Digital History: The German Mennonite Sources Database

By Ben Goossen

What does it mean to bring the “Anabaptist past into a digital century”? The subtitle of this blog includes a playful reference to the anti-modernist stance of many Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, and other so-called Plain Peoples—as well as an acknowledgement of the widely-held stereotype that Anabaptists do not use technology or engage the modern world. On one hand, the mission of Anabaptist Historians parallels that of any historical organization, namely to uncover, interpret, and make accessible the records of bygone eras for twenty-first century audiences. Yet for scholars of Anabaptism, this task holds unique challenges as well as opportunities.

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Documents in the German Mennonite Sources Database were collected during the research for Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton University Press, 2017)

“Digital History” is a practice that, over the past several years, has increasingly shaped the historical profession. In a narrow sense, Digital History refers to projects that primarily use digital tools to tell historical stories, such as animated maps, YouTube documentaries, or interactive wikis. Anabaptist-related efforts such as the extensive Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO) or the Bearing Witness website, designed to collect stories of persecuted Anabaptists from around the world, fit this definition. At an even broader level, nearly all history done today is “digital” in some way. It is hard to imagine writing an article or reviewing a book without opening Google, consulting an online repository like JSTOR, or downloading an open-access journal. Sending emails, maintaining websites, and using search engines are all part of Digital History.

Some Anabaptist groups are today among the only populations that write history without digital tools. In the summer of 2016, when the Anabaptist Historians Editorial Board was starting this blog, one tough question was how to include conservative Amish and other historians who do not use the internet. Is it possible to represent the full spectrum of Anabaptist pasts and identities in a digital format? Or does the very nature of a blog preclude the participation and accurate representation of some groups? We tried to create a website defined by simplicity – a value with cachet in Anabaptist households and Silicon Valley alike – yet reaching conservative populations remains difficult. When communicating with one historian in the Weaverland Conference, for example, I copy and paste web text into my messages or send screenshots as attachments, since he uses email but no internet browsers.

In other circumstances, Anabaptist history can feel tailor-made for digital approaches. With a relatively small population – around two million members are active worldwide – major digital projects are more feasible than they would be for larger demographics. Anabaptism, as a religious movement, is also blessed with substantial institutional resources, including church libraries, denominational archives, and nongovernmental organizations. Many have already undertaken Digital History initiatives. And joining these is a vast webscape of informal Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, chat room support groups, and genealogical sites. Previous posts on this blog have begun a fascinating dialogue about the places where Anabaptist history happens, including discussions of the value of borderland perspectives, centralized archives, and public history. How can we think about cyberspace as a location of and platform for historical work?

Over the past seven years, I have been working on a large-scale digitization project, the German Mennonite Sources Database. Released in October and hosted online by the Mennonite Library and Archives in North Newton, Kansas, this is the largest digital repository of books and newspapers by or about Mennonites in Germany as well as one of the most complete collections on this subject anywhere in the world. The database spans the years 1800 to 1950 and includes approximately 100,000 pages of text, including thousands of books, pamphlets, newsletters, and articles. Its purpose is to make historical resources available to anyone who reads German and is interested in religious history. Readers will find documents pertaining to virtually every aspect of German Mennonite life, ranging from sermons and catechisms to texts on nonresistance, the draft, and Nazism. Some topics are expected, such as hymn selections and condemnations of oath swearing. Others less so – like an 1859 rumination on vampires in the world’s first journal of folklore.

The German Mennonite Sources Database began as a personal resource, growing out of research conducted for my book, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, forthcoming in 2017 from Princeton University Press. As a history of Mennonites’ worldwide entanglement with German nationalism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Chosen Nation required familiarity with a wide spectrum of issues, from congregational and institutional life to historical, educational, and mission activities, involvement in war and political movements, peace declarations, gender, genocide, and anti-Semitism. In archives across Europe and the Americas, I found myself digitizing dozens or sometimes hundreds of documents a day. The essential tools of the Digital Historian include a computer, cell phone, digital camera, and a bevy of cords, adapters, and USB sticks. My archival desks unfailingly resembled a crow’s nest of snaking wires and metallic boxes.

A major advantage of Digital History is its ability to make scarce resources widely available. Documents that might exist only in one or two places in the world become accessible to anyone with a modem. This has a democratizing effect, since travel to distant libraries or archives usually requires deep pockets or university support, while digital files can be downloaded from the comfort of home. With Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software and online translation services (some of which now use artificial intelligence), texts in German or other languages can be rendered quickly and with stunning accuracy into English. Still another advantage is that different researchers bring diverse perspectives to the same sources. Documents in the German Mennonite Sources Database, for instance, might find wide interest beyond my initial purposes – hopefully providing a basis for articles, dissertations, scholarly debates, and family research.

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Warnings and Suggestions for Military Service, a handbook for Mennonite soldiers, is one of thousands of books, pamphlets, and articles now available via the German Mennonite Sources Database

Not all history is digital, of course, and not all Digital History is good. While open-access sites like the German Mennonite Sources Database are available to all, many research venues like Ancestry.com or HeinOnline lock material that would be provided for free in physical libraries behind digital paywalls. In this age of uneven globalization, the web remains only partially worldwide, with internet unavailable to the earth’s most disadvantaged populations – those lacking power in both senses of the word. As Anabaptists, we are also attuned to the spiritual politics of the internet. Is it possible to use digital tools in ways that are constructive rather than damaging, uniting rather than alienating? Such questions resonate with current public debates about internet bullying, cyberterrorism, and fake news. Some plain Anabaptists find a solution in eschewing digital resources altogether.

Our challenge then, as Anabaptist historians, is to consider not only how to engage Digital History, but also how to do so responsibly. Can we find ways of digitizing library holdings that also increase donations and visits to physical locations? Can we build integrated networks to share data and exchange ideas without losing sight of the distinctive needs and identities within the Anabaptist church family? Perhaps we could take cues from the wonderful work already undertaken by friends and colleagues – such as the open access website of Anabaptist Witness, the database of Anabaptist-related websites hosted by Mennonite Church USA, or the breathtaking Mennonite Archival Image Database. The tools offered by Digital History are like any new resource. They invite us to explore and affirm their limitations, while also finding fresh ways of working together.

You can access the German Mennonite Sources Database here.

Thanks to John Thiesen and the Mennonite Library and Archives for hosting the German Mennonite Sources Database, as well as to Rosalind Andreas, Kevin Enns-Rempel, Rachel Waltner Goossen, Royden Loewen, Titus Peachey, John Roth, Astrid von Schlachta, and Paul Toews for their support.

Now You’re the Institution

Jason B. Kauffman

My reference to a Ben Folds song probably dates me, but lately I’ve been thinking about the relationship between archives, institutions, and power. According to historian Paul Toews (described by Felipe Hinojosa in a recent blog), as I write this blog I am sitting in one of the “archival centers of the Mennonite universe.” I recently began working as director of the Mennonite Church USA Archives in Goshen. As a senior at Goshen College (2005) I spent long hours in the archives researching for my history thesis project.

When I reported for my first day of work in July, the archives looked (and smelled) pretty much like I remembered them, complete with a stone bust of Sanford Calvin Yoder (President of Goshen College from 1923 to 1940) and a large plaque listing the names of “pioneer leaders” (all white men of European descent) in the (old) Mennonite Church. One of the men, Jacob Gottschalk (the first Mennonite bishop in Germantown, Pennsylvania), is a distant family relative. So, to quote Ben Folds again, “how’s it feel to be the man?”

I don’t have a simple answer to that question. As a historian, I resonate with Hinojosa’s call to “deterritorialize Mennonite studies” and to tell the stories of Mennonites whose lives unfolded on the periphery, far removed from “holy places” like Goshen, Newton, Lancaster, or Winnipeg. I spent the majority of graduate school resisting the centralizing forces in my discipline which told me that the only topics worthy of study were those with an established historiography, focused on places at the centers of political or economic power. Latin American history is very nation-centric and I found a niche in the study of frontiers and borderlands, a subfield which questions the centrality of the nation-state in the stories historians tell about the region and its people. In a similar way to the Mennonite community in south Texas that Hinojosa describes, I discovered that what it means to be Brazilian or Bolivian looks very different from the margins than it does at the center. Place matters.

However, institutions also matter. For historians, institutions matter because they are the entities most likely to preserve the documents that we rely upon to analyze and write about the past. While my research focused on one of the most sparsely populated regions in South America, I would not have been able to write my dissertation without going to institutional archives in Rio de Janeiro or La Paz. Indeed, the available sources often dictate the types of questions we can ask (and answer) about the past. Through my research, I was able to learn much about how representatives of the Bolivian state felt about migratory laborers and the many ways officials attempted to control the movement of goods and people across borders. I learned comparatively little about the complex motivations that guided individuals in their decisions to migrate in search of work, how they felt about these decisions, and how such decisions impacted their lives and families.

Such archival silences are, of course, also present at the MC USA Archives. For example, collections in the archives yield much information about how church leaders and academics felt about growing Mennonite involvement in business after World War II but much less about businesspeople themselves, those who built successful businesses while navigating the norms and expectations of the broader Mennonite community. Despite such limitations, many historians have made creative use of the MC USA Archives. For example, recent studies have mined collections for sources that document Mennonite involvement during the Civil Rights movement and the complicated dynamics of racial prejudice and discrimination that pervaded this involvement.1 And there are many more sources yet to be discovered. But this does not change the fact that the voices of institutional (white, male) leaders are overrepresented in the archives and those of ethnic minorities, women, LGBTQ people, and those otherwise removed from institutional centers are underrepresented. This reality is itself a reflection of the history of the Mennonite Church as an institution.

Through my job as the archivist, I am now a part of this institution. I am keenly aware of the power that institutions hold to shape the terms of historical memory and its production.2 Archives play a key role in this equation because the written word is one of the primary ways in which people and institutions preserve history for future generations.3 Archives are also powerful weapons that institutions have used in their efforts to minimize or, in some cases, completely erase elements of the past.4 History is replete with examples of the many ways that institutions have done damage to the broader communities that they represent.

At the same time, now that I’m on the “inside” my perspective is beginning to shift. From the outside, institutions often seem like faceless entities, engaged in a timeless quest to centralize authority and wield power to advance their own agendas. It is often easy to forget that the Mennonite Church is a complex institution made up of complex individuals, each with different backgrounds and changing (and, in many cases, different) beliefs, motivations, and goals. All share a deep commitment to the broader Mennonite community and many are actively working to promote peace and social justice; to combat racism, prejudice, and discrimination; and to redefine what it means to be Mennonite.

No institution is perfect and good intentions do not erase the inequalities and injustices that persist. It is difficult to predict what form the institutional Mennonite Church will take in the next decades or how it will evolve or adapt in response to our rapidly changing denominational landscape. In 2116, who will future generations of Mennonites look back and recognize as the “pioneer leaders” of the twenty-first century? I hope that the list will be much different than the one currently hanging in the archives, made up of many more people from the farthest reaches of the Mennonite universe.

To explore one of the ways that the MC USA Archives is working to document the diversity of Mennonites voices, check out this online archive of Mennonite websites, which preserves the websites of Mennonite news outlets, MC USA agencies and conferences, and Mennonite bloggers. Let me know of others that I should add to the list!


  1.  Many of these recent studies also make excellent use of oral histories, critical sources for documenting and understanding the lives and experiences of people underrepresented in the written historical record. 
  2.  See, for example, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995). 
  3.  Kathryn Burns, Into the Archive: Writing and Power in Colonial Peru (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010). 
  4. For a recent – and excellent – exploration of these dynamics at play, see Kirsten Weld, Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).