Voices of Conscience

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It has been forty-five years since the elimination of the draft in the United States. More than two generations of Mennonite men and women have grown up without the threat of having their convictions put through the test through conscription and conscientious objection. Lloy Kniss, a WWI-era CO, stated in his 1971 pamphlet “I Couldn’t Fight: the Story of a CO in World War I” that he “believe[s] our church needs to learn again to suffer for the faith when it becomes necessary.”1 

Though written in 1971, these are timely words for those of us in the Mennonite church today who have grown accustomed to the comfort and privilege gained through assimilation and prosperity these past forty years. Remembering the sacrifice of those in the past, as well as critically examining our complicity in our country’s glorification of war and the military industrial complex, is important to deepen the understanding of Anabaptist pacifism, its roots, and its implications today.

For this reason I was pleased that the “Voices of Conscience” exhibit came to Eastern Mennonite University this October. This exhibit, from the Kauffman Museum in Bethel, Kansas, has been travelling throughout the country for the past year.

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The exhibit is thoroughly researched and well-presented. It expertly captures the zeitgeist of the time period through photos, maps, posters, and cartoons that illustrate the patriotism and war fever sweeping the nation.  The exhibit conveys how the nonresistance and pacifism of Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups was not favorably received by a public keen to support the United States and its allies. Some pacifists were harassed, endured property damage, and, in extreme cases, were nearly killed for their refusal to take up arms or support the war effort. 

The scope of the exhibit is broad, providing visitors an insight into the peace work and war resistance done by other faith groups in the United States as well as political organizations like Socialists, Anarchists, and the Woman’s Peace Party. The global nature of World War I also inspired conscientious objection in other countries, and the stories of COs in countries such as Great Britain, France, Russia, and Japan are also highlighted.

The exhibit also hits close to home for those of us in the Shenandoah Valley, as it mentions the trial of Rhine Benner and L.J. Heatwole. In the summer of 1918 Benner, a Mennonite mission worker in Job, WV, wrote to his bishop, Heatwole, for advice about what to advise his congregation to do in regards to the purchase of war bonds. Heatwole advised him to “contribute nothing to a fund used to run the war machine.”2 The letter found its way to officials in D.C. and subsequently Benner was briefly jailed, Heatwole was indicted, and both were put on trial for violating the Sedition Act of 1918 by instructing their parishoners to not buy U.S. bonds and War Savings Stamps. They pled guilty and we each fined $1,000 (roughly $16,000 in today’s money).3

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The Eastern Mennonite University Archives also has a small collection of papers from conscientious objectors in World War I. We created a display to highlight these stories and compliment the material covered in the Voices of Conscience exhibit.

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C.O. Cooks Camp Lee 1918

CO cooks at Camp Lee, Virginia

 

Camp Lee COs 1918

COs at Camp Lee, Virginia 1918

The Voices of Conscience exhibit is on display at Eastern Mennonite University through November 17. I encourage all who are in the area to come see it, or visit the exhibit’s website to learn where it will go next.


  1. Kniss, Lloy A. 1971. I Couldn’t Fight : The Story of a CO in World War I. Scottdale, Pa. : Herald Press, [1971], 23. 
  2.  Letter from Heatwole to Benner, I-MS-1, Box 22.1, “World War I” folder. Virginia Mennonite Conference Archives.  
  3.  Homan, Gerlof D. 1994. American Mennonites and the Great War, 1914-1918. Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite History: No. 34. Waterloo, Ont. ; Scottdale, Pa. : Herald Press, c1994, 97-98. 

A Reader’s Reward

IMG_20180601_130550089_HDRA sampling of prize books housed in the Menno Simons Historical Library at EMU

 

The beauty of old and rare books is that through studying some of them we can learn not just about the ideas of the writer, but also the life of their reader.

We are fortunate in the Menno Simons Historical Library to have some rare books that give us an insight into the work of Dutch Mennonites in the eighteenth century. These books were given as prizes to children who did well in their catechism classes. The prize encouraged children to learn scripture and the books that were given taught them about the faith of the Mennonite church. Topics ranged from martyr books to histories of the Bible and Mennonite doctrine. We have at least eight examples of prize books in our collection, and I will highlight a few here.

The first is a book of Mennonite history and doctrine by Galenus Abrahamsz de Haan given to Jacob Beukenberg, an orphan living in the Weehuis in Amsterdam, on April 23, 1710.

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Another is an emblem book of poems, scripture, and illustrations given to Gerardus de Wind on the 22nd of April 1753.

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The third is and final one I will highlight is a small book of martyr stories by Thielman van Braght (best known as compiler and author of the Martyrs Mirror) presented to Pieter Corver on the 26th of February 1774.
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Keith Sprunger, emeritus professor of history at Bethel College, studied these books twenty years ago during a research trip to the Menno Simons Historical Library. He notes that “the provider of the books was usually a church member who was a printer or ran a book store”1. Many Dutch Mennonites had warmly embraced this new printing technology, with some becoming quite rich from the enterprise. Sprunger writes that “This era was . . . the heroic age of Dutch Mennonite printing” and that “the Mennonite churches made great use of the printed word for advancing their religion”2.

Is the printed word still valued by Mennonites? The existence of Herald Press, MennoMedia, and the various Mennonite libraries and archives scattered around North America are hopeful indicators to me that as Mennonites we still make great use of the printed word to transmit our faith, heritage, and the good news of Jesus to the next generation. Many congregations today maintain traditions of giving their young people Bibles or books when they are baptized or reach other milestones.

But the news is full of stories of traditional forms of media struggling to maintain viability in the face of a population becoming ever-more reliant on instant access via the internet, social media, and smartphones. And while I believe technology is a fantastic tool to meet many communication and learning needs, it is clear that when it comes to leaving a long-term record it is not as enduring or reliable as print media. The prize books I mentioned above have been preserved in their original form for nearly three hundred years; computers from twenty years ago have long been relegated to the trash heap. Just as technology has enabled us to preserve through digitization and increase access through web content, it also presents major problems of preservation and access of records based in formats that are now obsolete. 

While it is tempting to continue chasing the new and best technology trends, I think it is wise to take a step back and consider how we can also continue to support and use print resources to leave a record and transmit our traditions to future generations of believers. There is value in possessing tangible resources that we can peruse and return to years later without worrying about data migration, file format compatibility, and URL stability. The young people who received these books appreciated them as the prize they were and we would do well to remember in our ever-changing and fast-paced world that there are still many rewards to be found between the covers of a good book.

Sources:
Sprunger, Keith L. 1999. Mennonitism in print : EMU and the history of Dutch Mennonite printing. n.p.: [1999]., 1999. Menno Simons Historical Library Vertical File.


  1. Sprunger, 17. 
  2. Sprunger, 13. 

Collections on the Move

Jason B. Kauffman

For most of my short time at the Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) Archives, I have occupied myself with “the move.” Shortly before I began in July 2016, MC USA made the decision to transfer all archival collections from their long-time home on the campus of Goshen College to a new facility at the denominational building in Elkhart. I spent the better part of ten months (July 2016-April 2017) planning for and carrying out the move of over 6,500 boxes—from three different locations—onto new shelves in Elkhart. Among these boxes were six new ones from Forks Mennonite Church, a congregation outside of Middlebury, Indiana, which closed its doors in December 2016, 159 years after it was first established. Also among the boxes were those of several Mennonite congregations which have recently withdrawn from the Indiana-Michigan Conference of MC USA.

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Forks Mennonite Church, 1967

Not among the items moved were those boxes belonging to Goshen College (GC), composed mostly of institutional records and the papers of former faculty members. While these records had been managed along with those of the (old) Mennonite Church (and related agencies) since the archive’s founding in 1937, as part of the move MC USA formally relinquished “all interest in or claims to ownership” of GC records.1 The move of MC USA collections to Elkhart was the final step in a process of separating out collection management responsibilities that the two institutions initiated several years earlier. A similar phase in the decentralization of Mennonite institutional recordkeeping occurred in 2012 when Mennonite Central Committee relocated over 1,200 linear feet of material from the MC USA Archives to its headquarters in Akron, PA.

Indeed, the wheels for this year’s move were set in motion long before I arrived. These flows of collections in and out of the archives happened for practical reasons, but are also integrally related to changes that have occurred in the denominational landscape in the last two decades. How have realignments happening across MC USA—and the departures of congregations and conferences—affected its ability to preserve the history of its predecessor denominations, its agencies, and the people whose actions have shaped institutions into their present forms?

Archives move for a variety of reasons. For MC USA, one of the primary “push factors” was that we were out of space. When the archives moved into the Newcomer Center on the GC campus in 1959, it needed 1,500 square feet of space to house its entire collection. As the collection grew, the (old) Mennonite Church rented progressively more space from the college so that by 2016, collections occupied around 2,900 square feet in Newcomer and another 1,700 in the Westlawn building.2 On a basic level, then, the denominational building in Elkhart offered the space necessary to reunite dispersed records in one location.

While space was a major issue, financial considerations also figured prominently in the decision to move collections to Elkhart. For most of its history, the archives was overseen by a standing Historical Committee which supported the publication of books and spearheaded a variety of initiatives that reached global audiences. The archives was an active part of the ministry of the (old) Mennonite Church and the denomination regarded it as a major center for the preservation of Anabaptist cultural heritage. In fact, the archives accepted records that extended beyond the denomination, including many significant Hutterite and Amish collections.

Since the creation of MC USA in 2002, and likely before, denominational support for the work of the archives has gradually declined. Shortly before I arrived, reduced budgets and smaller staffs contributed, in part, to the decision to create a new collection development policy with a much narrower scope. This, in turn, led to the deaccession of manuscript collections, congregational records, and conference records to new repositories. The move to Elkhart provided an opportunity for the denomination to eliminate rental payments to Goshen College, moving the archives closer to a sustainable operational model.3

Many of the reasons behind changes in policy at the MC USA Archives are tied to its own history as an institution. However, these recent developments also reflect changes that the denomination has undergone since it was created through the merger of the (old) Mennonite Church and the General Conference in 2002. Since then, hundreds of congregations (and entire conferences) have left MC USA which, in turn, has contributed to a significant decrease in financial support for the work of the denomination and its ministries. And, like most other ministries, the archives has not been immune to this financial crisis. The move is thus an acknowledgment of the important role the archive plays in the preservation of the denomination’s historical record, but it also represents an effort to shore up the many costs associated with its operation.

But what other costs—beyond financial—have resulted from the move? On a practical level, researchers must now potentially travel to three different locations to consult collections that used to be housed in Goshen.4 On a broader level, the move ended an almost century-long relationship between Goshen College and the (old) Mennonite Church. It has also ended (and strained) a newer relationship with the Mennonite Library and Archives (MLA) at Bethel College. Since 2002, MC USA has subsidized the work of the MLA to cover the cost of housing and managing the institutional records of the General Conference, one of MC USA’s predecessor denominations. Within the last year, MC USA made the decision to discontinue funding for the MLA. Rather than ship those records to the new facility in Elkhart, Bethel College chose to take on ownership and is currently working to build an endowment to fund the MLA.5 A similar process has taken place within Mennonite Church Canada, as the denomination recently turned over management of the Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives to Canadian Mennonite University.6

As M.J. Heisey has noted, the movement and reconfiguration of archival collections over time “make significant statements on the politics of the present.” This is clearly the case with the changes that have taken place in the Mennonite archival world in the last several years. But why does all of this matter? Certainly there are more pressing issues in our denomination (and our world) that deserve our attention before the preservation of a bunch of old, dusty documents that only a fraction of Mennonites actually use.

I think at least part of the answer to this question lies in the centrality of history to Mennonite identity. As John Roth has noted,

“Mennonites are a people whose identity is formed by story. Our theology has been intimately connected with our history. So attentiveness to how we tell our story is profoundly important. How we preserve these records are not simply technical questions of keeping them dry and well organized. We also have a long tradition of gathering archival records in ways that enable historians to give the fullest possible account of our past.”7

With Roth and many others, I lament the recent fragmentation (and defunding) of Mennonite institutional archives. But these recent developments also compel Mennonites to reassess what is important to us about our past and set priorities for the institutions that will preserve our historical memory going forward. Present realities are much different today than they were in 1960 (or even 2000): resources are far scarcer, and old ways of doing things are no longer sustainable. If our story is as important to our identity as Roth suggests, then our denomination—and Mennonite-related historical organizations in general—will need to generate new, creative ways to care for the shared cultural heritage that we have created (and will continue to create). Or, as Rolando Santiago has put it, we need to think seriously about “how we care for our fragile church institutions in times when budgets and resources are decreasing . . . address their flaws, and build their financial assets.”

Such changes won’t happen overnight and they will likely require expertise, wisdom, collaboration, and support from a network of committed individuals and institutions. Already, I have been encouraged by new relationships that have grown out of the move to Elkhart. This summer the archives formed a partnership with Mennonite Mission Network’s SOOP program that will provide an opportunity for volunteers to support the work of the archives. I am also exploring avenues to create a regular internship program for college students interested in a library, archive, or museum career. They will join an existing core of committed volunteers as we work together to arrange and describe the records that continue to arrive at the archives.

If you care about our Mennonite story, I invite you to join with me and other Mennonite-related historical organizations in imagining new ways that we can work together to create sustainable and thriving programs that will benefit future generations. In the meantime, I will continue to do my best to preserve the rich stories that are already here—those of the many individuals and institutions that have shaped the history of our denomination. This includes congregations—such as Forks Mennonite Church—that are no longer meeting and those that have chosen to leave the denomination. Their histories, too, are central parts of our collective Mennonite story.

  1. This wording is taken from a Memorandum of Understanding between MC USA and Goshen College finalized in April 2017. 
  2. In 2014, the archive also shipped 342 boxes to a remote storage facility in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Archival records were first moved to the Westlawn building in 1999. Discussion of space needs in the archives administrative files date to 1986, but conversations were likely initiated earlier than this. 
  3. Due to the generous support of private donors, the denomination accrued no debt to remodel the space, install moveable shelves, and move the collection from Goshen to Elkhart. 
  4. For example, researchers interested in the life and work of Harold S. Bender will find materials in the institutional records of the (old) Mennonite Church at the MC USA Archives in Elkhart, his personal papers and faculty records at Goshen College, and Mennonite Central Committee records in Akron, PA. 
  5. A Memorandum of Understanding between MC USA and Bethel College was finalized in July 2017. 
  6. According to the press release, Mennonite Church Canada will still provide funding for the archives through a three-way partnership with CMU and the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg. 
  7. Heisey and Roth made these statements in 2012 in reference to the relocation of MCC’s archive from Goshen to Akron, PA. 

Archives Power? The Role of Record-Keepers in Historical Preservation and Research

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Simone D. Horst

I recently saw this picture when my graduate advisor, a longtime library science educator, shared it on her Facebook page. I can say that as a librarian, the comic mostly rings true–one generally does not enter the library profession seeking fame and fortune. But the last word, power, gives me pause. Librarians, archivists, and all others who are given stewardship of records do have power. They have influence over historical narratives that must be given attention by both the record-keepers themselves and the people they serve. It is only through recognition of this influence that they can be held accountable and that those with whose histories they are entrusted can ensure that the preservation and access of those stories is being handled in a professional, ethical manner.

There are a number of facets to this influence, three of which Randall Jimerson explores in the introduction to his book Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice.  He opens by saying that archives can be seen as temples, prisons, or restaurants. For Jimerson, “the temple reflects the power of authority and veneration. The prison wields the power of control. The restaurant holds the power of interpretation and mediation. These represent the trinity of archival functions: selection, preservation, and access. Archives at once protect and preserve records; legitimize and sanctify certain documents while negating and destroying others; and provide access to selected sources while controlling the researchers and conditions under which they may examine the archival record.”1

Jimerson’s first example, the temple, describes the power exerted by record-keepers in the selection process. He writes that “the very acts of selection and preservation set some records apart from others and give them heightened validity” and reminds his readers that “in the archival temple, archivists make value-laden decisions with momentous implications for the knowledge that the future will have of the past.”2  Jason Kauffman, Mennonite Church USA Archivist, touched on this in his blog post “Now You’re the Institution” when he talked about the importance of addressing ‘archival silences’ by cultivating institutional collections that represent groups that have been marginalized or left out of a group’s historical records.3 Archives cannot collect everything, but an intentionality in the formation of collection development policies and in the activities of acquisition can help ensure the preservation of an historic record that makes an attempt at balance and inclusion.

Jimerson’s second example, the prison, demonstrates how archives have historically handled the preservation of records. Preservation meant maintaining the records exactly as they were when they arrived. Physical materials were kept in tightly controlled, high security spaces, with acid-free storage, climate control, and strict rules on viewing and usage. But with the advent of technology archives, libraries are being forced to reassess their methods of preservation and make decisions about the application of technology: what gets scanned and stored electronically? What formats are digital items stored in and how will archives ensure that these formats remain available five or ten years down the road as technologies change? Why digitize one collection rather than another? How do institutions maintain copyright control and security when items are shared on a platform as vast and far-reaching as the Internet? Digitization has enhanced the ability for records managers to provide access, but it also brings up difficult questions of preservation. This new frontier does not follow the pattern of how archives have historically gone about preservation, nor does it fit neatly into Jimerson’s prison narrative. It is an entirely new aspect that is allowing archives to provide more unlimited access to their collections, but also challenges the historically held beliefs of how best to preserve historic resources.

The final facet of power is access. This is Jimerson’s restaurant, where record-keepers and information-seekers come together to use and interpret historical documents. Providing patrons with access to resources is at the heart of the ethics of both the archival and library professions. The Society of American Archivists Code of Ethics states that “Although access may be limited in some instances, archivists seek to promote open access and use when possible” and the first point in the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics is “We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.” This is where an archivist’s power can be most plainly seen; there are many unfortunate examples of record-keepers bucking ethical codes and using their own discretion to assess whether records are fit for public consumption and withholding those they deem inappropriate. And, unfortunately, the lofty goals of living up to ethical principles of providing access can sometimes clash with more benign limits like restricted open hours, processing backlogs, and privacy rights that hinder the amount of free access the public can have to archival and library materials. Of the three facets of discussed here, this is both the easiest place for outsiders to recognize a record-keeper’s power and also the easiest place to hold records-keepers accountable.

Jimerson goes on to discuss how archives, once regarded by historians and others who use their contents as an unbiased source of materials that contained stories just waiting to be told, are now being seen for the power they have in shaping the discourse even before historical research begins. For many of us who work in these places, this power can feel uncomfortable. But power in archives and records-keeping doesn’t have to been seen as a bad thing. Jimerson states, “[O]ne challenge for archivists is to embrace the power of archives and use it to make society more knowledgeable, more tolerant, more diverse, and more just…once archivists acknowledge their professional and personal viewpoints, they can avoid using this power indiscriminately or, even worse, accidentally.”4  He concludes by saying that “rather than hide from their power in the realm of history, memory, and the past, I hope that archivists will embrace the power of archives and use it for the good of mankind.”5 

Anabaptists and Mennonites are privileged to have a large number of institutions and groups dedicated to preserving their historical record. There have been many devoted historians, librarians, and archivists over the years who have shaped and grown the historical collections that today’s church inherits. To continue and improve upon this legacy, record-keepers, historians, church leaders, and anyone interested in the church as it was and as it can be must take an active interest in the preservation and maintenance of our shared heritage. Those who are entrusted with the stewardship of historical materials need to be aware of how all aspects of their work impacts the history being told. They must take seriously the responsibility to work ethically and morally to provide historians and researchers with the highest possible access and most complete historical record possible. Likewise, church leaders must take seriously the importance of historical records and dedicate energy and funds to their care and protection. Only then can record-keepers and historians tell the best and most complete versions of our history.

Works Cited:
Jimerson, Randall C. 2010. Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice. Chicago, Ill: Soc. of American Archivists.


  1. Randall C. Jimerson, Archives power. (Chicago, Ill: Soc. of American Archivists, 2010), 2. 
  2. Jimerson, 4. 
  3. Kauffman, Jason. “Now You’re the Institution,” Anabaptist Historians, Nov. 10, 2016, https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2016/11/10/now-youre-the-institution/ 
  4. Jimerson, 185-86. 
  5. Jimerson, 3. 

“The People of God around the World”: Melvin Gingerich’s Archival World Tour

Jason B. Kauffman

On January 13, 1969, Melvin and Verna Mae (Roth) Gingerich embarked on a tour of Mennonite church communities around the world. During a period of 4.5 months the couple traveled more than 54,000 miles (“by air, train, taxi, jeep, and touring cars”) over a distance spanning five continents and twenty four different countries or territories.1 In all, their itinerary included 47 flights on 25 different airlines. The tour was commissioned by the inter-Mennonite Council of Mission Board Secretaries (COMBS) with financial support from the Historical Committee of the (old) Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).2

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Melvin and Verna Gingerich contemplate the itinerary for the 1969 archival world tour

By 1969, Gingerich had directed the archives of the (old) Mennonite Church for 22 years.3 He was also heavily involved in the Mennonite publishing world. Aside from his work as managing editor for the Mennonite Historical Bulletin and the Mennonite Quarterly Review, he was an editor and frequent contributor to several other publications including Mennonite Life, Mennonite Weekly Review, and the Gospel Herald. From 1955-1958, he represented the Peace Section of the Mennonite Central Committee in Japan. Gingerich’s active involvement with Mennonite institutions, his familiarity with trends in Mennonite writing and scholarship, and his experiences abroad shaped his worldview and over time he developed a keen interest in the global Mennonite Church.

Gingerich’s stated objectives for the archival world tour were to “determine the amount and nature of archival materials relating to American Mennonite missions located outside of the U.S. and Canada,” to consult with missionaries and church workers about record management practices, and to identify potential authors for the Mennonite Encyclopedia and other publications. But, for Gingerich, the trip was much more than a simple fact-finding mission. During his time abroad, Gingerich also planned to offer lectures on the important role of history in shaping the vision and identity of the global Mennonite community. He hoped that his meetings with mission workers, church leaders, and school groups would create a space for them to “examine together the Christian approach to history and to consider how historical interest could be aroused where it did not exist.”4

Such concerns became a recurring theme in his reports. After his visit with mission workers and church leaders in Argentina, Gingerich wrote:

It seems to me that perhaps my major contribution has been in making them aware of the fact that they have an obligation to witness to the rest of the church what God has been doing among them. The Bible is largely the account of God’s mighty works among His children. Much of the Old Testament was designed to review their history. The great sermons in the New Testament do the same thing. We have an obligation in our day to record and witness to this continuing history.5

Later in the trip, during a conversation with Dr. Saphir Athyal of the Union Biblical Seminary in Yavatmal, India, Gingerich discussed “the problem of how to get [seminary] students to feel that contemporary church history is a part of the ongoing stream of church history, directly related to past centuries of the story of God’s people.”

While educating the “younger churches” about Mennonite history was clearly part of his agenda, Gingerich was also sensitive to the local realities and traditions of the communities that hosted him.5 According to Gingerich, “the purpose of this visit to the fields was not a paternalistic one,” but rather “to encourage our brethren to share their story with the entire Christian brotherhood. We are brethren who can all share with each other and learn from each other.” As such, he felt that local Mennonite conferences should take the lead to develop “their own historians or historical committees and [to] cultivate the consciousness of their unique role in history.”

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Melvin and Verna Gingerich in Japan, Christmas 1956

Gingerich also had the intercultural awareness to recognize that not all members of the global Mennonite community transmitted and preserved history primarily through the written record. In several locations, Gingerich met with local church leaders to discuss plans for commemorating the upcoming anniversaries of their churches. In Ethiopia, he encouraged leaders from the Meserete Kristos Church to produce an account of their own history in order to tell “their own story from the Ethiopian perspective.” On other legs of the trip he also discussed the importance of recorded oral histories as a tool for preserving the life stories of early church members and leaders.

When Gingerich undertook his archival world tour, the global Mennonite population stood between 400,000 and 600,000 people. Roughly one third of these people lived in places outside of North America or Europe. Since then, the global Mennonite population has grown rapidly so that, today, Mennonites in Latin America, Asia, and Africa outnumber Mennonites in North America and Europe by a ratio of 2 to 1.6 The demographic shift that has occurred in the global Mennonite community in the last several decades raises important questions about the stories we tell about our shared history. Specifically, what should global Mennonite history look like and who should set the terms for those discussions?

Gingerich envisioned global Mennonite history as an unbroken narrative thread connecting the past to the present through the lives of “the people of God around the world.” His efforts to involve local believers in the telling of their own stories were ahead of their time. However, in his vision Mennonites from North America and Europe remained firmly at the center of this story as keepers of the collective memory of an Anabaptist tradition rooted in sixteenth century Europe.

Today, organizations such as the Mennonite World Conference and the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism are modifying this vision through initiatives such as Renewal 2027, a 10-year series of events during which Mennonites will meet annually in locations across the globe to commemorate and reflect upon the five hundredth anniversary of the beginnings of the Anabaptist movement. Organizers are planning the events with a broad, ecumenical vision which recognizes shared heritage and convictions but also the unique and varied ways followers have lived out the Anabaptist-Mennonite faith in diverse cultural contexts around the world.7 According to John D. Roth, the commemorations present an opportunity to “engage in fresh thinking” about the “global nature of the Anabaptist-Mennonite church today” and how this global nature “challenges or expands definitions of the word ‘Anabaptist.’”8 Such efforts are important steps toward decentering North America and Europe in the stories we tell about “the people of God around the world.”

Footnotes:


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Letter from Melvin Gingerich to Verna Gingerich, December 24, 1968


  1. Melvin and Verna visited Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Colombia, Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Ghana, Nigeria, Congo, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, India, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, the Fiji Islands, and Hawaii. 
  2. Gingerich was careful to specify that the couple paid for Verna’s travel expenses from their own funds (see photo). 
  3. Gingerich was born and raised in Kalona, Iowa. After graduating from Goshen College – where he met his wife, Verna – in 1926 he later earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Iowa in 1938. After some short teaching stints at Washington Junior College (Iowa) and Bethel College (Kansas), he moved with his family to Goshen (Indiana) where he served as archivist of the (Old) Mennonite Church Archives for the rest of his career (1947-1970). For part of this time he also directed the Mennonite Research Foundation and edited the Mennonite Encyclopedia
  4. Quotations come from reports contained in the Melvin Gingerich Papers, HM1-129, Archival World Trip – 1969, Box 78, Mennonite Church USA Archives, Goshen, Indiana. 
  5. Ibid. 
  6. Throughout his reports, Gingerich drew a distinction between the “younger churches” and the “older churches” in the global Mennonite community. 
  7. These are rough estimates based upon statistics from 1958 and 1978 published on the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online at http://gameo.org/index.php?title=World_Mennonite_Membership_Distribution 
  8. John Roth uses the concept of “right remembering” to examine the relationship between commemorations, historical memory, and collective identity formation in the global Anabaptist-Mennonite community. See John D. Roth, “How to Commemorate a Division? Reflections on the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation and its Relevance for the Global Anabaptist-Mennonite Church Today,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 91:1 (January 2017), 24-35. 

Oral History for the “Quiet in the Land”

Janneken Smucker

I’ve read with interest the posts here from my colleagues  Ben Goossen on Digital History and Ted Maust on Public History, topics very near and dear to me in both my scholarship and teaching. Ben outlines some of the facets of digital history, particularly how digital technologies can provide increased access to historical sources. Ted considers what public history—historical interpretation that in some way engages with the general public rather than to fellow academic historians—can do and has done for Anabaptists. I’d like to draw on these threads by exploring the role of oral history, and how oral history poses particular opportunities and challenges for those of us conducting history among Anabaptist groups.

Much of my scholarly energy in recent years has involved oral history in one capacity or another. As a young historian working on contemporary history topics from the 1970s and ‘80s, it was a natural fit. Interviews with living subjects served as excellent primary sources for my senior seminar paper at Goshen College, about the origins of the Women’s Studies program at GC. When I began studying quilts from an academic perspective, my first paper was based on an oral history interview I conducted with my elderly grandmother about the quilts she and her Amish-Mennonite peers made as young women in the 1920s in eastern Ohio. I now regularly teach with oral history, working with my students to create digital public history projects, interpreting and providing access to archival oral history interviews, by building classroom/archive partnerships that take advantage of open source technologies.

Members of the Anabaptist faith have long valued oral tradition, as the stories from our ancestors have been a source of faith. So-called ethnic Mennonites remember the challenges of our forebearers as stories and folklore are passed down from one generation to the next. Perhaps Martyrs’ Mirror, with its tales of courage and conviction, is the ultimate collection of Anabaptist oral tradition. Books like Martyrs Mirror, Amish Roots, and MennoFolk: Mennonite and Amish Folk Traditions collect and interpret some oral accounts that have resonance to many members of the Anabaptist tradition.1

tonguescrew

Sons of Maeyken Wens search for the tongue screw used to silence her among her ashes, Antwerp, 1573. Engraving by Jan Luiken in Martyrs Mirror, v. 2, p. 661 of Dutch edition. Source: Rijksmuseum via GAMEO

But oral history itself is a historical method distinct from oral tradition. Oral history really only became possible in our current understanding of the term with the availability of audio recording technologies, which enabled the interview—the dialogue between the interviewer and narrator—to become permanently fixed as a primary source. One of the most straightforward definitions of oral history comes from Donald Ritchie: “An oral history interview generally consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee and recording their exchange in audio or video format.  Recordings of the interview are transcribed, summarized, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives.”2

My brief search for Mennonite (the wing of Anabaptism I most closely identify with) oral histories turned up archived collections of interviews (among others) with Russian Mennonite immigrants, World War I conscientious objectors (with digitized audio!), Mennonite women from Manitoba discussing their childbirth experiences, and video interviews collected by the Brethren Mennonite Council for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Interests. Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of the oral history collections I discovered are from Canadian organizations or are interviews conducted with individuals from Russian-Mennonite backgrounds. At the risk of overgeneralizing, I surmise that Amish and “Old Mennonites”—the really quiet of the land—have been less keen on recording oral histories. Maybe individual life stories have seemed not to reflect the humility for which these groups have historically striven, or members of these less worldly affiliations have been reluctant to record their stories using modern technologies for the permanent record. In my own research, I’ve encountered this. What if the narrator is from a plain community and does not feel comfortable with the research, the technology, the release forms, or the archive? Can we still do oral history?

Two current tenets of oral history which squarely place this methodology in relationship with public history are “informed consent” and “shared authority.” By informed consent, oral historians mean that the interviewee/narrator has a full understanding of the purpose and potential uses of the interview. They should understand that they are “on the record” while being able to restrict aspects of their interview for future use if necessary. Typically, this is handled through a release form granting the interviewer permission to record, use, and/or archive the interview. Historian Michael Frisch popularized the term “shared authority” in relationship to oral and public history, suggesting that historians are not the sole arbiters of historical interpretation, but instead share that authority with those from the public with whom we dialogue and engage—especially those sharing their testimony through oral history interviews.3

Amish Country Quilts

Carol Highsmith, Amish Country Quilts, c. 1990. Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

When I was conducting fieldwork among Amish quilt entrepreneurs, I was hesitant to pull out legal forms for these women to sign, let along my fancy little digital audio recorder. Although I strived to make these informants feel comfortable speaking with me, I don’t think I did particularly well with “informed consent” guideline. I typically told the proprietor of a shop I was a student studying quilts (true, even though I was a PhD student, who hoped to eventually translate my research into a book) and asked if I could ask her a few questions. These women (and the occasional man) were usually quite willing to talk. They were accustomed to tourists asking lots of questions about quilts, and they typically had an almost scripted answer to my questions about how the design, production, and sale of quilts functioned. I did not quote these informants directly in my text, since I did not record the conversations, although their responses certainly served as evidence that informed my interpretation of the subject. In the endnotes to my book, I refer to these non-interviews as “conversations” rather than as “interviews.”4

In 2003, when Emma Witmer, the Old Order Mennonite proprietor of the longest operating quilt shop in Lancaster County, agreed to give an interview for Q.S.O.S. – Quilters Save Our Stories, an oral history project of the non-profit Quilt Alliance, she declined to be recorded or have her photograph taken. But she agreed to tell her story, presumably feeling informed and giving consent, as she signed a release form. Interviewer Heather Gibson took notes rather than record the audio, and the online “transcript” begins with the disclaimer: “notes from the interviewer—Emma Witmer is an Old Order Mennonite. The interview was recorded on pencil and paper at Emma Witmer’s request. Portions of the interview that were not recorded verbatim are noted in brackets. There are no photographs.” With this note, can we even consider this interview as “oral history,” at least based on Ritchie’s definition that an oral history must be recorded in audio or video? I drew on this interview extensively in my research on the origins of the quilt industry in Lancaster County, but is this as reliable of a source as I think it is since it is based on notes, which ultimately are an interpretation of the interview rather than the verbatim interview itself? Is it more or less reliable than the “conversations” I had with other shop owners?5

In contrast, one particular Amish informant was quite willing to go on the record, signing the forms and having his voice recorded. He knew I was writing about his father, an Amish businessman who bought quilts from his co-religionists and sold them to New York quilt dealers. He was the expert. I was the student. Here I think I came close to achieving the elusive “shared authority,” with his interview completely transforming my understanding of the relationship of Amish individuals to the market for quilts. When I wrote articles drawing on what I learned from him, I sent him drafts, and he gave me feedback. I even invited him to attend my dissertation defense, where he engaged in the discussion along with my committee members (he continues to relish telling people about that momentous event).

Excerpt from interview with Benuel Riehl, conducted by Janneken Smucker, May 13, 2008.

Throughout my career as a historian, I am continually reminded of the power of the first hand accounts gained through oral history. But I worry about what interviews we might never have the opportunity to record because of the challenges of conducting interviews with some Anabaptist groups. I also fear for the collections of interviews that have been recorded—like the ones with Mennonite women about childbirth—but remain inaccessible, on analog cassette tapes in faraway archives. Too often oral history projects result in amazing resources that are virtually undiscoverable, although new technologies have made it increasingly affordable and possible to provide access. And most importantly, we need to find ways to ensure that we as historians freely share our authority with our publics, listening not only as a way to elicit details of the past, but also as a way to check our perceived expertise as historians.


  1.  Thieleman J. van Braght, I. Daniel Rupp, and Thieleman J. van Braght, The Bloody Theatre, or Martyrs’ Mirror, of the Defenceless Christians: Who Suffered and Were Put to Death for the Testimony of Jesus, Their Savior, from the Time of Christ until the Year A.D. 1660 (Near Lampeter Square, Lancaster Co., Pa.: David Miller, 1837); John A Hostetler, Amish Roots: A Treasury of History, Wisdom, and Lore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989); Ervin Beck, MennoFolk: Mennonite and Amish Folk Traditions (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2004). 
  2. Donald A. Ritchie, Doing Oral History, 3rd edition (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), 1. 
  3.  Michael H Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990); Michael Frisch, “From A Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen, and Back,” in Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, ed. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski (Philadelphia, Pa.; Walnut Creek: Pew Center for Arts & Heritage ; Distributed by Left Coast Press, 2011). 
  4.  See Janneken Smucker, Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). 
  5.  Emma Witmer, interview by Heather Gibson, October 20, 2003, Quilt Alliance, Quilters’ S.O.S.—Save Our Stories, Library of Congress, American Folklife Center, http://quiltalliance.org/portfolio/qsos-emma-witmer/