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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.
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
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.
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.