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.”


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.”


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.


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.
  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).