An Honest Look at Ancestry Reveals Diversity

This is a response to “Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege” by Ben Goossen.

Darvin L. Martin

Ben Goossen convincingly explains that the development of Mennonite family research a century ago was at least partially motivated by a quest for “blood purity and racial hygiene” (“Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege”). Bridging to the present, Goossen also asserts that these themes become exacerbated through the recent advent of DNA testing, “privileging the notion that Anabaptism is as much an inheritable trait as a religious conviction.” The implication is that interest in ancestry today continues to foster attitudes of exclusion and superiority, when in my experience the opposite can and should be true.

As a prime historic example, Goossen cites the Amish-Mennonite historian C. Z. Mast, who published a genealogy in 1911, and within it spent pages to express his thoughts of heredity, defending a position we now understand as white supremacist. [^1] What Mast articulated on paper, many and perhaps most of his contemporary Mennonites had also embraced, but were ill-equipped to write or to express in detail.

In a lengthy epilogue, Mast proposed that the same natural law exemplified by selecting physical vitality in breeding agricultural stock likewise applied to humans.  He further projected that moral tendencies, in addition to outward form and features, were physically transmitted from parents to their children (747). Mast endorsed the responsibility of governments to convince their populations of the natural laws of heredity, selectively improving “human stock,” by implementing and enforcing regulations against endogamous marriage, and praised purposeful spousal selection as a means to reduce and ultimately eliminate undesirable characteristics and diseases, including blindness, tuberculous, curved legs, and mental handicaps (749).

Mast argued that the remarkable progress of his contemporary early twentieth-century Americans was the expected outcome of inheriting the vitality of the most successful men and women of the different nationalities of Europe. In contrast, he gave examples from other cultures where “divine displeasure is announced.” He cited Native Americans and other “ancient tribes and races of the Orient” having succumbed to severe inbreeding, causing “their physical and mental power [to have] melted into weakness” (748).  He criticized the Catholic royalty in Spain and Portugal, concluding their congenital disorders were the product of pope-blessed marriages between princes and their nieces.  He imprecated the emirs of Turkey for producing “simpletons and imbeciles,” as they have “intermarried so long and extensively [. . .] among those who revere the memory of the prophet” (749).

To use a common and necessary tag line of our time, it is not far-fetched to clearly report that Mast’s comments are the “textbook definition” of racism.  Yet here we have them, published by our very own Mennonite Publishing House in 1911.  In his defense, Mast had merely articulated the mainstream thoughts of the scientific and intellectual community of his time, with a directed passion to convince his Amish and Mennonite cousins to extend the tent a bit wider when looking for a spouse among the community.  But his words also subsequently labeled the “other” communities as inexcusable for the very problems that he found in his own.

Goossen calls us to own the historic racism exhibited by Mast and his fellow Mennonite and Amish family researchers, as rightly we should.  Just like those who descend from slave holders, those of us who are ethnic Mennonites have our own demons to expose. We cannot pretend that our ancestors thought of their whiteness as but one variety among many.  Likewise, let’s not be haphazard in our attempt to separate family history research from racism, as this is no easy task. Especially when Mast and others have been intent on keeping these themes so tightly bound.

For myself, an honest account showcases that Mast’s supremacist ideas sit uncomfortably close to home.  C. Z. Mast’s father was a first cousin to my great-great grandmother, Hannah Kurtz (1855-1937).  They grew up in the same congregation along the upper reaches of the Conestoga River, just west of Morgantown, Pennsylvania.  C. Z. lived on the farm of our common ancestor, Stephen Mast (1800-1868), two miles south of Morgantown.

Perhaps some of C. Z.’s prowess and detail towards family history found a home in my genes as well.  I can relate.  C. Z. was only in his mid-twenties when he wrote this history, and he certainly pursued it as a way to exercise his intellectual curiosity and differentiate himself from the expected mandate to become a farmer.  C. Z. was well read, and ascribed to the basic understanding of genetics promoted in his day—that human genetics were understood as having an ideal, pure and original form; that we exhibit various stages of corruption from that pure form . . . and for some, in Mast’s warped view, the corruption is more extreme than in others.

This understanding, although now proven untrue, had filtered down through my family. Physical and mental problems were blamed on such corruption.  My grandmother (the granddaughter of the Hannah Kurtz mentioned above) scolded her younger brother when in middle-age he fell in love with a woman and decided to marry.  This brother was somewhat mentally and physically limited, had always lived with his parents, and was part of the Friendship Community program sponsored by Mennonites in Lancaster for handicapped individuals.  

From my grandmother’s perspective, marriage and the benefits and responsibilities that came with it were not to be made available to those constrained by handicaps assigned from birth.  In childhood she was told that we have a moral duty to keep handicapped individuals from having children, otherwise we inhibit humanity from rising to its full potential.  She grew up in the face of the eugenics movement, and ultimately had enough control over her brother that he decided not to marry, even though both he and his partner were well beyond child bearing age.  Both my grandmother and her brother had passed away within three weeks of each other in February 2016. These attitudes of restricting bloodlines to attain a supposed ethnic purity haunt our recent past, and perhaps have found expression in new contemporary forms.

Goossen suggests that DNA testing has become a new avenue to enforce concepts of ethnic exclusion—that those who grew up Mennonite use this to privilege common ancestry over shared convictions. While there is a tendency to use DNA testing to play the “Mennonite Game,” my own experience in interpreting DNA results of several hundred individuals, both inside and outside the Mennonite circles of ethnicity and persuasion, challenges this notion. DNA testing is all about surprises—that our ancestry is not straightforward, but rather a complicated web of interconnectedness.  We see the surprises advertised in the commercials by the two most prevalent DNA testing companies, Ancestry DNA and 23andMe.  DNA testing reveals the unexpected, and that is what people find attractive.

There are at least a dozen Mennonite DNA projects on the internet that seek to use DNA as a means to link families together.  And all of these clearly reveal an astounding amount of diversity among ethnic Mennonite populations. An honest assessment of the Y-DNA profiles among testers who share the common surnames familiar to ethnic Mennonites reveals that they are not homogenous, but rather span a wide cluster of populations of origin. The “Mennonite DNA Project” by Tim Janzen, the “Swiss Anabaptist DNA Project” by Bonnie Schrack and my own “Mennonite and Amish Immigrants to Pennsylvania DNA Project” are but three examples. While a very selective reading of DNA can enforce a tester’s prejudices, a more complete assessment determines that ancestry is much more complex than first assumed.

Here’s why.  All of us, if we extend our family trees into the past, have an increasing diversity of ancestors.  This is statistically inevitable. Eight great-grandparents descend from sixteen great-great grandparents and thirty-two three great-grandparents, and so forth back through time.  Ten generations back, about 350 years ago, we each should have 512 ancestors.  At twenty generations back, about 700 years ago, that number of ancestors increases to 524,288, and at thirty generations, around 1000 A.D., we should have 536 million, more than the total population of the world at that time.

Those statistics eventually break down due to the inevitable placement of common ancestors in different places on one’s tree.  In my personal example, (through recordkeeping as the result of the privileges received because of 300 years of relative economic and social stability), I can create a nearly complete ancestral chart back ten generations on each side of my family. And in spite of having strong Mennonite background on both sides of my family, the chart shows increasing diversity.

I don’t have 512 ancestors ten generations ago, but instead have 372, due to duplications on my tree.  This is caused by fourth, fifth and sixth cousins marrying each other.  But even so, diversity far outweighs the truncation experienced by intermarriages.  For myself, truncation first appears seven generations back, where a seventh-generation ancestor of my father’s lineage also appears as an eighth-generation ancestor on my mother’s side.  This one and a few others reduce my total ancestral count by about ten percent in the eighth generation, and consistently another ten percent in the ninth, and another ten percent in the tenth, so I am left with 372 unique ancestors, 350 years ago.  

Each of these has a unique story of their own life experience.  Many crossed the ocean to carve out a new existence in America. Many were Swiss—representing at least four cantons, about four dozen were German, as many as ten held Dutch nationality, a few were French, and at least five were Irish.  And I have a few unknowns.  That’s where my genealogy ends.

But let’s assume out of those 372, they each had 372 ancestors ten generations further back.  That gives me 138,384 ancestors twenty generations ago, around the year 1300.  That is far less than the 524,288 I should have, assuming each ancestor a unique individual. Even if a full half of them were duplicates, I’m left with 65,000 people that I can statistically claim as ancestors.  Writing their names alone would fill more than a thousand-page book.  What are the statistics that every one of those had the same five nationalities as my most recent ancestors? The amount itself simply forces further diversity.

And we all experience this diversity, if we take an honest look at ancestry. Some Americans can claim ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War.  Some have found ancestors among the Native Americans, among Africans forced into slavery and transported to America, and among those engaging in the slave trade, all at the same time.  Go back further in time and the probability increases that your ancestors were not just the ones you perceive as friends, but also your foes.

And among these 65,000 people 700 years ago, what if they each had 372 ancestors ten generations back?  That’s twenty-four million ancestors in the year 950.  It is statistically inevitable that at least one of these is a Central Asian merchant of the Nestorian Christian persuasion. At least one is an Arab from the Maghreb practicing Muslim faith, one a caravanning Mongol whose abode lies far to the east in modern China, one a Hindu who bathed in the Ganges, and one a sub-Saharan African herding cattle within the shadow of Kilimanjaro.

I’m only considering a thousand years ago. Jump back another thousand years and it is not difficult to assume that nearly every person alive at that time was an ancestor, statistically speaking.  Even those island populations that have lived in relative isolation for tens of thousands of years, such as the indigenous populations of Australia, New Guinea, and the Andaman Islands would have had occasional escapees and castaways in nearly every generation who mixed with nearby continental populations. Over time the web that starts with yourself extends wider and wider back through time until everyone is included.

Modern DNA testing as it relates to family history grants us the ability to apply specific data towards these statistical results. Through a 23andMe DNA test, I found that my grandmother (mentioned above) has a small snippet of Native American ancestry, predicted to have arisen eight generations back. In one woman around the year 1730, I find the DNA evidence to include 200 to 400 Native American ancestors by the year 1380, and 40,000 in the year 1030, encompassing all the known Native peoples’ groups of the Mid-Atlantic region and likely far beyond.  Can anyone doubt that every one of those migrant families who resided along the Bering land bridge linking Siberia to Alaska during the last Ice Age 15,000 years ago was also an ancestor?  Of course, some left no descendants, but those who left descendants ultimately became the ancestors of all of us.

Through Y-DNA testing, we have uncovered that the prominent Mennonite Groff family shares Y-chromosome affinity not with fellow Swiss Mennonite families, but with a Greco-Roman cluster of Italian families with surnames such as Albarano, Margarelli and Visentin.  Through similar testing, we have uncovered that Mennonites who share the Swiss surname Hollinger, Hullinger or Holiger, have as their next closest matches the Saudi families Almotawa and Al Daihan and the Turkish family Kahanizaman. The Mennonite Metzler family, tracing their lineage of descent through Valentine Metzler, a German immigrant who arrived in Lancaster County with his father Jacob in 1738, has close Y-DNA matches to Jewish families such as Kronik (in Belarus), Cohen and Langer (in Ukraine) and Friedman and Wengrowski (in Poland).

These are only a few of the examples in which DNA showcases the statistical inevitability of diversity as one takes a serious look at ancestry. I haven’t even touched the Y-DNA results of the Mennonite Good family, which reveal an origin in Afghanistan predating the time of Alexander the Great. Nor have we seriously examined the Amish Bassinger families from Ohio, which have a Central Asian Y-DNA signature closer aligned to the Asian origins of the Native Americans than to most European families.  Nor have we investigated the selection of European surnames than showcase Y-DNA signatures more closely matching a recent African origin than the typical Celtic or Greco-Roman cultures of European antiquity.

An honest look at DNA can and should break down the racial prejudices that have defined the last few generations of family researchers.  DNA analysis provides concrete ways that forecast the inevitable diversity that a statistical evaluation of our ancestry requires. Eventually, given enough time, all humans around the world are included in our ancestry, along with their diverse cultures and traditions.  That fusion throws the ideas of genetic purity on its head.  If a pure genepool of humanity exists, it includes the genes of everyone. As family history research increasingly considers DNA as a means to fill in the gaps and extend family trees, these notions of inclusion become inevitable.

I certainly am privileged to be able to construct a genealogy of my ancestry back ten generations.  But DNA testing has now broken down these barriers.  Today, anyone, even one who knows nothing of his or her ancestry, can find pertinent and often surprising information through DNA testing. The most accurate records are the ones stored in our bodies. These records are now becoming accessible and, in many cases, challenge the assertions of a century of family history researchers.

I ponder what C. Z. Mast would think of genetic testing for family history as it exists today.  Would he selectively interpret it to confirm and promote his own stereotypes, or would he embrace the data in its diversity, extending the genealogical fence to include everyone?  I don’t know for sure, but I would like to think that C. Z. Mast could be persuaded through the presentation of DNA test results that his Swiss Mennonite ancestors were vastly more diverse than he could ever have imagined.


Darvin L. Martin is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University (B.S., Agriculture) and Millersville University (B.S., Analytical Chemistry).  As a real occupation, he tinkers with chemistry related instrumentation, but on the side, manages the “Mennonite and Amish Immigrants to Pennsylvania DNA Project” through Family Tree DNA.


See also:

Tell Me Your Stories and I’ll Tell You Mine

This is a response to “Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege” by Ben Goossen.

Steve Ness

As librarian and archivist at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society (LMHS), a question that I hear quite often is, “Do the genealogical records in your library only include Mennonites?” My response is to encourage any researcher with an ancestral connection to southeastern Pennsylvania (and Lancaster County in particular) to spend some time digging into the many genealogical resources that we make available. While our focus is on the history of the Mennonites of this area, the genealogies and other resources in our collections contain many non-Mennonites as well. Any good genealogist will understand that they cannot claim that all of their ancestors were of a particular denomination any more than they can claim that they were all admirable.

Any good genealogist will understand that they cannot claim that all of their ancestors were of a particular denomination any more than they can claim that they were all admirable.

Ben Goossen, in his post, “Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege,” states that little has been written about how Mennonites have historically approached the field of genealogy. I agree that it is a subject that warrants proper investigation.1 Despite the dearth of research, however, Goossen makes the claim that, “Over the past century, white Mennonites have expressed uncommon interest in their ancestry.” I suspect that this cannot be substantiated and that Mennonite interest in genealogy is not significantly different than one would find among the rest of the population.

As is the case with many historical societies, the majority of visitors to the LMHS library arrive with the purpose of conducting genealogical research. A conservative estimate would be ninety percent. Of these, probably fewer than half consider themselves to be Mennonite. Some suspect or have been told that they have some Mennonite or Amish ancestry; some already know that they do, and some are surprised to learn of a Mennonite connection. This is due to historic migration patterns that have interwoven Mennonites into the fabric of broader Pennsylvania German culture in southeastern Pennsylvania. Many people across the United States—both Mennonite and non-Mennonite—have ancestral connections to this area which they value.

If Mennonite family and religious identity is so tightly bound, why aren’t more Mennonite individuals, congregations, and institutions expressing greater interest in their history?

Many LMHS members are not Mennonite and, despite the fact that the Historical Society serves as the official repository for Lancaster Mennonite Conference (LMC) and Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) records, LMC and ACC congregants represent a disappointingly-small percentage of LMHS membership overall. If Mennonite family and religious identity is so tightly bound, why aren’t more Mennonite individuals, congregations, and institutions expressing greater interest in their history? Even one of the examples Goossen provides of a “Mennonite genealogical publication”—Theodore W. Herr’s 1908 book on the descendants of Hans Herr—was neither written by a Mennonite nor printed by a Mennonite publisher.2

Genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States.  A 2008 poll cited by USA Today identifies only gardening as being more popular.3 The air time that major television networks have provided for shows focused on genealogy is additional evidence of its general appeal. The article’s author recognizes that genealogy has been used as a tool for exclusion but, unlike Goossen, emphasizes instead the value of genealogical research in helping us—all of us—understand better the stories of our past that help to shape us today.

Is there such a thing as “Mennonite Genealogy?” I am doubtful. Certainly there is privilege in the ability of white Mennonites to trace many of their ancestral lines back multiple generations with relative ease. I would argue that honest engagement with our past reveals a richer diversity in our stories than we might first imagine. Rather than seeing genealogy as a tool to build walls, we should embrace it as a technique to learn from and value the stories of everyone. Let’s sit down and listen to each other. You tell me your stories and I’ll tell you mine.


Steve Ness is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite College (B.S., History and Social Science) and Clarion University (M.S.L.S., Library and Information Science). His ancestry includes persons who were Amish, Church of the Brethren, Lutheran, Mennonite, United Brethren, and others.


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  1. Such research should include a more comprehensive examination of Christian Z. Mast, whose words in A Brief History of Bishop Jacob Mast… sound troubling to our twenty-first-century ears. Good historical research will look more carefully at the context in which Mast was writing, how the words quoted by Goossen fit with Mast’s other writings, and how representative Mast was of the larger Mennonite community at that time. Until such research is done I think it wise to temper condemnation. 
  2.  The book was republished twice by the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society—in 1980 and 1994. The third edition contained updates and corrections by Phillip E. Bedient, former emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College and member of the United Methodist Church. 
  3. Rodriguez, Gregory. “Roots of Genealogy Craze.” . Online at  http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2014/05/12/genealogy-americans-technology-roots-porn-websites-column/9019409/. 

David Rempel Smucker Responds to “Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege”

This is a response to “Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege” by Ben Goossen.

David Rempel Smucker

Mennonites doing genealogical research may or may not have undesirable attitudes about racial privilege. Goossen works from one case—Christian Z. Mast—out of the thousands of Mennonites who have done genealogical research. In my twenty-two years (1981-2003) of assisting people doing historical and genealogical research at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society library and archives (Lancaster, Pa.), I encountered many people in the following two categories: Mennonites who discovered information about non-Mennonite ancestors, and non-Mennonites who discovered their Mennonite and Amish ancestors. Both gained an enlarged sense of lineage from their genealogical study. These researchers emerged with an expanded identity that incorporated people of varied religious and ethnic persuasions.

These researchers emerged with an expanded identity that incorporated people of varied religious and ethnic persuasions.

Goossen also calls the vigorous interest in family history research among Mennonites “uncommon,” as if that interest is higher than that of other denominations. My years at Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society acquainted me with many other denominational and ethnic groups with historical and genealogical organizations. Of course, the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) is perhaps the denomination with the most interest in genealogy. In my experience, they were very generous in their willingness to share their vast historical resources with all researchers. They also quickly discovered how many contemporary Mormons had non-Mormon ancestors, and vice-versa.

To suggest that “Mennonite family history research is intimately connected to issues of racial privilege,” as Goossen does, is far too sweeping. It is similar to saying that I know a racist plumber, so I conclude that plumbing has an affinity to racism. Christian Mast’s ideas on race and culture are mistaken and lamentable, but one case does not constitute sufficient proof. Nor does that racism totally ruin the genealogical value of his book.  To show that Mennonite genealogy in Germany in the 1930s was influenced by Nazi ideology on race does not support generalizations about all Mennonite genealogy.  


David Rempel Smucker, Ph.D., former staff of Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, a resident of Winnipeg, Manitoba.


 

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Who Calls Whom Racist, and What’s the Privilege With That?

This is a response to “Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege” by Ben Goossen.

Philipp Gollner

I would rather not smoke a pipe with Mr. Mast. He’ll compliment me on my German accent, and how tall and “sterling” I am. Privilege, for this outsider. But I would rather not chat it up with “Genealogists against Inequality” either. They’ll tell me that it’s really, really, really, ok that I don’t have Mennonite relatives. They’ll say “diversity” thirty-four times. And, oh no, we’re not a tribe. Only peace and justice, that’s what we’re tracking.

I cheer Goossen’s probing of the artifacts of Mennonite belonging. Mennonite material culture remains understudied, even as Mennonites’ merging of ethnic and religious cultures continues to yield plenty of sacred stuff.

On a larger scale, however, I wonder if there aren’t eerie similarities between early twentieth-century version of American Mennonite purity and contemporary highbrow Mennonite longings for the post-ethnic. And I suspect that any real investigation of privilege in Mennonite history in the United States is ill-served by the N-word (that is, Nazi)—because too often, the N-word hits bottom as a convenient, anachronistic catch-all; because most “Mennonite ethnicity” in North America is much older and more complex; and because Mennonite privilege, even purity, are now passed on through more than blood.

Might enlisting genealogy again in the cause of a more perfect church—a post-ethnic one, this time—continue, not disrupt, this puritan streak of Mennonite mapping?

Those with enough brains to write, and enough politics to pull in the church, mapped Mennonite racial purity in early twentieth-century America. They weren’t only keepers of memory—they also pruned the family tree, made it more presentable. They were activists for the church’s present relevance and its future purity. (Mast, by the way, represented a progressive group that soon dropped the term “Amish” altogether.)

Might enlisting genealogy again in the cause of a more perfect church—a post-ethnic one, this time—continue, not disrupt, this puritan streak of Mennonite mapping? Doesn’t it simply perpetuate the original Mennonite desire for a fresh break, a clean sheet? And could such an exculpation make authentic relationships with non-white Anabaptists, who often rely on the messy transmission of ancestry and culture for a vital faith community, even more awkward?

More importantly, the building blocks of Mennonite aristocracy have changed from Blut und Boden to subtler forms of privilege: educational opportunities, denominational connections, the right ideas. Mennonite parents of my and Goossen’s generation won’t tell their young ones what a “stern” race theirs is. They access other privilege: they will tell their children to be “world-changers,” before they ever show a photo of their great-grandmother. They will humblebrag that their child has never eaten at McDonald’s, but loves vegan curry. Doesn’t know football, but is the bestest peacemaker of them all in second grade. Swims in a pool of Mennonite social capital, but grows up with the assumption that the virtue of studying its history lies chiefly in uncovering its oppressive character.

Therein, too, is purity. Therein, too, is privilege—and its passing on. And to the extent that an openly worn revulsion against the unbearable Teutonism of many North American Mennonite bloodlines helps us white progressives mask this privilege while accumulating another (think: “world changers”), it is no way forward.

I have no Mennonite ancestors. Sometimes I wish I would. The one grandparent who was an National Socialist soldier was a socialist, and deserted in 1944. Sometimes I wish I had a Nazi Other to point at. My daughters are growing up binational, bilingual. Sometimes I wish their belonging was clearer. But my diverse non-Anabaptist students find us educated white Mennos most grating when we preach color-free virtue, not when we are a tribe, warts and all. And most times, I’m with them.

Whither genealogists? I don’t even know if it’s my business as a historian to tell them. Poking Mennonite privilege with the help of history, however, will take more than the obvious scrutiny of race science. Instead, it might make collateral damage out of many of us white progressives.


Philipp Gollner (Ph.D., University of Notre Dame) is an Assistant Professor of U.S. History at Goshen College. Most recently, he is the author of “How Mennonites Became White: Religious Activism and Cultural Power.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90 (April 2016). Catch up with him on twitter, or philippgollner.com


SEE ALSO:

Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege

Editor’s Note: In keeping with the mission of Anabaptist Historians to foster lively debate on important topics, we have solicited responses to this post from several experts. Check in over the coming weeks to follow the discussion or contact us to submit your own contribution.

Ben Goossen

A tour of my parents’ house is also a journey into our family’s past. Tables, china hutches, and clocks carry stories of craftsmanship in Europe or of pioneer life in Nebraska, Kansas, or South Dakota. Here a bowl that crossed the Atlantic, there a Bible from Prussia. All are bound up with tales of our ancestors’ faith, of the Anabaptist values that—so the story goes—led them from country to country in search of peace, shelter, and good, hearty land.

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A “memory box” depicting the pioneer life of Mennonite immigrants from Russia.

Like other “ethnic” Mennonites across Europe and the Americas, I learned from a young age to associate my religion with genealogy. A “memory box,” perched in a place of honor in my parents’ library, shows how family stories and material objects can interweave the threads of faith and ancestry. Constructed by my great-grandmother, the box contains photographs of her own grandparents, Jacob and Suzanne Balzer, who emigrated from southern Russia to Minnesota; an invitation to the wedding of their daughter; dried straw flowers; silk worm cocoons and a silk spool; nineteenth-century German-language storybooks; heirloom seeds; and part of a shirt sewn in Russia. The box uses artifacts to build a cultural atmosphere around memories of Mennonite immigration to the United States. My forebears, the objects imply, were straight-laced and pious. They spoke German. They worked with their hands and found fulfillment in tending the soil.

Over the past century, white Mennonites have expressed uncommon interest in their ancestry. Children’s books, historical scholarship, and memoirs often follow family narratives or depict the supposedly upright and persevering character of the “Mennonite people.” I can only begin to enumerate the ways my own life has been shaped by ancestral knowledge: The largest book in my childhood room was a genealogy compiled by my grandmother. Whenever I meet “ethnic” Mennonites from Europe or the Americas, new acquaintances hear my last name and recognize me as one of their own. As a historian of Anabaptism, I frequent websites maintained by amateur genealogists, who have located an amazing number of rare documents; a printout of my own family tree from one Mennonite database revealed hundreds of direct forebearers over seventeen generations, the earliest dating to the sixteenth-century Reformation.

It is remarkable that although Anabaptist studies is a well-developed field, no scholar has yet written a history of Mennonite genealogical practices. Family researchers themselves often assume that genealogy has always been a normal and important part of Anabaptist life. Yet as historians of ancestry are beginning to demonstrate, genealogy as we understand it today is quite a recent concept, finding widespread acclaim only in the last hundred and fifty years. While some communities, Anabaptist and otherwise, had long recorded birth, death, and baptismal dates in family bibles or congregational record books—perhaps finding inspiration in the genealogies of Jesus as presented in the New Testament—it was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that such information became subject to rigorous study and publication.1 And far from an ideologically neutral undertaking, genealogy in the modern era emerged largely in the context of scientific racism and social exclusion. “From the 1860s to the mid-twentieth century,” writes François Weil in his recent book, Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America, “racial purity, nativism, and nationalism successfully dominated the quest for pedigree.”2

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Christian Mast (1885-1974), Amish Mennonite historian and genealogist.

To what degree can this charge be leveled at Mennonite genealogy? I have argued elsewhere that the blossoming of Mennonite family research in 1930s Germany intimately reflected Nazi-era concerns with blood purity and racial hygiene.3 Comparable practices in other countries developed under different, if interrelated, circumstances. My hope is that this essay will spur more sustained inquiry into the origins and nature of Mennonite family research, especially in North America. This is not the space to provide a full sketch of what such an undertaking might entail. But I can indicate some of the possibilities through a short case study: a look at the genealogist Christian Mast and his book, A Brief History of Bishop Jacob Mast and Other Mast Pioneers, printed in 1911 by the Mennonite Publishing House.

The son of an Amish Mennonite Bishop from Pennsylvania, Christian Mast wrote his Brief History while still in his mid-20s. It appeared at a time when genealogical interest was rising among Anabaptists as well as wider American society. “Never before have people been more inquisitive and diligent in investigating the study of their ancestry than at this time,” Mast explained in his introduction, noting that although only a minority of US citizens knew much about their heritage, “it is a matter of congratulation that some are turning attention to family genealogy.”4 The author himself gathered material from relatives scattered across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, and Indiana—and he corresponded with other Anabaptist genealogists researching the Funk, Oberholzer, Hostetler, and Wenger families. Upon completion, Mast sent a copy of his book to the United States’ oldest and largest repository of ancestral knowledge, the New England Historic Genealogical Society.5

Although his extensive papers await detailed analysis, it is clear that Mast was well-read in both American history and the scientific study of ancestry. His Brief History opens with a discussion of the alleged racial prowess of America’s white pioneers, supported by quotations from the likes of Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. In a section on heredity, the author dwelled extensively on the relationship between ancestry and virility, invoking the nineteenth-century phrenologist George Combe to advocate a far-reaching eugenic program. “As a nation’s greatness depends upon the character of her population,” Mast wrote, “it is the duty of every government to bestow at least as much attention upon the improvement of her human stock, as agricultural societies expend upon the improvement of the breeds of their horses and cattle.”6 Warning in particular against degeneration through endogamous marriage, he praised spousal selection as a means of preventing heredity diseases, bodily deformities, mental retardation, and even moral failings.

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This frontispiece to Christian Mast’s Brief History shows the homestead of the author’s ancestor, Jacob Mast, who migrated from Switzerland to Pennsylvania in 1750.

In its discussion of American nationhood, Mast’s Brief History identified a privileged role for Anabaptist bloodlines. “[O]ur Swiss and German ancestors,” the genealogist opined, “were the pure material of the Teutonic nation; being stern, sterling and frugal.” While Mast acknowledged that some of his relatives had become soldiers, fallen into evil ways, or otherwise lived “without God,” he maintained that most had led exemplary Christian lives of nonviolent witness. The writer especially contrasted Anabaptist qualities with those of Native Americans, whose “physical and mental power have… melted into weakness.” While the diligence, industriousness, and farming acumen of Amish and Mennonite settlers were said to exemplify the “bone and sinew of a nation,” inbreeding had supposedly left people of color with limited mental and physical abilities. When narrating Indian attacks against early Anabaptist immigrants, for instance, Mast emphasized the animal-like nature of these “savages,” in turn justifying his forebearers’ seizure of native lands.7

To what extent were Mast’s views typical of Mennonite genealogists at the beginning of the twentieth century? And in what ways do racist undertones continue to inform family research in Anabaptist communities today? A full answer to these questions awaits further study. It is nevertheless telling that although most Mennonites living across the world today are people of color, popular stereotypes continue to associate the denomination with white “ethnic” members of Germanic descent. Genealogy has remained an avenue for white Anabaptists to identify their families’ longstanding adherence to the faith, and in many cases, to trace their ancestry to the religion’s origins in Reformation-era Europe—a possibility unavailable to most members of color. Moreover, the recent advent of DNA testing and genetic research among “ethnic” populations are once again privileging the notion that Anabaptism is as much an inheritable trait as a religious conviction.8

Mennonite family research is intimately connected to issues of racial privilege. Whether in the seemingly innocuous memorial culture of my parents’ home or in the overtly racist language of historic figures like Christian Mast, it is time to take seriously its ideological power. It is time to ask how genealogists, along with the rest of us, can respond to inequalities within the church and beyond.

Thanks to Rachel Waltner Goossen and Joel H. Nofziger for their assistance with this essay.


SEE ALSO:



  1. Early examples of Mennonite genealogical publications include Jacob N. Brubacher, The Brubacher Genealogy in America (Elkhart, IN: Mennonite Publishing Co., 1884); John H. Hess, A Genealogy of the Hess Family from the First Emigrant to this Country Down to the Present Time as Far as Could Be Ascertained (Lititz, PA: Express Print, 1896); Franklin Keagy, A History of the Kägy Relationship in America from 1715 to 1900 (Harrisburg, PA: Harrisburg Publishing Company, 1899); Theodore W. Herr, Genealogical Record of Reverend Hans Herr and his Direct Lineal Descendants from his Birth A. D. 1639 to the Present Time Containing the Names, etc., of 13223 Persons (Lancaster, PA: The Examiner Printing House, 1908). 
  2.  François Weil, Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 6.  
  3.  Benjamin W. Goossen, “From Aryanism to Anabaptism: Nazi Race Science and the Language of Mennonite Ethnicity,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90 (April 2016): 135-163. 
  4.  C. Z. Mast, A Brief History of Bishop Jacob Mast and Other Mast Pioneers and a Complete Family Register and Those Related by Inter-Marriage (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House Press, 1911), 12. See also the co-authored volume, C. Z. Mast and Robert E. Simpson, Annals of the Conestoga Valley in Lancaster, Berks, and Chester Counties, Pennsylvania (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1942), which contains extensive genealogical information on Anabaptist families. 
  5.  The New England Historic Genealogical Society thanked Mast in Wm. P. Greenlaws to C. Z. Mast, March 21, 1912, Mast, Christian Z., Papers, box 2: Correspondence C. Z. M. (Annals-N.C.), folder 4: Mast Genealogy, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society. Mast’s name also appeared in “List of Donors to the Library,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register (Supplement to April Number, 1913): xxxi. 
  6.  Mast, A Brief History, 749. On pages 748 and 749, he quoted a passage on physical and mental degeneracy from George Combe, Moral Philosophy; Or, The Duties of Man Considered in His Individual, Domestic, and Social Capacities (New York: Fowler and Wells, 1863), 85. Scholars have noted the centrality of such arguments, as well as of genealogical practices generally, to the rise of eugenics programs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. See Alison Bashford and Philippa Levine, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 9-10. 
  7. Quotations from Mast, A Brief History, 12-13, 18, 748. 
  8.  On genetic testing among “ethnic” Mennonite populations, see for example Cheryl Rockman-Greenberg and Marlis Schroeder, “Mennonites, Hypophosphatasia and Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Disease: The Story of Two Genetic Disorders,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 34 (2016): 89-104. Recent scholarship on the genetic reinscriptionof race includes Nadia Abu El-Haj, The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), and Alondra Nelson, The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016).