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

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

Philipp Gollner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


SEE ALSO:

Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege

Editor’s Note: In keeping with the mission of Anabaptist Historians to foster lively debate on important topics, we have solicited responses to this post from several experts. Check in over the coming weeks to follow the discussion or contact us to submit your own contribution.

Ben Goossen

A tour of my parents’ house is also a journey into our family’s past. Tables, china hutches, and clocks carry stories of craftsmanship in Europe or of pioneer life in Nebraska, Kansas, or South Dakota. Here a bowl that crossed the Atlantic, there a Bible from Prussia. All are bound up with tales of our ancestors’ faith, of the Anabaptist values that—so the story goes—led them from country to country in search of peace, shelter, and good, hearty land.

14914599_3711188936990_746584616_n

A “memory box” depicting the pioneer life of Mennonite immigrants from Russia.

Like other “ethnic” Mennonites across Europe and the Americas, I learned from a young age to associate my religion with genealogy. A “memory box,” perched in a place of honor in my parents’ library, shows how family stories and material objects can interweave the threads of faith and ancestry. Constructed by my great-grandmother, the box contains photographs of her own grandparents, Jacob and Suzanne Balzer, who emigrated from southern Russia to Minnesota; an invitation to the wedding of their daughter; dried straw flowers; silk worm cocoons and a silk spool; nineteenth-century German-language storybooks; heirloom seeds; and part of a shirt sewn in Russia. The box uses artifacts to build a cultural atmosphere around memories of Mennonite immigration to the United States. My forebears, the objects imply, were straight-laced and pious. They spoke German. They worked with their hands and found fulfillment in tending the soil.

Over the past century, white Mennonites have expressed uncommon interest in their ancestry. Children’s books, historical scholarship, and memoirs often follow family narratives or depict the supposedly upright and persevering character of the “Mennonite people.” I can only begin to enumerate the ways my own life has been shaped by ancestral knowledge: The largest book in my childhood room was a genealogy compiled by my grandmother. Whenever I meet “ethnic” Mennonites from Europe or the Americas, new acquaintances hear my last name and recognize me as one of their own. As a historian of Anabaptism, I frequent websites maintained by amateur genealogists, who have located an amazing number of rare documents; a printout of my own family tree from one Mennonite database revealed hundreds of direct forebearers over seventeen generations, the earliest dating to the sixteenth-century Reformation.

It is remarkable that although Anabaptist studies is a well-developed field, no scholar has yet written a history of Mennonite genealogical practices. Family researchers themselves often assume that genealogy has always been a normal and important part of Anabaptist life. Yet as historians of ancestry are beginning to demonstrate, genealogy as we understand it today is quite a recent concept, finding widespread acclaim only in the last hundred and fifty years. While some communities, Anabaptist and otherwise, had long recorded birth, death, and baptismal dates in family bibles or congregational record books—perhaps finding inspiration in the genealogies of Jesus as presented in the New Testament—it was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that such information became subject to rigorous study and publication.1 And far from an ideologically neutral undertaking, genealogy in the modern era emerged largely in the context of scientific racism and social exclusion. “From the 1860s to the mid-twentieth century,” writes François Weil in his recent book, Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America, “racial purity, nativism, and nationalism successfully dominated the quest for pedigree.”2

14881727_3711189216997_391176032_o

Christian Mast (1885-1974), Amish Mennonite historian and genealogist.

To what degree can this charge be leveled at Mennonite genealogy? I have argued elsewhere that the blossoming of Mennonite family research in 1930s Germany intimately reflected Nazi-era concerns with blood purity and racial hygiene.3 Comparable practices in other countries developed under different, if interrelated, circumstances. My hope is that this essay will spur more sustained inquiry into the origins and nature of Mennonite family research, especially in North America. This is not the space to provide a full sketch of what such an undertaking might entail. But I can indicate some of the possibilities through a short case study: a look at the genealogist Christian Mast and his book, A Brief History of Bishop Jacob Mast and Other Mast Pioneers, printed in 1911 by the Mennonite Publishing House.

The son of an Amish Mennonite Bishop from Pennsylvania, Christian Mast wrote his Brief History while still in his mid-20s. It appeared at a time when genealogical interest was rising among Anabaptists as well as wider American society. “Never before have people been more inquisitive and diligent in investigating the study of their ancestry than at this time,” Mast explained in his introduction, noting that although only a minority of US citizens knew much about their heritage, “it is a matter of congratulation that some are turning attention to family genealogy.”4 The author himself gathered material from relatives scattered across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, and Indiana—and he corresponded with other Anabaptist genealogists researching the Funk, Oberholzer, Hostetler, and Wenger families. Upon completion, Mast sent a copy of his book to the United States’ oldest and largest repository of ancestral knowledge, the New England Historic Genealogical Society.5

Although his extensive papers await detailed analysis, it is clear that Mast was well-read in both American history and the scientific study of ancestry. His Brief History opens with a discussion of the alleged racial prowess of America’s white pioneers, supported by quotations from the likes of Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. In a section on heredity, the author dwelled extensively on the relationship between ancestry and virility, invoking the nineteenth-century phrenologist George Combe to advocate a far-reaching eugenic program. “As a nation’s greatness depends upon the character of her population,” Mast wrote, “it is the duty of every government to bestow at least as much attention upon the improvement of her human stock, as agricultural societies expend upon the improvement of the breeds of their horses and cattle.”6 Warning in particular against degeneration through endogamous marriage, he praised spousal selection as a means of preventing heredity diseases, bodily deformities, mental retardation, and even moral failings.

14914934_3711205817412_702325373_n

This frontispiece to Christian Mast’s Brief History shows the homestead of the author’s ancestor, Jacob Mast, who migrated from Switzerland to Pennsylvania in 1750.

In its discussion of American nationhood, Mast’s Brief History identified a privileged role for Anabaptist bloodlines. “[O]ur Swiss and German ancestors,” the genealogist opined, “were the pure material of the Teutonic nation; being stern, sterling and frugal.” While Mast acknowledged that some of his relatives had become soldiers, fallen into evil ways, or otherwise lived “without God,” he maintained that most had led exemplary Christian lives of nonviolent witness. The writer especially contrasted Anabaptist qualities with those of Native Americans, whose “physical and mental power have… melted into weakness.” While the diligence, industriousness, and farming acumen of Amish and Mennonite settlers were said to exemplify the “bone and sinew of a nation,” inbreeding had supposedly left people of color with limited mental and physical abilities. When narrating Indian attacks against early Anabaptist immigrants, for instance, Mast emphasized the animal-like nature of these “savages,” in turn justifying his forebearers’ seizure of native lands.7

To what extent were Mast’s views typical of Mennonite genealogists at the beginning of the twentieth century? And in what ways do racist undertones continue to inform family research in Anabaptist communities today? A full answer to these questions awaits further study. It is nevertheless telling that although most Mennonites living across the world today are people of color, popular stereotypes continue to associate the denomination with white “ethnic” members of Germanic descent. Genealogy has remained an avenue for white Anabaptists to identify their families’ longstanding adherence to the faith, and in many cases, to trace their ancestry to the religion’s origins in Reformation-era Europe—a possibility unavailable to most members of color. Moreover, the recent advent of DNA testing and genetic research among “ethnic” populations are once again privileging the notion that Anabaptism is as much an inheritable trait as a religious conviction.8

Mennonite family research is intimately connected to issues of racial privilege. Whether in the seemingly innocuous memorial culture of my parents’ home or in the overtly racist language of historic figures like Christian Mast, it is time to take seriously its ideological power. It is time to ask how genealogists, along with the rest of us, can respond to inequalities within the church and beyond.

Thanks to Rachel Waltner Goossen and Joel H. Nofziger for their assistance with this essay.


SEE ALSO:



  1. Early examples of Mennonite genealogical publications include Jacob N. Brubacher, The Brubacher Genealogy in America (Elkhart, IN: Mennonite Publishing Co., 1884); John H. Hess, A Genealogy of the Hess Family from the First Emigrant to this Country Down to the Present Time as Far as Could Be Ascertained (Lititz, PA: Express Print, 1896); Franklin Keagy, A History of the Kägy Relationship in America from 1715 to 1900 (Harrisburg, PA: Harrisburg Publishing Company, 1899); Theodore W. Herr, Genealogical Record of Reverend Hans Herr and his Direct Lineal Descendants from his Birth A. D. 1639 to the Present Time Containing the Names, etc., of 13223 Persons (Lancaster, PA: The Examiner Printing House, 1908). 
  2.  François Weil, Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 6.  
  3.  Benjamin W. Goossen, “From Aryanism to Anabaptism: Nazi Race Science and the Language of Mennonite Ethnicity,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90 (April 2016): 135-163. 
  4.  C. Z. Mast, A Brief History of Bishop Jacob Mast and Other Mast Pioneers and a Complete Family Register and Those Related by Inter-Marriage (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House Press, 1911), 12. See also the co-authored volume, C. Z. Mast and Robert E. Simpson, Annals of the Conestoga Valley in Lancaster, Berks, and Chester Counties, Pennsylvania (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1942), which contains extensive genealogical information on Anabaptist families. 
  5.  The New England Historic Genealogical Society thanked Mast in Wm. P. Greenlaws to C. Z. Mast, March 21, 1912, Mast, Christian Z., Papers, box 2: Correspondence C. Z. M. (Annals-N.C.), folder 4: Mast Genealogy, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society. Mast’s name also appeared in “List of Donors to the Library,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register (Supplement to April Number, 1913): xxxi. 
  6.  Mast, A Brief History, 749. On pages 748 and 749, he quoted a passage on physical and mental degeneracy from George Combe, Moral Philosophy; Or, The Duties of Man Considered in His Individual, Domestic, and Social Capacities (New York: Fowler and Wells, 1863), 85. Scholars have noted the centrality of such arguments, as well as of genealogical practices generally, to the rise of eugenics programs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. See Alison Bashford and Philippa Levine, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 9-10. 
  7. Quotations from Mast, A Brief History, 12-13, 18, 748. 
  8.  On genetic testing among “ethnic” Mennonite populations, see for example Cheryl Rockman-Greenberg and Marlis Schroeder, “Mennonites, Hypophosphatasia and Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Disease: The Story of Two Genetic Disorders,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 34 (2016): 89-104. Recent scholarship on the genetic reinscriptionof race includes Nadia Abu El-Haj, The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), and Alondra Nelson, The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016). 

Shoofly Pie, Pennsylvania Dutch, and the Mennonites

As American as Shoofly Pie: The Foodlore and Fakelore of Pennsylvania Dutch Cuisine1 by William Woys Weaver is many things: it is a detailed look at the foodways among the Pennsylvania Dutch, a commentary on modern culture, and a cookbook. It is scholarly and snarky. It purposely does not focus on Anabaptists, though it does deal extensively with the Amish in popular imagination. Weaver states in his introduction: “In terms of the larger culinary story, the Amish are mostly marginal anyway because the real centers of creative Pennsylvania Dutch cookery were in the towns and not to be found among the outlying Amish or Mennonite communities, even though today the Mennonites have attempted to preempt the Amish as their cultural public-relations handlers in their Amish and Mennonite cookbooks to press for ‘Christian’ culinary values—whatever that may mean” (7). He is also clear that one of his major criteria for the recipes he highlights in the book was to contrast against the “artificial portrait” created by Amish tourism (8).15094

What Weaver sets about doing in As American as Shoofly Pie is to take food as the avenue into Pennsylvania Dutch culture to discuss its identity markers—historic and current—as well as the class dynamics involved, portrayals in popular culture, and the commercially driven conflation of the Amish and Pennsylvania Dutch. He details cooking implements, the “cabbage wall” of sauerkraut defining the borders of Pennsylvania Dutch country, how the Amish imagery became normative for Pennsylvania Dutch tourism, and how the culture is renewing itself. It is an excellent read, both informative and engagingly written.2

I use here the term “Pennsylvania Dutch” instead of “Pennsylvania German” for two reasons: first, because that is the terminology of Weaver, and second, because the “Pennsylvania Dutch” have no connection to the nation-state of Germany, past or present. On the second point, I will offer a story from my wife’s family history:

When Pop-Pop Riegle was a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II, the camp taught German to the POWs. The guards doubled over in laughter to hear the POWs from New York City try to pronounce words with a New York accent. My grandfather, from what I understand, could converse with the guards easily, because he spoke Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch. The German guards asked him why he was fighting for the wrong side. To them, speaking German meant loyalty to Deutschland. For my grandfather, speaking a German dialect was part of his American culture.

Furthermore, it seems this story is borne out in every ethnography of the Pennsylvania Dutch I have encountered. They all carry a variation of the following: A researcher walks up to some Pennsylvania Dutch women and asks them about how they describe themselves, only to be rebuffed with, “We’re not Pennsylvania Dutch, we’re American.” The Pennsylvania Dutch are an American cultural group consisting of a blend of German speakers, mostly Palatinate and Swiss, who settled together. The eponym “Dutch” has long roots going back into medieval Europe as a term for western German speakers. They can be divided into two broad categories, the Plain Dutch, such as the Amish and Mennonites, or the Gay (Fancy) Dutch, such as my wife’s Lutheran and Reformed forebears.

It is important for Mennonite scholars to remember that Mennonite fish were just one school swimming in Pennsylvania Dutch water. Even though they may have been marginal in shaping Pennsylvania Dutch culture, as Weaver notes, they were still shaped by it. Mennonites all across South Central Pennsylvania were surrounded by people who spoke, ate, and worked in the same ways they did—the majority of them Lutheran or Reformed, but also the Amish, Church of the Brethren, and other plain Anabaptists.[^3]  As Felipe Hinojosa has noted, place matters—both in space and time, as well as culturally. The Swiss-German strain of the Mennonite experience practiced their faith and promulgated their beliefs not in ethnic colonies but surrounded by a shared culture that itself was distinctive from broader America. Surely this has led to a different way of knowing and living as Mennonites. For this reason, scholars dealing with Mennonite identity must familiarize themselves with Pennsylvania Dutch culture. For its insistence on placing the Pennsylvania Dutch culture within the broader national culture, and his disgust at the conflation of the Amish with the Pennsylvania Dutch, Weaver’s As American as Shoofly Pie is an excellent place to start.


  1. William Woys Weaver, As American as Shoofly Pie: The Foodlore and Fakelore of Pennsylvania Dutch Cuisine (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013). 
  2. This is not to say there are no points where I disagree with Weaver.  For example, his repetition of Rufus Jones’ claim that the Amish adapted bonnets from Quakers as “common knowledge” (135) is uncritical at best.
    [^3] Moravians are one of the German groups that maintained a markedly different culture than that of the Pennsylvania Dutch. 

On Exhibit: Contextualizing Amish Quilts

Janneken Smucker

In the early 1970s, art enthusiasts began to display Amish quilts from the early twentieth century on the walls of apartments, galleries, antiques shops, and museums, noting how their strong graphics and minimalist designs resembled abstract paintings of the post-World War II period. Prior to the 1970s, no one really had paired the adjective Amish with the noun quilt. Yet with this cultural dislocation, Amish quilts shifted in status from special, heirloom bedcovers, kept folded in chests and treasured as gifts between family members, to cult objects in demand within the outside world. Amish families responded by selling their “old dark quilts,” happy to have extra money that could be split among descendants in a way a quilt could not be, and glad to remove objects now considered “status symbols” by outsiders from their homes. In turn, Amish entrepreneurs began making quilts to sell to consumers, creating a quilt industry that could capitalize on increasing tourism to settlements and the growing fascination with Amish-made bedcovers.

smucker_image_1

Center Diamond, Unknown Amish maker, Circa 1920-1940, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Machine pieced, hand quilted. International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebraska – Lincoln; Jonathan Holstein Collection, 2003.003.0072

This intersection between the Old Order Amish and the worlds of art, fashion, and commerce is a central tension of my recent book, Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). As I worked on this book, I frequently imagined it as an exhibition, with the objects themselves serving as evidence and touchstones within the narrative. With this mindset, I was thrilled when the International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln invited me to guest curate an exhibit of Amish quilts. This exhibit, Amish Quilts and the Crafting of Diverse Traditions opens October 7, running through January 25, 2017.

Since the 1971 landmark exhibition Abstract Design in American Quilts at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the typical mode of display for quilts in museum settings has been on walls, hung vertically like the paintings to which Amish quilts in particular have often been compared. As I began work translating my research into an exhibition, I struggled to figure out how to simultaneously interrogate the de-contextualization of Amish quilts while participating in the process itself. I did not want to simply hang quilts on walls as they had been for the last 45 years, where too often they appear merely as great works of design, rather than as objects symbolic of the Amish emphasis on community, mutual aid, and Gelassenheit. But what could we do instead that would fulfill the museum’s dual mission of showcasing quilts’ artistry and cultural significance?

All public history requires careful and deliberate communication; it’s intended to translate complex ideas into meaningful and engaging forms. Working with the IQSCM staff, we’ve developed ways to communicate the multiple contexts of Amish quilts. When museum-goers enter the gallery, they will indeed still see quilts hanging on walls. But in the center of one gallery, there will be an object strangely foreign to most quilt exhibits, Amish or otherwise: a bed. My parents, who live in Goshen, Indiana, generously loaned the museum the ¾ size four-poster rope bed that descended in my mother’s family from our Amish-Mennonite ancestors. Made in the family of Solomon Beachy from Holmes County, Ohio, c. 1840-1860, the bed will be the perfect showcase for an early twentieth-century quilt made by Barbara Yoder.

smucker_image_2

Nine Patch, Made by Barbara Yoder (1885-1988) Circa 1920, Made in Weatherford, Oklahoma, Machine pieced, hand quilted. International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebraska – Lincoln; Gift of the Robert & Ardis James Foundation, 2005.039.0005

But the Amish origins of these quilts are not the only context through which I interpret them. The lives of these objects since they left Amish homes are equally intriguing, and I explore them as influential within contexts of art, consumer culture, and fashion. The Esprit clothing company, well-known for its color block designs of the 1980s, was home to a significant corporate collection of Amish quilts which hung on the walls throughout its San Francisco headquarters. We will hang a quilt that Esprit once owned alongside a mannequin dressed in one of my personal favorite objects of material culture—this amazing Esprit vest that in my mind was clearly inspired by Amish quilts.

smucker_image_3

One Patch/Checkerboard, unknown Amish maker, circa 1900-1920, machine pieced, hand quilted. International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebaska-Lincoln, Ardis & Robert James COllection, 1997.007.0469

smucker_image_4

Espirit women’s vest, circa 1985, United States. Collection of Janneken Smucker

We will also display images of contemporary Amish quilt shops, along with two new quilts made for the consumer market, with designs in clear contrast to the “cult objects” with which art enthusiasts became enamored. I also had the pleasure of attending the Gap (Pennsylvania) Fire Company Sale last March, known locally as a mud sale. We include photographs from this event, which supports the local volunteer fire company, along with quilts I acquired on the museum’s behalf there (not a bad gig — bidding with someone else’s money). The quilts include a white and lavender Dahlia quilt from the mid-twentieth century, complete with intricate lavender hand quilting and ornate fringe—not what we expect from an Amish made quilt, but one of the many styles that have co-existed within Amish communities.

smucker_image_5

Dahlia, Unknown Amish maker, circa 1940-1960, probably made in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebraska – Lincoln Gift of the Robert & Ardis James Foundation, 2016.030.0003

I have relished the challenge of translating my research into this physical form. I hope my thesis—that the craft of Amish quiltmaking has never fossilized, but has been a living, evolving, and diverse tradition, adapted by creative quiltmakers, capitalized upon by businesswomen eager to earn a livelihood, and embraced within both Amish communities and the broader artistic and consumer worlds—comes through. But even if my message is lost, the quilts look great, as they always have, both in and out of context.

Place Matters

Felipe Hinojosa

This past week I got the news that my parent’s house had sold. My parents bought the house back in the 1970s for $26,000 and sold it for $45,000. The financial returns were slim, but the house on Taylor street—located in the heart of el barrio de la 421 (the 421 neighborhood)—holds deep memories for me and my family. This was the house where Sunday afternoons were loud with people around the table eating arroz con pollo while closely following the Dallas Cowboy football game. It was where people from all over the U.S. and Latin America came to visit my parents, and where el hermano Manuelito—a Mennonite pastor from Matamoros (a border town on the Mexican side) would patiently wait for a ride to church on most Sunday mornings. It’s the neighborhood where my first bike was stolen, where the cholos and cholas decorated the streets with their fashion and art, and where we were certainly the only non-Catholic family. We were the aleluyas (a term sometimes used to identify non-Catholic, mostly Pentecostal, Mexican Americans). We had a tortilleria one house down, across the street you could buy hielitos (frozen kool-aid in styrofoam cups), Ofelia had a tiendita (small store) a short distance away, and I’ll never forget how well manicured our neighbor, Conchita, kept her plants and grass. In recent years the neighborhood has not looked very good. After Conchita passed away the subsequent owners never kept up the landscaping and the nearby Lincoln Park closed down, giving way for a new highway built to connect to a new border crossing to Mexico.

fb95img9514742946311821

Esther Hinojosa, the author’s mother

Of all that is quickly recognizable about my family and my neighborhood, being Mennonite is certainly not. And yet we are, and that house, and that neighborhood, has been visited by other Mennonites (mostly Mexican Americans) who came for a Bible study, for a meal, or for a place to stay. Our family was the only Mennonite family in el barrio de la 421, but all across town, Mexican-American Mennonites lived, worked, and faithfully attended Iglesia Menonita del Cordero (Mennonite Church of the Lamb) in Brownsville, Texas. For most of us, place (our neighborhoods and the border city where we lived) shaped our understanding of Mennonite and Anabaptist faith and theology. Place mattered to us because it compelled us to live out our Mennonite faith in distinctive ways. For example, our church started programs to help people in our church (poor people helping poor people) and we became a sanctuary church in the late 1980s and early 1990s, providing migrants and refugees from Central America and Mexico sanctuary, a warm meal, and the opportunity to make a long distance phone call.

IMG_20160919_132811361.jpg

The house on Taylor Street

Social geographers tell us that space and place are not neutral, but in fact are vital in determining social interactions, politics, and social movements.1 Being on the border—being a border church and a Mennonite church—meant that we lived out our faith very differently than white Mennonites in the east or Midwest. Like the prairies and flat lands of the Midwest or the Pennsylvania Dutch Country that have shaped Mennonite faith and theology in America, living as a borderlands people between two nations has shaped the experiences of Mexican American Mennonites. 

The relation to place has been a critical point in much of the Mennonite and Anabaptist histories written in the twentieth century. That focus makes sense given that most of the Russian Mennonite immigrants to America settled in defined locations across the east and Midwest during the latter half of the nineteenth century. The cities and towns in which they ended up, such as Hillsboro and Newton, Kansas, and Goshen and Elkhart, Indiana, historian Paul Toews has called “holy places”. 2 

While Mennonites have historically been geographically segregated, place is additionally important in that it has also shaped the historical topics chosen for study as well as the methodologies and approaches of scholars who focus on the Mennonite experience. Consider: what places and which archives are Mennonite scholars working in and with? In 1997 Toews made it clear that most of the scholars who authored books as part of the “Mennonite Experience in America” series made “trips into the archival centers of the Mennonite universe [and] bypassed the bright lights of the nation’s metropolitan centers.”3 While the majority of the historical records for the Mennonite community are archived in the “holy places,” it is important to remember that Mennonites themselves have never been solely confined to those areas. What new information might we have gathered about the experience of Mennonites during the civil rights movement or the Sanctuary movement by looking in the National Archives, the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, or even the Luis Muñoz Marín Foundation in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico, which currently has an electronic collection of over 20,000 photos of Mennonite service work on the island in the 1950s and 1960s?

For those of us working on rewriting the Mennonite story in the United States, deterritorializing Mennonite studies—moving it away from its current ethnic and place-based trappings—has the potential to open new avenues that take us to the different locations where Mennonite history occurred: in the West, the South, the Pacific Northwest, and across national borders. Doing so can help us to better understand how racism and oppression take place, how people of color have redefined the Mennonite experience, and what the range of Mennonite and Anabaptist history can teach us about religious experiences in the United States and across the globe. I know that in my corner of the world, in the barrios of the Texas/Mexico borderlands, there are many stories yet to be told.   


  1.  See the work of Edward Soja, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and other Real and Imagined Places (Blackwell Publishers, 1996). 
  2.  Paul Toews, “The Quest for the Mennonite Holy Grail: Reflections on ‘the Mennonite Experience in America’ Project,” Direction Journal 26, no. 1 (Spring 1997), 43. 
  3. Ibid. 

An Introductory Taxonomy of Anabaptist Histories

IMG_6493“Anabaptist Historians: Bringing the Anabaptist Past into a Digital Century” is a collaborative blog gathering scholars of Anabaptist history to share their research and engage on critical issues in contemporary Anabaptist life. But what is Anabaptist history? Part of the trouble is that the word “anabaptist” has many overlapping meanings, as does “Mennonite.” In this blog, each contributor will have his or her own understanding of what “Anabaptist” and “Anabaptist history” means.

In a conversation with Linford Stutzman during my Cross Cultural semester with Eastern Mennonite University, he postulated a three-part criteria for being a Mennonite, where meeting two out of three constituted a pass: 1) having Mennonite values; 2) belonging to a Mennonite congregation; 3) belonging to a Mennonite family. This construct concisely states the three strands of identity that are bound together in each individual’s experience (I recognize the lack of any may be as important– if not more important–in shaping the experience). The variations are not just an individual experience, they play out in the stories Anabaptists (and I include myself therein) tell themselves. As Dallas E. Wiebe ends his satirical work, The Sayings of Abraham Nofziger: A Guide for the Perplexed, vol. 3:1

147. The logical extension of Anabaptist thought is that each person becomes a church of one.

148. I’m the only Mennonite I know.

There are as many Anabaptist histories as there are Anabaptists. Since it is crucial to understand which type of history is being read in order to understand it, I am providing a brief taxonomy.

The Ethnic Genus of Anabaptist History

The Ethnic Genus of Anabaptist History is the story of Anabaptist peoplehood. That is, it is the story of how Anabaptists have been together.

To many understandings, an “ethnic” understanding of Anabaptism is simply not true, as believer’s baptism and the clear choice to join are central to Anabaptist faith. There are, however,  cultural markers that persist in differing Anabaptist communities, and the language of ethnicity can be a helpful tool to describe them—it is not meant as a pejorative.

Ethnic: Peoplehood Studies

Perhaps the most developed species of Anabaptist history is “Ethnic: Peoplehood Studies.” This is focused on looking at the many types of Anabaptist groups (say, “Ethnic: Peoplehood Studies: Amish Studies” or “Ethnic: Peoplehood Studies: Mennonite Studies”). It looks at trends, markers, and mores in the groups on the Anabaptist spectrum. There are as many subfields under “Ethnic: Peoplehood Studies” as there are Anabaptist groups.

Ethnic: Boundary Politics

The species of “Boundary Politics” is worthy of special attention: it is historical work that is less concerned about the past and more with the present. One example of this would be Thieleman J. van Braght’s guiding ethos when he considered whom to include in the Martyrs’ Mirror,  in counting only the “Defenseless Christians” as part of the true Brotherhood. Another can be found in the work of H. S. Bender—who through historical work attempted to recreate an Anabaptist vision.2 Bender systematically expunged violent Anabaptists from the mythic past: “this principle of nonresistance, or biblical pacifism, which was thoroughly believed and resolutely practiced by all the original Anabaptist Brethren and their descendants throughout Europe from the beginning until the last century.”3 The story of staunch pacifism had such sway for Bender that he ignored the likes of Thomas Müntzer, the Anabaptist Kingdom of Munster, or the Anabaptist Riot of 1535. Both Braght and Bender used history as their medium to work theologically“Bender was able to build the new vision because his initial position at Goshen College was in history rather than biblical studies. He was thus able to avoid most of the divisive disputes over doctrine. By concentrating on Anabaptist-Mennonite history, he was able to concentrate on questions that drew communalism back into the center of Mennonite discussion.” 4

The efforts of German Mennonite leaders to shift Mennonite identity by creating historical narratives from 1772 to 1950 is an example of “Boundary Politics.”  Mark Jantzen in Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772–1880, traces how Mennonites reworked their identity to move from closed sectarians to fully German.5 Ben Goossen, in his Mennonite Quarterly Review article, “From Aryanism to Anabaptism: Nazi Race Science and the Language of Mennonite Ethnicity,” looks at how that same identity-shifting work was brought to fullness under the Third Reich and then quickly redone to rebirth Anabaptists as a distinct Ethnicity for preferential treatment post World War II.6 Examples of “Boundary Politics” can be very problematic: they wear the clothing of history, but have another purpose. When encountering work that falls under “Ethnic: Boundary Politics,” it is especially necessary to understand what the type of work one is reading so that what is not being said can be considered, as well as that which is.7

Ethnic: Genealogical/Family

One popular form of folk-history among many Anabaptists is that of genealogy and family history. I call it a folk-history because it is not a field of study popular in the academy. Perhaps this is so because of the past efforts by eugenicists to develop it as a scientific field. Or it could be that while genealogists are busy collecting and archiving pieces of the past, they do not, strictly speaking, work historically; they are not using what they have collected to tell a story beyond personal and family identity. But for many Anabaptists, this is their primary way of thinking about history: Where and Who Did I Come From? Working at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, it is clear that most people who come through our doors are looking for answers about where they came from, and the tools they use or desire to answer that question are genealogical.

The Ecclesiastical Genus of Anabaptist History

The Ecclesiological Genus of Anabaptist History is concerned with the study of Anabaptist church history. That is, it is the story of how Anabaptists have been church.

As is the case with “Ethnic: Peoplehood Studies,” each sect and sub-organization therein has its own species and subspecies. For Lancaster Mennonite Conference, John Ruth’s tome, The Earth is The Lord’s: A Narrative History of Lancaster Conference is the defining work; Ruth’s Maintaining Right Fellowship would hold the same position for Franconia Mennonite Conference. For the Meserete Kristos church of Ethiopia, Alemu Checole’s work in Anabaptist Songs in African Hearts is another fine example.

The Epistemological Genus of Anabaptist History

This Epistemological Genus of Anabaptist History is concerned with how people considering themselves Anabaptist have known; it is Anabaptist historiography. When Julia Kasdorf traces how and looks towards why the Martyrs’ Mirror “has collapsed into only one story and one iconic image for many readers” (that of Dirk Willems), she is working in the Epistemological Genus of Anabaptist History.8 This area is receiving the most attention in emerging scholarship, not just from the historical arena but in literary studies. I will not try to give a synopsis of current state of the field here.

Conclusion

Here I have attempted to start a taxonomy of Anabaptist Histories, identifying in broad strokes the subsets of our discipline. However, unlike Linnaeus and his heirs, most of the specimens we see in the wild are chimeras, and so I have sought to describe various phenotypic packages rather than prescribe what this scholastic menagerie should look like. Surely there are species out there that I have not seen yet, in other parts of the world, in other languages, or in other fields. These classifications I have laid out are not fixed, nor are they meant to demean or devalue, but simply to help the hunters of Anabaptist History to properly place and understand that which they read.


  1. Dallas E. Wiebe, The Sayings of Abraham Nofziger: A Guide For the Perplexed (2004), 65. 
  2. Leonard Gross, “Bender, Harold Stauffer (1897-1962),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online,1990. <http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Bender,Harold_Stauffer(1897-1962); (Accessed August 29, 2016). 
  3. Harold S. Bender, The Anabaptist Vision, (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1944), 32. 
  4. Fred Kniss, Disquiet in the Land, (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 65. 
  5. Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-188, (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010). 
  6. Ben Goossen, “From Aryanism to Anabaptism: Nazi Race Science and the Language of Mennonite Ethnicity,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 40 no. 2 (April 2016). 
  7. I might be inclined to argue that the role of the historian in the church is to promote an unbounded boundary politics. “I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain.” 
  8. Julia Spicher Kasdorf, “Mightier than the Sword: Martyrs Mirror in the New World,” The Conrad Grebel Review 31, no. 1 (Winter 2013), https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/publications/conrad-grebel-review/issues/winter-2013/mightier-sword-martyrs-mirror-new-world (Accessed August 29, 2016).