusiasm for higher education and military service. After receiving his doctorate in 1908, he performed noncombatant service as a radio physicist. He became involved in an ambitious state-sponsored project to confront British power by building a global wireless network to spread German news.5

Esau cut his teeth combining German expansionism with large-scale physics projects in colonial Africa. In 1914, on the eve of the First World War, he traveled to the German colony of Togo to install a massive radio station, which he subsequently destroyed in the face of invading French troops. French captivity deepened Esau’s nationalism, as did the postwar Treaty of Versailles, which gave much of his native Prussia to a new Polish state. In 1925, Esau joined the faculty at the University of Jena. There, he developed a physics research program. He discovered how to use radio waves for therapy, was nominated for a Nobel Prize, and became university president. 

The rise of Adolf Hitler in 1933 proved fortuitous for Esau. Joining the Nazi Party in May, he strengthened his presidency at Jena within the new political order. The governor of Thuringia appointed Esau a State Councilor, giving him access to powerful Nazi leaders. Meanwhile, his knowledge of radio physics made him valuable to the Propaganda Ministry, for which he served as an advisor. By the end of the decade, Esau had relocated to Berlin, where he headed the Reich Physical and Technical Institute. As a prominent science administrator with impeccable political credentials, Esau eagerly followed new discoveries in the field of high-energy atomic physics. 

The Vemork Hydroelectric Plant in Telemark, Norway. This facility produced heavy water for the Third Reich while Abraham Esau ran the Nazi nuclear program in 1942 and 1943.

Esau headed the Nazi nuclear program briefly in 1939 and then again from March 1942 to the end of 1943.6 In April 1939, he organized a conference on nuclear chain reactions through the Reich Ministry of Education, where he announced plans to collect all uranium in Germany. With the outbreak of the Second World War in September, Esau lost control to the Army Weapons Office, which grew the program during the next eighteen months. Upon determining that nuclear power would not arrive in time to help win the war, the Army relinquished oversight to the Reich Research Council, which Esau headed. He ran the project until falling from political favor. 

Unlike the US Manhattan Project, Esau’s nuclear program was geared toward industrial applications of atomic energy, not bomb production. Nuclear science was certainly big business in the Third Reich. Esau oversaw a budget in 1943 worth $1,200,000.7 But this was hundreds of times smaller than the Manhattan Project, whose total cost reached $2 billion. Anxious not to overpromise at a time when Nazi leaders sought “wonder weapons,” Esau deliberately refrained from discussing atomic bombs with his superiors. This was not for lack of military commitment, however, but rather an effort to keep crucial war funds from being wasted on long-term research. 

On January 1, 1944, Abraham Esau exchanged his title of “Plenipotentiary for Nuclear Physics” for “Plenipotentiary for High-Frequency Technology.” Infighting within the atomic program had earned Esau the enmity of Albert Speer, the Reich Minister of Armaments and War Production. Nevertheless, as Esau handed the atomic program to his successor, he could boast real victories, including the enrichment of uranium isotopes by means of a centrifuge, application of nuclear physics to biology and medicine, and success with particle accelerators. Esau remained in the good graces of Hermann Göring, head of the Air Force, who gave him control of radio matters.

Esau committed the war crimes for which he was eventually convicted not as a nuclear scientist but through his capacity as Plenipotentiary for High-Frequency Technology. The Third Reich had contracted with an electronics company in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands called Philips to produce hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of materials for the war effort. In the autumn of 1944, as Allied forces advanced, Esau ordered an SS captain named Alfred Boettcher to evacuate equipment from Philips in the Dutch city of Eindhoven to Nazi Germany. Boettcher transported goods valued around $28,000 on three large trucks across the border, engaging in war plunder. 

As the Second World War came to an end in 1945, Abraham Esau was apprehended by a special team of American soldiers tasked with finding high-profile Nazi scientists and engineers. Like Albert Speer, the rocketeer Wernher von Braun, and others, Esau was interned and interrogated. In late 1946, Dutch state prosecutors requested that he be transferred to the Netherlands to be tried along with Alfred Boettcher for plundering the Philips electronics company. US officials agreed, deeming Esau less culpable than Speer and less valuable than von Braun. Esau was sent to the Dutch city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where he remained in prison for eighteen months.8

Esau’s first contact with North American Mennonites came while he was in Dutch prison. After the Second World War, an aid organization called Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) built a robust relief presence in the Netherlands, Germany, and other parts of Europe. This agency had a long history of transnational aid work, dating to the 1920s. It had briefly operated in the Third Reich and Vichy France between 1939 and 1942, until the United States entered the war. For several years, MCC concentrated on North American needs. But with the war’s end, it returned to Europe, where staff distributed food and clothing to those suffering in the wake of violence.9

Mennonite Central Committee recruited some personnel from congregations in Germany and the Netherlands, but its most influential staff were drawn from Canada and the United States. Two early members were Peter and Helene Goertz of Kansas. Peter Goertz was the academic dean of Bethel College, a Mennonite institution of higher education, from which he received leave to work in Europe with his wife during 1947 and 1948. Much of their activity concerned the 45,000 Mennonite refugees from Ukraine, Poland, Germany, and the former Free City of Danzig who were then spread across postwar Europe. Their most unusual case was that of Abraham Esau.

Dutch schoolchildren were among thousands of Europeans to receive humanitarian aid after World War II from the North American-based Mennonite Central Committee, or MCC. Credit: Mennonite Library and Archives.

After more than a year of imprisonment in the Netherlands, Esau had become desperate to leave. He wrote letters incessantly, seeking to connect with his former scientific colleagues and to find anyone who could help him achieve freedom. When Esau’s daughter, then living in northern Germany, discovered that a Mennonite Central Committee office had been established in Kiel, she explained her father’s plight and asked if MCC could help. The Kiel office wrote to MCC in Amsterdam, where Peter and Helen Goertz received the request.10 On February 25, 1948, Peter traveled two hours by train to ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where he met with the imprisoned Esau.

Peter Goertz described his encounter with Abraham Esau in correspondence to friends and family in Kansas. Goertz reported that upon arriving at the prison in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, he spent twenty minutes speaking with the warden, who agreed to vacate his office so the two Mennonites could meet in private. They spoke for two hours. To Goertz’s eye, Esau had become a despondent man, in need of “spiritual uplift.” Esau’s demeanor seemed to brighten over the conversation, and he expressed his gratitude so fervently that Goertz himself felt moved. The experience left a deep impression. Back in Amsterdam, he wrote: “Such are rather exciting moments even for me.”11

Over the following months, Peter and Helene Goertz reportedly developed a real friendship with Esau, although from their correspondence, it is hard to escape the thought that the former Nazi scientist cynically played his Mennonite benefactors. Although Peter clearly knew of the charges against Esau, he nonetheless took the prisoner at his word, writing that he “was not a confirmed Nazi,” that he “had been forced to care for physics laboratories in the whole of Germany,” and that “he does not know why he is in prison.”12 Helene, like her husband, expressed awe for Esau’s academic record, describing him as “a great physicist from the German Mennonites.”13

The willingness of Peter and Helene Goertz to believe Esau’s claims of innocence was typical of Mennonite Central Committee’s treatment of other Mennonites from the former Third Reich. After touring several refugee camps, Peter wrote, “It is amazing to me how many of the men from the Danzig area, even among the Mennonites, joined the [Nazi] party.”14 Helene identified attitudes of racism and territorial irredentism among the same group.15 Yet neither they, their colleagues, nor MCC as a whole seem ever to have seriously questioned their project of helping fellow Mennonites. Denominational connections outweighed even known Nazi collaboration.

Abraham Esau received several more visits in prison from Peter Goertz, who along with Helene also visited Esau’s daughter in Germany. Peter supplied his imprisoned friend with scientific and religious reading materials. He charged at least one book on electromagnetism to the MCC relief fund.16 Esau was particularly pleased with another volume, The Story of the Mennonites by the US historian C. Henry Smith.17 Commenting that this book should be available to the tens of thousands of Mennonite refugees then scattered across Europe, Esau began translating the 800-page tome into German using pencils and notebooks that Peter Goertz brought from Amsterdam.

On April 27, 1948, a Dutch court in The Hague released Abraham Esau along with his colleague and fellow inmate Alfred Boettcher, the former SS captain, with no criminal conviction. Exactly why Esau and Boettcher were released is unclear. Possibly, one or more of the letters written by Esau and his daughter convinced someone powerful to intercede on the prisoners’ behalf. It is likely that Mennonite Central Committee played at least a minor role, if only by providing Esau with the ability to claim association with a well-known and respected relief agency. MCC at this time held remarkable legal clout with multiple Allied governments, including the Netherlands.

In any event, Esau and Boettcher immediately made their way, after leaving prison, to the MCC center in Amsterdam. Arriving on May 1, they stayed for nearly a month, until May 28, when the two men left for a camp on the Dutch border, eventually arriving back in Germany. While living in the MCC house, Esau and Boettcher became acquainted with many of the leading Mennonite relief workers in Europe, since they regularly passed through Amsterdam. Both visitors penned glowing thank-you notes. Boettcher was touched with the generosity of the MCC workers after his time in isolation, and he was glad to have learned more about Mennonite faith communities.18

Mennonite staff members working inside the Amsterdam MCC center where the former Nazi scientists Abraham Esau and Alfred Boettcher lived for several weeks in May 1948. Credit: Mennonite Library and Archives.

Helene Goertz described the weeks Esau and Boettcher spent in Amsterdam in her letters. She referred to both men as “university professors” and considered them to be “proved innocent.” To Helene’s mind, Esau and Boettcher were victims of circumstances, who had nonetheless retained “their manners, their cultured ways, and their sense of humor.”19 The former Nazis washed dishes, carried baggage, and enlivened the atmosphere. Both plied Helene with flowers and fresh fruit. “Prof. Esau has been more than generous since you are away,” Helene wrote to her traveling husband. “Twice while I was sick he sent up some luscious strawberries and once a peach!”20

MCC rendered aid to Abraham Esau on the basis of his Mennonite identity, yet it is unclear that Esau was a practicing Mennonite prior to his contact with Peter and Helene Goertz. He had married a Mennonite (since deceased) and retained other family connections, but I have seen no evidence of any religious contacts between Esau and active Mennonite congregations during the Third Reich. A Mennonite Address Book published in Germany in 1936 does not include Esau’s name, despite printing membership lists for all the congregations to which he would likely have belonged.21 One Nazi-era article referred to him simply as from an “ancient peasant family.”22

Yet Esau represented himself to his MCC friends as a good and faithful fellow Mennonite. He attended church in Amsterdam with Helene Goertz, and he used religious language in his letters to her husband. “I thank God, that He has led me into your house and your family,” Esau wrote to Peter Goertz after leaving Amsterdam. He even portrayed his scientific and administrative activities in the Third Reich as consistent with Christian faith, writing: “I will resume the task which God will give to me with the old energy and in the same manner as before.”23 And all the while, he continued translating The Story of the Mennonites, completing ten pages every day.

Esau had nearly finished his German version of The Story of the Mennonites when he departed the MCC center in May of 1948. He left his completed notebooks with Peter and Helene Goertz. Upon arriving at his daughter’s home in northern Germany, Esau finished the work, and he gave the last part of his translation to MCC workers in Kiel, who then brought this document to the Netherlands. Finally, in mid-1948, Peter and Helene Goertz carried the full manuscript with them back to Kansas, where they deposited it at the Bethel College library. They reported Esau’s own hope that his translation would prove “of some profit for Mennonite circles in the world.”24

At the same time Abraham Esau was reconnecting with his Mennonite heritage, he faced critique from his former scientific colleagues. In the early postwar years, German nuclear physicists formed a remarkably solid front against perceived intrusions by occupying Allied forces. They abandoned old internal disputes and helped one another launch new carriers in the wake of the Third Reich’s collapse. Esau was unusual in being largely dismissed by this group. Physicists like Werner Heisenberg, who had won a Nobel Prize for describing quantum mechanics and had been Esau’s chief rival in the Nazi nuclear program, portrayed Esau as irredeemably tainted.25

Notably, it was the radio scientist Leo Brandt, not a nuclear physicist, who aided Esau’s reentry into Germany’s scientific culture. Brandt knew Esau from earlier radio research and now invited him to North Rhine-Westphalia. In 1949, Esau became a professor in Aachen and joined a new aeronautical research institute. Brandt also nominated Esau for West Germany’s highest federal service prize. But fellow scientists, including the Nobel Prize winner Max von Laue, intervened. Von Laue wrote that during the Nazi period, Esau cast himself as a “chief representative of National Socialism.” A former subordinate also testified that Esau had twice threatened to murder him.26

Upon his death in 1955, Abraham Esau left two remarkably distinct legacies. In the scientific world, he was remembered as an ardent Nazi, rejected after the war by many of his onetime friends. He was also a convicted war criminal, having been re-charged in absentia by a Dutch court and sentenced to time served for plundering the Philips company.27 By contrast, Esau was eulogized by prominent Mennonite intellectuals in Germany and the United States. In 1964, when Esau’s translation of The Story of the Mennonites finally appeared in print, the foreword by Cornelius Krahn of Bethel College praised him as “a man of uncommon creative capacity.”28 

Abraham Esau’s handwritten translation of C. Henry Smith’s The Story of the Mennonites. Esau began his translation while in Dutch prison and completed the work after his release. These notebooks are now held at the Mennonite Library and Archives in North Newton, Kansas.

The German edition of The Story of the Mennonites sanitized not only Abraham Esau’s past but the broader role of Mennonites in the Third Reich. MCC expressed interest in the manuscript as a means of catering “to our German constituency,” and the US Mennonite General Conference took charge of printing it.29 Cornelius Krahn assembled a team of six readers, including Esau and three other former fascists, who proofed the typed chapters. These appeared in serialized form in a Canadian Mennonite newspaper beginning in 1951. The book’s final version included some additions, but it also entirely omitted a critical original chapter about the Third Reich.

It is appropriate that Abraham Esau, arguably the most powerful Mennonite in the Third Reich, also helped spark—quite unintentionally—the first efforts to publicly reckon with the church’s entanglement with National Socialism. In the same year that Esau’s translation of The Story of the Mennonites appeared, a young Mennonite named Hans-Jürgen Goertz received his doctorate in Germany on the history of radical theology. Goertz, who became a pastor of the Mennonite congregation in Hamburg, took issue with the book’s silence on the Third Reich. He translated the missing chapter and had it serialized in 1965 in a German-language denominational paper.30

Hans-Jürgen Goertz’s resurrection of the redacted chapter on Nazi Germany from The Story of the Mennonites helped ignite a slow-burning interrogation into the denomination’s troubled past. Run-ins with former Nazis as well as Goertz’s own ongoing interest in radical theology led to his landmark 1974 essay, “National Uprising and Religious Downfall,” which alleged that during the Third Reich, Germany’s Mennonites abandoned their principles for nationalism.31 This piece, which sparked still more debate and instigated the first book-length study of the denomination’s Nazi complicity, continues to inspire a process of research and response that is not yet complete.  

The story of Hitler’s Mennonite physicist illuminates much of the arc of Mennonite involvement in German nationalism from the late nineteenth century into the postwar era. Abraham Esau’s denominational background primed him to fuse academia with state militarism, allowing him to helm the Nazi nuclear program during the Second World War. Afterwards, the North American Mennonite Central Committee treated Esau, like thousands of other collaborators, as innocent and deserving of aid. Esau, meanwhile, portrayed himself as a model Mennonite, thereby erasing the stain of his war crimes. Being Mennonite suddenly mattered to Esau in an entirely new way. 

Mennonites in North America, Europe, and around the globe might reflect on this history of perpetration and denial. Why is it that European Mennonites like Esau found collaboration with Hitler’s genocidal regime so easy and desirable? How could North American Mennonites then so breezily cover for their coreligionists, without raising serious concerns about crimes they might have committed? Abraham Esau’s case may require special soul-searching, given his direct and significant role in the Nazi war machine, as well as his broader impact on the global rise of nuclear weapons. But he was also one among tens of thousands of Mennonite Nazi collaborators. 

Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University and the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, to be released in paperback from Princeton University Press on May 28. 

The author thanks Hans-Jürgen Goertz, Dieter Hoffmann, Bernd-A. Rusinek, Allan Teichroew, John Thiesen, Mark Walker, and Madeline Williams for their help with sources and interpretation. 


  1. The most complete biography of Esau is Dieter Hoffmann and Rüdiger Stutz, “Grenzgänger der Wissenschaft: Abraham Esau als Industriephysiker, Universitätsrektor und Forschungsmanager,” in ‘Kämpferische Wissenschaft’: Studien zur Universität Jena im Nationalsozialismus, ed. Uwe Hoßfeld, Jürgen John, Oliver Lemuth, and Rüdiger Stutz(Cologne: Böhlau Verlag, 2003), 136-179.
  2. Albert Einstein, Einstein on Peace (New York: Avenel Books, 1968), 295. On the Manhattan Project, see Jeff Hughes, The Manhattan Project: Big Science and the Atom Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).
  3. For works that consider Esau’s relationship to Mennonitism, see Horst Penner, “Abraham Esau: Der Große Physiker aus Tiegenhagen,” Mennonitisches Jahrbuch 14 (1974): 54-57; Horst Gerlach, “Abraham Esau: Ein Physiker und Pionier der Nachrichtentechnik,” Westpreußen-Jahrbuch 27 (1977): 57-66; Horst Gerlach, “Esau, Abraham Robert,” MennLex V, online.
  4. Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880 (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010); Benjamin Goossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 18-95.
  5. See Heidi Tworek, News from Germany: The Competition to Control World Communications, 1900-1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019), 45-69.
  6. Information in this section is from Mark Walker, German National Socialism and the Quest for Nuclear Power 1939-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 17-206; Kristie Mackrakis, Surviving the Swastika: Scientific Research in Nazi Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 162-186.
  7. Klaus Hentschel, ed., Physics and National Socialism (Basel: Birkhäuser Verlag, 1996), 321-322.
  8. Bernd-A. Rusinek, “Deutsche und Niederländische Physiker,” paper given at the conference “Ambivalente Funktionäre: Zur Rolle von Funktionseliten im NS-System,” held November 9-10, 2001 in Osnabrück, Germany, online.
  9. See Benjamin W. Goossen, “Taube und Hakenkreuz: Verhandlungen zwischen der NS-Regierung und dem MCC in Bezug auf die lateinamerikanischen Mennoniten,” Jahrbuch für Geschichte und Kultur der Mennoniten in Paraguay 18 (2017): 133-160; Goossen, Chosen Nation, 174-199.
  10. Helene Goertz to C. Henry Smith, September 24, 1948, Cornelius Krahn Collection, Box 5, Folder: Correspondence Horst Quiring 1943-1949, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas, hereafter MLA.
  11. Peter Goertz to Peter [Unknown], February 26, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  12. Peter Goertz to Pat Goertz and Ruth Goertz, February 27, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  13. Helene to Family Members, February 27, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  14. Peter Goertz to Emil [Unknown] and Rachel [Unknown], November 15, 1947, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence October-December 1947, MLA. On MCC’s postwar refugee efforts, see also Benjamin W. Goossen, “From Aryanism to Anabaptism: Nazi Race Science and the Language of Mennonite Ethnicity,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90, no. 2 (2016): 135-163.
  15. Helene Goertz to Emil [Unknown] and Rachel [Unknown], November 15, 1947, November 15, 1947, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence October-December 1947, MLA.
  16. Peter Goertz to Dewey Yoder, April 15, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  17. C. Henry Smith, The Story of the Mennonites (Berne, IN: Mennonite Book Concern, 1941).
  18. Alfred Boettcher to Helene Goertz, May 30, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  19. Helene Goertz to Pat Goertz and Ruth Goertz, May 8, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  20. Helene Goertz to Peter Goertz, May 16, 1948, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence 1948-1950, MLA.
  21. Christian Neff, ed., Mennonitisches Adreßbuch 1936 (Karlsruhe, 1936).
  22. Hentschel, ed., Physics and National Socialism, 324.
  23. Abraham Esau to Peter Goertz, June 17, 1948, Cornelius Krahn Collection, Box 5, Folder: Correspondence Horst Quiring 1943-1949, MLA.
  24. Abraham Esau to Peter Goertz, July 1, 1948, Cornelius Krahn Collection, Box 5, Folder: Correspondence Horst Quiring 1943-1949, MLA.
  25. Klaus Hentschel, The Mental Aftermath: The Mentality of German Physicists 1945-1949 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 96.
  26. Bernd-A. Rusinek, “Leo Brandt: Ein Überblick,” in Leo Brandt (1908-1971): Ingenieur, Wissenschaftsförderer, Visionär, ed. Bernhard Mittermaier and Bernd-A. Rusinek (Jülich: Forschungszentrum Jülich, 2009), 22-23; Bernd-A. Rusinek, “Von der Entdeckung der NS-Vergangenheit zum generellen Faschismusverdacht: Akademische Diskurse in der Bundesrepublik der 60er Jahre,” in Dynamische Zeiten: Die 60er Jahre in den beiden deutschen Gesellschaften, ed. Axel Schildt, Detlef Siegfried, and Karl Christian Lammers (Hamburg: Hans Christians Verlag, 2000), 120.
  27. Bernd-A. Rusinek, “Schwerte/Schneider: Die Karriere eines Spagatakteurs 1936-1995,” in Der Fall Schwerte im Kontext, ed. Helmut König (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1998),44-45.
  28. C. Henry Smith, Die Geschichte der Mennoniten Europas, trans. Abraham Esau (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1964), Einleitung.
  29.  Orie Miller to Cornelius Krahn, October 6, 1948, Cornelius Krahn Collection, Box 5, Folder: Correspondence Horst Quiring 1943-1949, MLA.
  30. Hans-Jürgen Goertz, Umwege zwischen Kanzel und Katheder: Autobiographische Fragmente (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2018): 70.
  31. Goertz’s original essay is reprinted with commentary in Marion Kobelt-Groch and Astrid von Schlachta, eds., Mennoniten in der NS-Zeit: Stimmen, Lebenssituationen, Erfahrungen (Bolanden-Weierhof: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein, 2017), 11-38. For historiographical context, see John Thiesen, “Menno in the KZ or Münster Resurrected: Mennonites and National Socialism,” in European Mennonites and the Challenge of Modernity: Contributors, Detractors, and Adapters, ed. Mark Jantzen, Mary Sprunger, and John Thiesen (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 2016), 313-328.

A Tale of Two Hair Books

Lockets are perhaps the most well-known form of hair memorial: a slip of hair tucked in a piece of jewelry or perhaps framed next to a photograph. But there is another medium, especially if one needed to preserve and display a large quantity: the hair book. I know of two examples, one in the possession of the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, and another in a private collection.

The first belonged to Elizabeth Eby, born in 1835 to Sem Eby and Anna (Frantz) Eby in Leacock Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. She married Milton Shertzer in 1860 and had five children. She died in 1922 at the age of 87 and is buried in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

In 1866, at the age of 31, Eby made the hair book–or at least the cover. The cover is Berlin-work glued to paper. Stitched on are a border of roses and the text “hair B[o]ok/ ma[de] by /Elizabeth/ Eby AD/1866.” The back cover is an arrangement of five flowers. Those in the corner are two shades of green, red, and pink. The central flower arrangement shows three blossoms in the same colors, but includes yellow, orange, and blue.

Inside Eby’s book are seven used pages, but only one side is used per leaf. Arrayed on each page are lockets of hair, fifty-two in total, and all but one are neatly labeled in the same hand–albeit with different inks. Picture a photo album–but with lockets of hair, instead of photographs.

Each lock, braided or unbraided, is secured with a ribbon–similar to the Hershey hair poster I discussed previously. While most are attached directly to the paper, four have an additional backing. The locks are attached to the page mainly by glue, but others are stitched to the paper.

The second hair book is in a private collection in Fayette, Fulton County, Ohio, and has no Mennonite connections. The book dates to 1871 and was made in Wright Township, Hillsdale County, Michigan. It was made for Rachel (Lickley) Woods by her Sunday School Students at Lickley’s Corners Baptist Church.

The cover is card stock, embellished with cutouts from a box, and features fruits and baroque flourishes. It is bound by two ribbons, red with gold trim.

The book contains locks of hair from each of her twenty-nine pupils, arrayed on pages similar to the Eby book. Each locket is looped and secured with a ribbon–either blue or red–and stitched to the page.

In my next post, I will examine how artifacts like these served as totems of memory in connection to the broader Victorian cultural context, as well as how they might be read in Mennonite-specific settings.

I am still looking for hair memorials, in any form, that have Mennonite connections to provide comparative analysis. If you know of one, please contact me.

Why Think with Early Anabaptists?

The history of sixteenth-century Anabaptists has occupied a privileged position in North American and European Mennonite historiography and self-understanding during the last century. The reasons for this are myriad. Most importantly, this history, and the theological writings associated with it, have offered these Mennonite communities legitimacy and a framework for determining a shared purpose.1

The role that early Anabaptist history has played in this context is undergoing reevaluation. Firstly, historical Anabaptist theology is diminishing in prominence as a resource for shaping Mennonite belief and practice. Secondly, as more North American and European Mennonite groups reflect to a greater degree the diversity of their societies and as distinctive Mennonite traditions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America shape a global church’s conception of itself–developments to be celebrated, surely–a history of origins rooted solely in early modern Europe is insufficient to the task of describing a common story. The question of whether the study of sixteenth-century Anabaptists is relevant to twenty-first century Mennonites requires continuous answering; a positive response should not be assumed.

Beyond these dynamics, a decentering of the sixteenth century in Anabaptist-Mennonite historiography–a trend represented in the content of this blog and one which I do not oppose–also coincides with a broader growth of doubts, in educational institutions and society more generally, about the value of studying a deeper past. Demand for pre-twentieth-century history (wars, presidents, and palace intrigue aside) is drying up, as indicated by class enrollments, hiring lines, and page views.

This colors the everyday experience of teaching, research, and writing for those working in fields of premodern history. When my colleague Cory Davis and I were recently approached to contribute to a fiftieth anniversary issue of the Sixteenth Century Journal entitled “Taking the Temperature of Early Modern Studies,” we wrote about the value of early modern history. Beyond questions of utility and origins, we argued, premodern historical scholarship retains relevance because of the habits of thought that it embodies and promotes. In the introduction to the piece, we highlighted two of these habits:

“First, early modern scholarship privileges empathetic understanding over judgment; while sharing with all good historical research the impulse to comprehend human subjects on their own terms, it is uniquely equipped to model this objective. Early modernists join historians of the ancient world and Middle Ages in noting the alterity of the values, worldviews, and modes of behavior of these eras’ peoples; the nature and quantity of early modern sources, however, make larger pieces of this foreign past accessible. We cannot claim to ever know what a person thought or felt in the past, even (or perhaps especially) when he or she recorded it. Nevertheless, our sources make it possible for us to practice and train others in the empathetic task of thinking with an enormous variety of people in radically different, and yet accessible, worlds.

Second, because of the period’s importance in shaping the structures that undergird modern life, early modern research reveals the contingency of both the past and present. Recognizing the circumstances in which world systems have come into being serves to denaturalize our own reality and provides alternative examples of how past communities have dealt with challenges comparable to those we face today. Thinking with early modern subjects requires us to set aside the privilege of hindsight in order to reconstruct their world and the possible futures they envisioned. Reducing the inevitability of the present in the minds of readers and students spurs us all to recognize that oppressive systems and ideologies are not destined to exist.

The promotion of these habits of thought, demanded by the practice of early modern scholarship, has taken on renewed import in present circumstances. By encouraging an impulse to understand the Other and by demonstrating possibilities for systemic change, the significance of early modern scholarship extends beyond its explanatory function and aids us to live better.”2

Scholarship on a deeper Anabaptist past epitomizes and encourages these same impulses. Engagement with the writings of early Anabaptists, and the search for traces of their existence in archives of the governments which repressed them, obligate us to wrestle with these people’s apparent strangeness. This encounter often confounds the assumption, or desire, that we will find ourselves in them. Attempts to overcome our basic difference from these subjects have at times led to projects of selective forgetting; better are efforts to reach across chronological distance to consider motivations and deeds of those who are inescapably foreign and to carry out the task of reconstructing environments in which their thoughts and actions made sense.

If thinking with early Anabaptists requires imaginative empathy, it also pushes us to take the contingency of their experience and legacy seriously. Early modern Anabaptist history is characterized by paths laid out and then diverted or blocked off, the result of moments of social and imaginative possibility punctuating generalized hostility. Recent scholarship has reinforced the notion that our understanding of Anabaptist phenomena is illuminated as much by the thoughts and actions of those figures and groups without a surviving tradition as by those whose link to the present is strengthened by shared convictions, organizational structures, or family names. These historical outliers too reasoned in ways worthy of consideration and demonstrated the capacity to temporarily construct alternative communities with geographical breadth and emotional and theological depth.3

When such an approach is taken, early Anabaptist history grows in its capacity to illuminate present questions and concerns rather than serving as a shibboleth.


  1. This point could be demonstrated variously, but Albert N. Keim’s description of the role of Anabaptist historiography in the work of H.S. Bender and the “Concern” group provides an example. Harold S. Bender, 1897-1962 (Scottdale, PA and Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 1998), esp. 306-31 and 450-71.
  2. Cory D. Davis and David Y. Neufeld, “Thinking with the Early Modern Past: The Relevance of our Scholarship,” The Sixteenth Century Journal (forthcoming, spring 2019).
  3. Recent studies of instances of this phenomenon include Martin Rothkegel, “Pilgram Marpeck and the Fellows of the Covenant: The Short and Fragmentary History of the Rise and Decline of an Anabaptist Denominational Network,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 85, no. 1 (2011): 7-36; Kat Hill, Baptism, Brotherhood, and Belief in Reformation Germany: Anabaptism and Lutheranism, 1525-1585 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).