A School By Any Other Name?

Names are funny things. Once they’re assigned to people, places, or things it can be hard to imagine anything else fitting. Though 100 years on it seems almost inconceivable for Eastern Mennonite University to be anything other than Eastern Mennonite, it took the founders a few tries to find a name that stuck. Many of the early suggestions were informed by the locations they would inhabit. Warwick Mennonite Institute, Warwick Mennonite Academy, and Alexandria Mennonite Institute clearly didn’t fit anymore once Harrisonburg became the settled upon location. But what about another suggestion: The Mennonite Student’s Safeguard and Industrial School? Certainly this conveyed in plain language the goals of the school, but it was a bit wordy and perhaps a bit too on the nose.  

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In the end, they settled on Eastern Mennonite School. Not as conspicuous as The Mennonite Student’s Safeguard and Industrial School, but it was decidedly less of a mouthful and still contained a key indication of their core identity: Mennonite. In Eastern Mennonite University: A Century of Countercultural Education Don Kraybill writes that “The records do not say how the final name was determined” but that “even in the twenty-first century, Eastern Mennonite University remains the only Mennonite-related college or university of eight in the United States that carries the denominational name”1

It must be stated that having the word Mennonite in the name certainly doesn’t make EMU more Mennonite than other colleges. Some of the founders even made the case for leaving Mennonite out. Kraybill writes of a letter that chair of the local board C.H. Brunk wrote to the General Board stating “it is not customary to give a school a denominational name…some people are more or less prejudiced against denominational institutions . . . [the school] can be just as truly denominational without the name” A small group including Brunk agreed “unanimously” that it should be named simply “Eastern Institute and Bible School.”2

There are some even today who think that the inclusion of Mennonite in EMU’s name is off-putting to prospective students or has the potential to be polarizing. In recent times other Anabaptist groups have made or proposed changes to their names that remove words like Brethren and Mennonite in order to be more inclusive and broaden their appeal.3 And it’s possible that Goshen, Bluffton, Bethel, and Hesston don’t have to field pesky questions about the availability of electricity on their campuses.4 But some on campus argue that we should lean into, rather than downplay, the Mennonite characteristics. Kraybill touches on this argument, noting that:

In a campus forum, enrollment managers proposed striking Mennonite from the marketing materials and reducing “other odd things about EMU to make it look less ‘weird’ and easier to recruit local Virginia students and mainstream evangelical Christian ones.” History professor Mark Sawin argued the reverse: “If EMU stops being distinctively Mennonite, we have no reason to exist. There are plenty of better-funded, better-situated Christian colleges and liberal arts colleges. If we try to be like them—to be just another mainstream, vanilla, Christian liberal arts school, I think we would, and perhaps should, fail. We aren’t vanilla; we’re pistachio. Most people prefer vanilla and chocolate, it’s true, but those who prefer pistachio love it and will seek it out. To thrive we need to not lessen but increase our distinctiveness—we need to be more, not less, pistachio.” 5

So Eastern Mennonite University it is. We have spent the last 100 years committing to our pistachio-ness and will continue to do so.  Though some may see the label as a hindrance, it can also be seen as an opportunity to invite conversation and share the unique ideals of Anabaptism.  In this way EMU really is a Christian—and more specifically an Anabaptist Mennonite—University like no other.

For more information about the history of Eastern Mennonite University, check out Don Kraybill’s 100-year history: Eastern Mennonite University: a Century of Countercultural Education. Available from EMU, Amazon, and Penn State University Press.


  1. Donald Kraybill, Eastern Mennonite University: A Century of Countercultural Education (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2017), 54. 
  2. Kraybill, 54. 
  3. Rich Preheim, Still BIC but no longer Brethren,” Mennonite World Review, Oct. 30, 2017.; Rachel Stella, “Switch to ‘Rosedale Network’ narrowly fails,” Mennonite World Review, Aug. 14, 2017. 
  4. As a student tour guide I once was asked this very question. Other people I’ve spoken with have reported being asked where we keep our horses and buggies. 
  5. Kraybill, 294. 

Lessons in Mischief from the Eastern Mennonite High School Class of 1959

The Eastern Mennonite School centennial a few weeks back provided the opportunity to reflect on, as Donald Kraybill has put it, one hundred years of countercultural education. Hopefully, the reunions and reminiscences also provided the chance to reflect on a quintessential aspect of student life: mischief. But if you’re looking for more, read on. 

In March 2014 I sat down with five women from the EMHS class of 1959. They shared about many aspects of student life in the 1950s, perhaps most gleefully reminiscing about the little ways they pushed the boundaries of good behavior. What follows is a list of things I learned about how to get away with mischief from the self-described “good kids” of 1959. (The women are identified below by their initials. All quotes come from the transcript I prepared, titled “EMHS 1959 Transcript,” available at the Menno Simons Historical Library at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA).

#1. Spies are all around: know who to watch out for (and where to watch for them)

It’s not just teachers, staff, or parents who enforce good behavior. College students, too, could act as “spies.”

MH: You remember the spies? [they all laugh]. They were college kids. We didn’t know who they were. College kids were designated spies so when you were in the dorm [Northlawn] in the social room…You never knew who was watching you. So you tried to sit there with your hands down here [indicates under the table] so you could hold hands [with a boyfriend]. We did that a lot…. I never got caught but it’s not that we never held hands.

#2. Break one rule at a time and make the most of your image

In 1959 looking plain signaled that all was right within you. You could be trusted. And this meant you could get away with more.

MH: And one day, I lived in the dorm and [boyfriend] had a sister that lived down close to where the seminary is now. They wanted us to come for supper so Miss Barge and Esther Longacre were deans and I had to get permission to go walk from this dorm [Northlawn] to there with him and it was dark. And that was almost a no-no. They didn’t want to let us go but [boyfriend] at that time was very conservative. He wore a plain coat. And Miss Barge liked him. [laughing]. And I still remember her words: we’re going to let you go but you know we trust you.  [more laughter]. Little did they know! [laughter]

CB: If you looked conservative.

MH: Yeah.

CB: You could get by with just about anything.

#3. Mischief is best accomplished within the safety of a group — and in a way that uses modesty to your advantage

The women recalled a particularly conservative faculty member and what they did to irritate him:

CB: …one time just to be kind of ornery, some of us girls sewed little bells on our crinolines, under our skirts. And then when we walked it jingled a little bit. Wasn’t real loud but you could hear these little bells. And I know…one of the professors, it would agitate him so. Of course he couldn’t see them but he started quoting scripture about these tinkling cymbals or something. [Laughter.]…. he thought we were very sinful because we had bells on.

#4. If possible, be a boy

CB: And remember the boys found out that I was so afraid of mice…We had these desks which opened up. I opened it up and there’s a mouse!

UK: a live one?

CB: No, dead. And I screamed. [Laughter]. They had the biggest kick out of that. But I don’t think they got in trouble. [More laughter].

UK: You probably got in trouble for screaming.

#5. Sometimes you need a little help from worldly items (like an eyebrow pencil)

WR: You were supposed to wear hose all the time.

Shen61 02

Girls playing volleyball, c. 1961. Is that truly a stocking seam on the back of the girl’s leg? Or a cleverly drawn line, courtesy of an eyebrow pencil? (Girls playing volleyball, 1961 Shenandoah (Eastern Mennonite School yearbook), courtesy of the Menno Simons Historical Library, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA.)

WR: And they had to be dark.

ED: And they had to have seams.

HS: What was it about seams? [the younger interviewer is confused, having only known a world where hose don’t have seams]

ED: So they knew you had hose on.

CB: Eyebrow pencil worked.

UK: You just took eyebrow pencil and —

UK: There’s always a way to get around everything! [Laughter]

CB: You could use an eyebrow pencil and put the mark up your leg and you’d look like you had stockings on.

HS: And that worked? [wondering how they all had eyebrow pencil; wouldn’t make-up have been forbidden?]

WR: For a while! [Laughter]

#6. Enjoy the ironies that will come when your elders don’t think through the logical results of certain rules

The women remembered rules about wearing skirts even during gym class. Bad news for the girls; potentially appreciated by the boys. 

MH: And the boys really enjoyed going to the basketball games. Because they couldn’t wait until we’d fall over and then they’d see our skirts would fly up. I remember them talking about it. [laughter.]

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Girls playing basketball in the old gym at EMS, c. 1957. Their skirts appear well in order. (Girls playing basketball, 1957 Shenandoah (Eastern Mennonite School yearbook), courtesy of the Menno Simons Historical Library, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA)

#7. Sometimes you just have to risk it

CB: The most sneaky thing we did was we snuck out in front of the chapel, got on motorcycles with two of our male classmates and they took us for a ride through Park View and back and then we worried for weeks; we were afraid that somebody would find out. That would have been terrible.

UK: We’d have been sent home.

#8. When you get older and are looking back, have some grace for your elders

CB: You know I have done a lot of fussing about the way things were but I really appreciate the bottom line was a good religious base and some of these far out things that they demanded, they were just carrying out what they needed to, I suppose. But I am thankful for what the church stands for, the Mennonite church.

#9 But also acknowledge that amid the fun was real hurt—and real mistakes

It may be funny sixty years later to think of boys hoping the girls’ skirts would fly up in gym class; it could very well have been deeply embarrassing for the girls then. But embarrassment is the least of the problem—sexism, double standards, and all the problems inherent in the male gaze also come to mind.

And while pushing the limits in small ways was one thing, the costs were real for those who didn’t quite fit in. The women remembered one classmate who left school because she would not confess to the error of having a boy student put his arm around her shoulder on the couch. They remembered this student had “looked a little wordly” and always been under suspicion. Speaking of another issue, one woman recalled that her sister had red, curly hair. Just having this bright, unruly hair meant “she looked like a wordly student…And everything that went wrong, she got blamed for because she just looked like somebody that would be mischievous or break the rules or whatever. And she carries that stigma with her today.” Whether kicked out of school, or just being under suspicion for how you naturally look, inequality and injustice lurks in many of these memories.

What lessons in mischief do you have from your school days? What gems could be recorded at your family dinners? Thanksgiving is coming. In the centennial spirit, think about purchasing a small digital recorder (I use an RCA VR5320 R digital voice recorder which costs around $30) and sitting down to record some stories. If you interview a Mennonite women, consider donating the recording to the collection where the interview I quote from here is housed: Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, in the Eastern Mennonite University archives. I am happy to answer any questions about the logistics of recording interviews or about how to donate recordings to an archive.

A peek into the past at EMU

Eastern Mennonite University is celebrating their Centennial this year with year-long celebrations that kicked off at Convocation, will continue with Homecoming celebrations including artwork, theater, live music, reunions, and the release of a new history book, and will culminate in the 100th commencement in May 2018.

As we launch into our next hundred years, it is worthwhile to go back to the beginning and take a look at where the school began. In the EMU Archives’ digital collection we are fortunate to have correspondence from Mary Nafzinger, a charter student at EMS from Pigeon, Michigan, to her pen pal to Evan Miller, who was a C.O. in Camp Mead at the time.  Evan Miller was also the grandfather of former EMU archivist Nathan E. Yoder, who graciously shared this material with the collection.

First EMS graduating class, 1919

First graduating class of EMS; Mary Nafzinger, front left

Mary’s letters to Evan give us a sense of day-to-day life in the early years of the school and also an understanding of how world events–like the Spanish Flu and World War I–impacted the small campus:

September 19, 1918

“Things are going on in their usual quiet way here at school. Much like last year only I am taking a heavier course, and taking seven subjects. Six of them being solid. I also put in my application to do the ironing so I am quite busy. The spiritual side of the school is growing dearer to me every day. We girls have prayer circle every evening then we have a devotional service before breakfast every morning. We also have a S.S. [Sunday School] organized, and a Young People’s Meeting . . . Elizabeth Horsch [later wife of H.S. Bender] from Scottdale is my roommate.”

 

September 26, 1918

“I am sitting out on our porch writing on the bannisters. . . .”

White house002
The porch Mary Nafzinger is referencing here was on the “White House”, a mansion on the property in Park Woods that the EMS founders purchased in 1917. This building housed all school activities and students.

In this letter Mary also discusses the impact of WWI on enrollment numbers:

“We have about 22 students registered. Four of them are Maryland and Pa. Some more are expected soon. This last draft law cut down so many that wanted to come but of course girls could come, but some have to stay at home on account of their brothers leaving.”

In one of her next letters Mary tells Evan how they spend their leisure time at the school:

October 7, 1918:

“Two girls from here at the Park and I were out on a rocky hill all afternoon, too, writing letters, reading etc. I think that is one way of spending an ideal Sunday afternoon. The greatness and grandness of nature impresses me so much and makes me conscious of His greatness and also as nothing else can makes me feel the nearness of Him who never leaves or forsakes us.”

In the fall of 1918, the second wave of an influenza pandemic, nicknamed the “Spanish Flu” hit Harrisonburg and the surrounding areas. EMS was not immune from the pandemic, with many students and faculty taking ill. Mary writes:

Oct. 22, 1918

“I am just convalescent after having the Spanish Influenza. We have not been having school for the last two weeks but expect to open up again tomorrow. Quite a number of students went home, but all we folks that stayed got it. In fact we were all in bed with it except the cook. She took care of us and good care at that . . . I was in bed nine days and was quite sick as one day they decided to send for my parents then I happened to get better right off.

Quite a few people died around here, but only one Mennonite that I know of.

P.S. You need not be afraid of getting the flue thru this letter as everything has been disinfected.”

Hen-Flew-Enza

The influenza continued to affect the school after Mary’s recovery, and she was pressed into service as a caregiver:

November 7, 1918

“Just after writing to you three more students and the cook took sick with the “Hen-flew-enza.” The students from Pa and Md immediately went home, leaving only three of us in charge and two men to cook for, J.L. Stauffer and Mr. Matz. Miss Charlton and Miss Horsch were installed as cooks and I your humble servant as nurse. None of us were very strong yet, and we had some time. They were not used to cooking and in fact had never cooked much so they as well as the rest of us were in a misery ha.

I cooked soft-diet food for my patients and you can imagine they were in a perfect misery with me as a nurse. But I got along famously and like nursing fine. It was almost as much of a lesson to me to wait on patients as to have the ‘flue’ myself.”

Mary spent the Thanksgiving holiday at the school and enjoyed some special entertainment:

November 30, 1918

“Then Thanksgiving evening we had a taffy pulling in the kitchen. It was fine but the taffy and the sport of pulling it. Also to see some four little freshman smearing in the sticky stuff that were not accustomed to handling it.”

Lest we think that EMS in the early 20th century was all excitement and occupation, here is what Mary and her roommate were doing to entertain themselves in the winter of 1918:

December 8, 1918

“At present my roommate and I are engaging our spare moments and also others in watching a hyacinth bulb grow that I purchased in the ten-cent store. It seems almost miraculous how fast it grows. We have no idea what color it is going to be.”

Hyacinth

The EMS of 1918 was certainly a different place to the EMU of today. It was smaller, more tight-knit, and moved at a slower pace. I think it’s safe to say that students of today, with numerous campus activities, extracurriculars, WiFi, and Netflix could find many ways to occupy themselves other than watching plants grow. But there are also similarities–a focus on spiritual life, challenging academics, and enjoyment of the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley.

1919

Mary’s final missive to Evan contained her graduation announcement and the commencement program inscribed with her class’s motto ‘Each May Serve’. Likewise, the class of 2018 are prepared by EMU to ‘serve and lead in a global context’. As we appreciate the growth and changes the past 100 years have brought to EMU, it is also reassuring to notice the similarities and qualities that have made the school a unique place throughout its history.

Threads of Connection Woven through History

What do the Anabaptists from Prussia, cowboys, and Eastern Mennonite College have in common? Admittedly not much, but these three threads have intertwined in a unique way throughout history to weave a tale of conflict, connection, and caring.

Gesangbuch 1908 1

Danzig Mennonites

The first thread is the Anabaptists in Danzig, Prussia (now Gdansk, Poland). The history of the Danzig Mennonites is long and complex and there isn’t enough time or space do it justice here, but I will attempt to give a brief overview.1 Anabaptists moved to the Danzig area in the 1530s fleeing persecution in the Netherlands and other areas of what is now Germany and Switzerland (Mannhardt 2007, 37-38). They established a community in Danzig, living there from the 16th century to the early 20th century.  Both Menno Simons and Dirk Philips visited the Anabaptists at Danzig a number of times, with the latter living there for a while. Danzig church historian H.G. Mannhardt says that “the beginnings of our church can be traced to Menno himself” but that Philips “is considered the actual founder of the Danzig Mennonite Church.”2 
The Danzig Mennonites practiced strict church discipline, tried to avoid fashionable clothing, and were excused from military service so long as they paid for two substitutes. They also practiced mutual aid and care for the poor. They maintained an alms house to house the homeless and had an alms fund for the care of needy church members. Mannhardt says that “their care for the poor was to be similar to that of the early Christians, and for that reason they had, besides the office of preacher, the office of deacon or caregiver to the poor.”3

The Mennonites were appreciated for their work ethic and quiet nature, but they still experienced some discrimination. For the first few centuries of their tenure they were denied the rights of citizenship as they refused to take the citizenship oath, were not allowed to live within the city walls (many settled in the nearby suburb of Schottland), and endured hindrances to practicing their crafts and trade in lace and fine liquors. Seemingly each time a new King of Poland came to power he would try to evict them.4 Fortunately, they were given enough protection by the Danzig City Council to be able to continue living in and around Danzig.5

By the 1800s Danzig Mennonites were granted citizenship along with other protections and were able to move within the city walls, where they constructed a church building on what became known as Mennonitenstrasse (Mennonite Street).  Church membership was always strong and had grown to over one thousand after World War I, but it dwindled significantly after World War II as many were driven out by the conflict and subsequent Soviet occupation.6  The church building was restored after the war and continues to serve as a church, although it is no longer used by Mennonites.7 

Seagoing Cowboys

The second thread is post-World War II relief work done by young men of Mennonite, Church of the Brethren, Brethren in Christ, Quaker, and other Anabaptist faiths. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) was instrumental in overseeing and coordinating the Anabaptist connection to governmental conscientious objector (CO) programs during and after the war, including Civilian Public Service (CPS) and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).8 After WWII, the UNRRA partnered with the Heifer Project, a Church of the Brethren organization, to provide livestock for people in Europe and China whose lives and livelihoods had been destroyed during the war. The men who volunteered to accompany heifers, horses, mules, and other livestock across the ocean were nicknamed “Seagoing Cowboys”. In total they made over 350 trips over the course of three years.9 Many went over as a fulfillment of their alternative service, but some were just seeking adventure. All came back with a deeper understanding of the gravity of pain and destruction endured by the survivors of WWII.10 

The Menno Simons Historical Library

The final thread is that of Eastern Mennonite College (now Eastern Mennonite University), more specifically its special collections library, the Menno Simons Historical Library (MSHL). The MSHL was started in the 1920s by two professors who wanted to create a collection of materials related to Mennonite and Anabaptist history, life, and culture. Since its inception, the collection has grown to include a number of rare books and materials relating to the early Anabaptists in Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. It now holds over 45,000 books, including about 5,000 rare books, and a host of other materials related to the Mennonites and Anabaptists.

Conflict, Connection, and Caring

These threads were woven together when a young man from the Shenandoah Valley named Wilbur C. Layman went over to Poland as a seagoing cowboy in 1946. His fellow cowboys went out one day to explore the ruins of the bomb-damaged Danzig Mennonite church, but Wilbur stayed back as he wasn’t feeling well. The men found church records and documents in the damaged church, many of which they recovered and brought back to the United States.11 These were housed at the Mennonite Library and Archives at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas from 1947-2009 (they have since been transferred to the Mennonitische Forschungsstelle in Weierhof, Germany).12 Although he had stayed back that day, two items found their way into Wilbur’s hands and were brought home to Virginia. He later donated them to the Menno Simons Historical Library–a 1908 songbook from the Danzig Mennonite Church entitled Gesangbuch zur kirchlichen und häuslichen Erbauung : für Mennoniten-Gemeinden and a single page entitled Rechnung von unsrer Gemeinte[sic] Armen Gelder : welche anno 1698 adÿ 29 December geschlossen worden, which very roughly translated means, “Account of our community poor funds which concluded December AD 1698”. This page lists the deacons for the poor that are mentioned in Mannhardt’s history of the church as well as an account of the alms fund. The deacons listed are Martin Enken, Harman Allerts, Hendrick Klaassen, Andries Penner, Gerrit Jansen, and Nicolas Penner. This document is a fantastic example of the mutual aid and care for the poor practiced by the Danzig Mennonites.

Gesangbuch 1908 2.JPG

Documentary evidence such as this provides a tangible connection to history that is hard to replicate through reading facts and figures. Every rare item in the Menno Simons Historical library has a unique provenance, but we aren’t fortunate to have such a complete and fascinating tale for them all, which makes this document and songbook all the more special.

 

 


  1.  More information can be found in the GAMEO article on the Danzig Mennonite Church or in H.G. Mannhardt’s book The Danzig Mennonite Churchthat was recently translated and published in English. Mannhardt, H.G. The Danzig Mennonite Church: Its Origin and History from 1569-1919. Translated by Victor G. Doerksen, edited and annotated by Mark Jantzen and John D. Thiesen. North Newton, Kansas: Bethel College, 2007; Mannhardt, H. G. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. October 2012. “Danzig Mennonite Church (Gdansk, Poland).” Accessed August 22 2016.
    http://gameo.org/index.php title=Danzig_Mennonite_Church_(Gdansk,_Poland)&oldid=127394 
  2. Mannhardt 2007, 44-46. 
  3. Mannhardt 2007, 116). 
  4.  (Mannhardt 2007, 53; 56-57). 
  5.  (Mannhardt 2007, 71-72). 
  6.  (Mannhardt 2007, 245). 
  7.  (Mannhardt 2007, 251-53). 
  8.  Byler, J. N. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. “UNRRA (The United
    Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration).” Accessed August 19 2016.
    http://gameo.org/index.php?title=UNRRA_(The_United_Nations_Relief_and_Rehabilitation_Administration)&oldid=78411
  9. For more information on Seagoing Cowboys, visit seagoingcowboys.com, where a great deal of information and wonderful stories have been compiled by Peggy Reiff Miller. Also check out her new children’s book entitled The Seagoing Cowboy, now available from Brethren Press. Miller, Peggy Reiff. The Seagoing Cowboys: Delivering Hope to a War-Torn World. Accessed August 18, 2016. www.seagoingcowboys.com
  10. Miller, Peggy Reiff. The Seagoing Cowboy. Elgin, Illinois: Brethren Press, 2016, 38-39). 
  11. Scans of the Danzig Mennonite Church records that were once housed at the Mennonite Library and Archives can be found 
  12.  (Mannhardt, xxvii).