What’s All in a Name: Kinship in the Nineteenth Century

Martin Lutz

As a Swabian from Stuttgart in southwestern Germany, I am frequently asked about my Anabaptist roots by Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites I encounter during archival field trips. Lutz is not an Anabaptist household name, compared to Hofer, Krehbiel or Janzen. There are a few Lutz’s among American Anabaptists though. For example, during my research I came across a Mennonite named Clarence Lutz from the Lancaster Mennonite Conference. My father, from whom I inherited my last name, hailed from a small Franconian village in the region of Hohenlohe in northeastern Württemberg, not far from Anabaptist centers in the early modern period. But as far as I know, there are no direct Anabaptist connections in my family.

It would be another story to delve more into the question of why it seemed so unusual to American Anabaptists for an outsider would be interested in their history. Here, I will focus on a different topic: the role of kinship in modern societies.

Until recently, historiography held that kinship was a distinctly pre-modern form of social identity and organization. For the European context, this narrative suggested that kinship groups were a common, possibly dominant way of structuring social relationships in the Middle Ages and the early modern period. Modernization processes such as the emergence of the modern state, the market and voluntary associations then gradually replaced kinship’s societal functions.

Social historians David Sabean, Simon Teuscher and others have convincingly argued against this perspective: Far from losing ground, kinship structures outlived the threshold to modernity in Western societies. Indeed, Sabean and Teuscher consider the nineteenth century as a “‘kinship-hot’ society, one where enormous energy was invested in maintaining and developing extensive, reliable, and well-articulated structures of exchange among connected families over many generations.”1

In my previous work, I have looked at the case of the Siemens entrepreneurial family2 where these patterns appear as an important element in shaping business strategy in the nineteenth century. The Siemens Stammbaum (family tree) and various family institutions have since then played a considerable role in tying the various branches of the vast kin group (and its wealth) together.3

 The front page of David Beiler’s “Vermahnung oder Andenken,” printed in 1928. Beiler was born in 1786, not “gestorben.”

It appears that similar notions of kinship evolved among the Amish and Mennonites in nineteenth century America. I recently took a closer look at David Beiler’s memoir “Eine Vermahnung oder Andenken” from around 1860.4 Beiler was a prominent Amish bishop who was involved in the formation of the Old Order congregations in the 1860s and 1870s. He might be most famous for his book Das wahre Christentum, and his memoirs offer a rare glimpse into the perception of change by an Amishman in the nineteenth century. Less prominent in the scholarly literature is the Familien-Chronik at the end of Beiler’s memoir where he gives a detailed account of his ancestors.

For his and his wife’s paternal and maternal ancestors, Beiler outlines the Herkunft (ancestry) and Geschlecht (lineage). For each line, there is one distinct progenitor (Stammvater) listed as the point of origin. For example, Beiler’s great-grandfather Jakob Beiler, a Swiss Anabaptist, immigrated to America in 1737. On his maternal side, the progenitor was Samuel König, also an immigrant. Whenever the information available to him allows it, Beiler then lists the number of sons and daughters in each household (Haushaltung), and how many lived long enough to found their own families. It is somewhat striking how Beiler’s Familien-Chronik resembles contemporary European efforts to document and construct familial ancestry. As with the Siemens Stammbaum, it represents an effort to build shared ancestry as an imagined community, to borrow Benedict Anderson’s words.

The sociological and anthropological literature stresses the ongoing role of kinship relations among twentieth century Amish and other Anabaptist groups.5 The ubiquitous Mennonite “name game” certainly reveals the importance of ancestry even in the twenty-first century. Steven D. Reschly’s work on nineteenth century Amish demonstrates how these patterns were a crucial aspect in communal boundary maintenance and transmission of property across generations.6 This literature implies that the Amish kinship system is a rather specific form of social organization distinct from the majority society in the modernizing context of the United States and Canada.

The first page of the Familien-Chronik.

As part of my overall research agenda, I am interested in how social relationships shaped economic interaction in the nineteenth and twentieth century. While the Siemens industrialists and the Amish farmer David Beiler appear to be on the opposite ends of a spectrum, I am convinced that their joint reference to the kin group holds important lessons for economic and social historians. If we follow Sabean’s and Teuscher’s larger interpretation of kinship in the nineteenth century, it would appear that Beiler’s Familien-Chronik fits perfectly with these larger developments in the Western world. At least in Beiler’s case, American Anabaptists appear to be as “kinship-hot” – and indeed as “modern” – as the emerging bourgeois class in Central Europe.


1. David W. Sabean and Simon Teuscher, “Kinship in Europe: A New Approach to Long Term Development,” in Kinship in Europe: Approaches to Long-Term Developments (1300-1900), ed. David W. Sabean, Simon Teuscher and Jon Mathieu (New York: Berghahn Books, 2007); Chapter I, 13.

2. Martin Lutz, Carl von Siemens: Ein Leben zwischen Familie und Weltfirma, 1829-1906 (München: C.H. Beck, 2013).

3. Siemens-Familienstiftung and Werner Siemens-Stiftung, Stammbaum der Familie Siemens: Aus Anlaß der 600jährigen Wiederkehr des ersten urkundlichen Nachweises des Namens Siemens in Goslar, 1984 neu bearbeitet von Sigfrid von Weiher (München: Selbstverlag, 1985).

4. David Beiler, Eine Verwahrnung oder Andenken, 1862, II-MS-29, Eastern Mennonite University Archive.

5. In the older literature, John A. Hostetler stresses the small-scale and genealogical embeddedness of Amish society. John A. Hostetler, Amish Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 12 For more recent discussions see: Vlatka Škender, “Flesh, Freundschaft, and Fellowship: Towards a Holistic Model of the Amish Kinship System,” Journal of the Amish and Plain Anabaptist Studies 8, no. 1 (2020); John A. Cross, “Amish Surnames, Settlement Patterns, and Migration,” Names 51, 3-4 (2013).

6. Steven D. Reschly, The Amish on the Iowa Prairie, 1840 to 1910 (Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2000), 119.

Stories “Worth Writing and Reading About”*: Thoughts of an Anabaptist Biographer

My little granddaughters love stories. A favourite is “Our Lives Together.” These excerpts from the reel-to-reel films that their great-grandfather Peter Dyck took on his movie camera, memorialize the work that he and his wife Elfrieda Klassen Dyck shared as Mennonite Central Committee volunteers in post-war England.1 Mennonite Central Committee has thrived during its one hundred-year history by virtue of such stories that North American workers have told about their experiences in the some sixty countries where they have served.

As Anabaptist historians, our mission is not so much to tell our own stories; we focus on people from the past. Biographers preserve the memory of individuals whose lives have the capacity to inspire.2 Although some do “quite explicitly” weave their “own lives into discussion of others,” the historical profession encourages us to keep a distance, to maintain objectivity.3 Historians tell the stories of individuals whose lives have made a difference in the public domain – leaders and institution builders, people who have left documents allowing their contributions to be tracked. Take for instance, GAMEO (Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia On-line).4 Brief articles provide glimpses into the lives of hundreds of men and women who are deemed to have made significant contributions to the church. Carefully contained within the interpretative framework designed by GAMEO’s management team allows for what Leon Edel, well-known as the doyen of biography, has described as “a successful biography,” one that keeps the focus on public life and institutions.5 The GAMEO format allows the biographer to disengage and write the life of another with detachment.6

The traditional view has been challenged and expanded by what biographer Barbara Caine labels as a “new biography.” In contrast to Edel, with his formula for the “successful biography,” feminist methodology allows for questions that are “more personal and impressionistic.”7 Acknowledging that “potentially all lives are of interest and worth writing and reading about,” greater fluidity opens the way to consider the struggles that individuals have faced.8 This expanded biographical approach has demonstrated that “the extent to which one individual shares experiences and problems with others,” is often what makes a life worth remembering.9

Feminist theory and social historical methodology have shaped my own writing of biography. The permission that these disciplines allow to explore little known lives, “reading between the lines,” to use Betty Jane Wylie’s words, inspires my inner detective.10 In my life as a historian, I have found meaning in searching out and writing the lives of individuals, most previously virtually unknown.11

Take, for instance, my biographical work on Alice Snyder (1917 – 2000). Searching out the story of this long-time MCC worker began as I researched the history of MCC Ontario for what would be published as Transformation of a Century. Alice Snyder’s work in the MCC Ontario Cutting Room, with her mother Ida Snyder, turned out to be foundational to MCC’s work during World War II.12 After the war, Alice would take on the challenge of volunteering in post-construction Germany. Although Alice’s schooling had ended with grade eight, her letters home from Europe proved to be a historical document worth publishing.13

Scholars have noted the significant place that letter writing has played in nurturing family ties in times of separation.14 Alice’s letters had done exactly that. Perhaps “the secret bestower of possibility” that had eluded her in her own life, Alice’s mother Ida preserved her daughter’s letters from Germany in a small black binder.15 Alice’s letters home provide insights into what a young Waterloo County Mennonite woman, with a mere grade eight education, deemed worthy of preserving and sharing with her family from her work with MCC. With their ultimate destination in the Mennonite Archives of Ontario, they also have bestowed possibility for later generations. Indeed, Alice’s letters inspired at least one of my research assistants on the letters project to do her own stint overseas in voluntary service.16

Griffen has noted the traditional wisdom “that every woman is her mother.” As much as her suggestion that “it may be that every woman of achievement is, in part, paying a debt to the past, bringing to fulfillment her mother’s dreams and potential,” reflects the mission of Ida and Alice Snyder, it resonates with the life and mission of Lucille Brechbill Lady (1910 – 1968).17 With her mental health challenges, Lucille Lady was remembered in the public record solely as a burden to her husband Jesse Lady, a prominent Brethren in Christ church leader.18 As I explored the hidden recesses of the historical record to bring her story to light, writing became a path to healing.19

In recent times biographers have become more open to exposing the personal challenges and difficulties of their subjects. With this biographical project, the burden of my great-aunt’s suicide that I felt as one carrying her name, miraculously, was lifted. Travels to California, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, places where she and her husband had lived and ministered, brought opportunities to interview people who had been close to her, some also still suffering from the aftermath of her suicide.

Out of these connections materialized documentary evidence, including family letters, her Bible, her wedding certificate, school yearbooks, and even a tape recording of her funeral.20 For the biographer, a fertile imagination is a strong asset.21 A decade of research, slowly put the pieces of the puzzle in place, creating a picture of a life well worth remembering – an intelligent, caring nurse, teacher and writer, a woman who was a devout Christian and church woman, a mystic, and a devoted wife, aunt, sister, sister-in-law, daughter and friend.22

Griffen’s notion of paying a debt to the past also speaks to my current biographical work on H. Frances Davidson.23 In the mid-1970s, when Morris Sider memorialized this icon well-known among Brethren in Christ and Mennonites, especially in Zambia and Zimbabwe where she lived out her long missionary career, I was a young woman seeking a script to follow.24 In feminist historian Gerda Lerner’s words, as women growing up in the post-war years we were still “denied the power to define, to share in creating the mental constructs that explain and order the world.”25 I was among those looking for role models, “an idealized maternal figure,” as Caine has put it.26

Now nearly fifty years later, my inner detective continues to delight in the search for past lives. This work is delicate.27 And yet, it is important work as we attempt to pay back some of the debt owed to our foremothers, women like H. Frances Davidson who struggled to find their way without scripts to follow. As Morris Sider has noted, subjects like Davidson who left ample documentary evidence are dear to the hearts of historians.28 The multiple primary documents that she left – her diaries, a travelogue, letters to family, photos, and writing for the Evangelical Visitor await further exploration.

H. Frances Davidson, whom biographer Morris Sider has identified as a “woman with great stores of energy … one of the most extraordinary and striking persons to have held membership” in the Brethren in Christ denomination,” has become a symbol for female leadership among the membership, both in North America and in Africa. She was also a woman with a rich inner life.29 With the tools of the social historian and feminist methodology, it is possible to ask and explore questions about her family, her education, the geographic and social context of her life and work. In addition, as other feminist scholars have observed, the exploration of women’s inner lives, their spirituality, is essential as we continue to create scripts to follow.30 In my role as Anabaptist historian I am anticipating many more challenges and joys as I continue to explore the reality and constraints of this nineteenth-century Brethren in Christ woman’s life.


* Barbara Caine. Biography and History (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, a division of St. Martin’s Press, 2010), 71.

1 “Peter J. Dyck, Memorial Service,” https://www.commonword.ca/ResourceView/82/12983 Accessed February 4, 2021

2 On the moral benefits of biography, see Caine, Biography and History, 31.

3 Caine. Biography and History, 71.

4 GAMEO was created by Canadian Mennonite historians to preserve data collected in the mid-1980s by researcher Marlene Epp, (now Professor of History and Peace and Conflict Studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo), originally intended for a third volume of her father Frank H. Epp’s history of Mennonites in Canada; Samuel J. Steiner, “Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (Website),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. June 2017. Web. 2 Feb 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Global_Anabaptist_Mennonite_Encyclopedia_Online_(Website)&oldid=164961

5 In Biography and History, 71-72, 88, Caine references Leon Edel. See, for instance, his Writing Lives: Principia Biographica (New York and London: Norton, 1984) and “Confessions of a Biographer,” in George Moraitis and George Pollack (ed), Psycholanalytic Studies of Biography (Madison, WI: International Universities Press, 1987): 3-29.

6 I have found it inspiring to prepare the following biographies for GAMEO: “Nighswander, Joseph Martin (1923-2006),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (March 2017) Web. 17 Apr 2017 http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Nighswander,_Joseph_Martin_(1923-2006)&oldid=147448; Sherk, J. Harold, Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (July 2013) http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Sherk,_J._Harold_(1903-1974)&oldid=100074; “Nigh, Ross Edward (1917-2001),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (November 2012) Web (17 Apr 2017) http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Nigh,_Ross_Edward_(1917-2001)&oldid=95956; Snyder, Alice (1917-2000)” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (March 2011) Web. 04 November 2011. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/snyder_alice_1917_2000; “Taves, Harvey W. (1926-1965),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (July 2009) Web. 04 November 2011. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/taves_harvey_w._1926_1965.

7 Caine, Biography and History, 88-89; In Writing a Woman’s Life (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988), Carolyn Heilbrun paved the way for feminist biographers with her call for a new interpretative framework.

8 Caine, Biography and History, 111.

9 Caine, Biography and History, 67.

10 Reading Between the Lines: The Diaries of Women (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1995); Caine, History and Biography, 111.

11 One of my recent posts on Anabaptist Historians illustrates. “Making meaning when the historical record is silent,” https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2020/11/07/making-meaning-when-the-historical-record-is-silent/ Accessed February 10, 2021. See also my biographies listed as follows: “Henry B and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson: Life and Vision,” Brethren in Christ History & Life, Volume XLI, no. 2 (August 2018): 115-54; “Conflict, Confession and Conversion: H. Frances Davidson’s Call to Brethren in Christ Mission,” Brethren in Christ History & Life XI, No. 3 (December 2017): 335-52; “Jane Drummond Redpath,” in Still Voices, Still Heard, Sermons, Addresses, Letters, and Reports The Presbyterian College, Montreal, 1865-2015, edited by J.S.S. Armour, Judith A. Kashul, William Klempa, Lucille Marr, and Dan Shute (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015); “Writing a Woman’s Life: Lucille Brechbill Lady, 1910 – 1968,” Brethren in Christ History and Life 33.1 (2010): 3-50; the author with Dora-Marie Goulet, “I guess I won’t be able to write everything I see …”: Alice Snyder’s Letters Home, 1948-1950 (Waterloo, ON: Pandora Press, 2009); “Ontario’s Conference of Historic Peace Church Families and the ‘Joy of Service’,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 19 (2001): 257-72; “Naming Valiant Women: Biographical Sketches of Three Women in the Canadian Methodist Tradition.” Consensus: A Canadian Lutheran Journal of Theology 20.2 (1994): 35-56; “If you want peace, prepare for peace”: Hanna Newcombe, Peace Researcher and Peace Activist.” Ontario History 84.4 (1992): 263-282.

12 Transforming Power of a Century: The evolution of Mennonite Central Committee in Ontario (Waterloo, ON: Pandora Press, 2003).

13 “I guess I won’t be able to write everything I see …”. As noted earlier, she also became the subject of a GAMEO article.

14 See for instance, Susan J. Rosowski, Birthing a Nation: Gender, Creativity, and the West in American Literature (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), 36.

15 On the role of mother as model, please see Heilbrun, Women’s lives: the view from the threshold (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 52-53; Gail B. Griffen, Emancipated Spirits: Portraits of Kalamazoo College Women (Kalamazoo, Michigan : Ihling Bros. Everard Co., 1983, 1990), xii.

16 See “A Biographical Sketch,” 11-21, in “I guess I won’t be able to write everything I see ….”

17 The photo’s source is “U.S., School Yearbooks, 1880-2012”; School Name: Beulah College; Year: 1949; Ancestry.com. U.S., School Yearbooks, 1900-1999 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010. Accessed 8 February 2021.

18 Samuel Lady, “Jesse F. Lady ‘A Loyal Churchman in a Time of Transition’,” Brethren in Christ History and Life (April 1995): 3-41.

19 Please see Louise DeSalvo, Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives (Beacon Press, 2000).

20 Please see also the author, “Breaking the Silence on Suicide and Mental Illness: The Brethren in Christ, 1968-1989,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 29 (2011), 121-32.

21 Caine, History and Biography, 114-15.

22 The author, “Writing a Woman’s Life: Lucille Brechbill Lady.”

23 See, for instance,” Mysticism and Evangelicalism in the Writings of a Spiritual Mothers,” Anabaptist Historians, https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2020/01/28/mysticism-and-evangelicalism-in-the-writings-of-a-spiritual-mother/ Accessed February 10, 2021; “Conflict, Confession and Conversion.”

24 “Hannah Frances Davidson,” in Nine Portraits: Brethren in Christ Biographical Sketches (Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel Press, 1978), 159 – 214; Sider, E. Morris. “Davidson, Hannah Frances (1860-1935).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1988. Web. 8 Feb 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Davidson,_Hannah_Frances_(1860-1935)&oldid=122476.

25 Gerda Lerner, Why History Matters: Life and Thought (NY: Oxford University Press, 1997), 207.

26 Caine, History and Biography, 72.

27 Biographers warn the would-be biographer about the pitfalls as one attempts to interpret the life of another. See, for instance, Sider, “Finding Vocation,” 15; Griffen, introduction to Emancipated Spirits, xi; and Caine, History and Biography, 72.

28 Sider, Nine Portraits, 9; See also his “Finding Vocation and Mission: Reflections on Writing Brethren in Christ History,” Brethren in Christ History and Life. Vol. XLIII, no. 1 (April 2020), 9; In an email exchange with the author, Sider encouraged further research on Davidson; Sider to Marr, 12 December 2012; see also Wylie, Reading Between the Lines, 224.

29 Sider, Nine Portraits, 159.

30 See for instance, Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-seventy (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993); Women’s Personal Narratives, edited by Leonore Hoffman and Margaret Culley (New York: Modern Language Arts of America, 1985); Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (New York: Norton & Company, 1996).

Making Meaning when the Historical Record is Silent

In August 2018, Brethren in Christ History & Life published “Henry R. and Frances Rice Davidson: Life and Vision.” In that article I explore the contributions of my ancestor who became the first editor of the denominational publication that came into Brethren in Christ homes for one hundred and thirty-one years, from its launch in August 1887 until it was replaced in in 2007 by a periodical called In Part.1 Publication is a milestone, not necessarily the end of the research process; and so I continue to puzzle over these ancestors lives. One question for me, still unanswered,2 is how did the Reverend Henry Davidson, of Scots-Irish Presbyterian descent, come to be ordained in 1846 as a minister in the tiny community of River Brethren, virtually unknown until 1860 when they identified as Brethren in Christ? How did his nearly seventy years of leadership, that I have argued was significant in bringing the denomination into nineteenth century evangelicalism, begin?3 In this post I explore that question and offer suggestions as to why knowing this matters.

As I have been researching and writing on Henry Davidson how I have wished that he had preserved his experience of having “moved into the church,” as his friend and colleague William Baker put it.4 The only record we have, as far as I can find, is in family historian Earl Brechbill’s geneological history.5 I have long puzzled over this short acknowledgement: “Henry was ordained a minister in the Brethren in Christ church at the age of twenty-three.”6 His father Jacob, a farmer and millwright, was a minister of the United Brethren in Christ, and his grandfather Robert Davidson had been a Presbyterian minister. Not even Henry Davidson’s obituaries agree on his denominational history, with the Evangelical Visitor putting Henry’s father in the Brethren in Christ church, and the Wooster Weekly Republican saying he was a Presbyterian minister.7

The confusion is hardly surprising, with the influence of the German Pietist movement that reflected Enlightenment values of subjectification and emotion, and the variety of expressions of personal faith that arose, as individuals studied the Bible for themselves.8 In the immediate post Revolutionary era, the evangelical preaching of Reformed leader William Otterbein and Mennonite Martin Boehm gave rise to a number of denominations in the United States including Presbyterians, German Reformed, and Mennonites uniting into a body “vague and undefined” until they organized in 1815. This conglomeration, which identified as United Brethren in Christ, illustrates the freedom fostered by democracy and populism that Mark Noll has noted caused “the churches [to be] strongly identified with the common people.”9 Adhering to no church doctrine beyond the New Testament, accepting all modes of baptism including sprinkling, pouring and immersion, the movement quickly spread, including to Western Pennsylvania’s Westmoreland County where the Davidsons lived.10

Henry Davidson’s silence about his experience and motives for moving from the United Brethren in Christ to the small enclave of German speaking “thrifty tillers of the soil” with their fear of “popularity of any kind,” reflects the practice of the River Brethren, thus named by outsiders because they baptized new members in the closest creek or river.11 When Henry joined their numbers in the 1840s, sixty years had passed since Jacob Engle and others had been baptized in the Susquehanna River, keeping who was first in their hearts to the grave.12 Evidently Davidson was attracted to this humble group, at that time virtually unknown, judging by John Winebrenner’s History of All the Religious Denominations in the United States, first published in 1844. When Davidson “moved into the church,” to use Baker’s words, Winebrenner’s recently published history had missed them altogether. They were unique in the 1848 edition of the six hundred page compendium, with anonymous authorship by “A Familiar Friend,” whose six page article remains, in Brethren in Christ historian Carleton Wittlinger’s words, “the most reliable secondary source for early Brethren in Christ history.”13 No other group, including the Mennonites and the Amish, avoided identifying the author describing the polity, practice and history of their particular group.

Fast forwarding to August 1887 with the launch of the Evangelical Visitor, we can glean insight into the experience of early converts into the River Brethren. Davidson’s friend and colleague W.O. Baker, a medical doctor who practised medicine in Ashland, Ohio and preached for the congregation in Stark County, recounted his conversion and baptism three decades earlier in Sugar Creek, where it meandered by Wayne County’s Paradise, Ohio. Baker’s note that Henry Davidson, editor of the new paper, had been among those present in late February [1854] at his baptism, confirms Davidson’s long history with the denomination.14

In my mind’s eye I see the senior minister Jacob Hoffman standing with red topped boots reaching his knees standing in the cold creek, possibly supported by an overhanging branch, baptizing the most recent convert to the small community of River Brethren. I see Henry Davidson, a young minister in the group, standing among others, uniform grey overcoats overlapping red topped rubber boots, large capes draping each man’s shoulders, broad brimmed hats in hand, witnessing this powerful moment when a new member submitted to the triune immersion that confirmed his conversion experience, a ritual done in a way that separated the River Brethren from other groups. Baptism in cold waters, the first time in the name of the Father, then in the name of the Son, and finally in the name of the Holy Spirit, confirmed Baker’s commitment to living out his faith in this particular community of believers.15

It remains unclear exactly where Henry Davidson encountered the German community of River Brethren; perhaps it was in German township, located just south of Redstone township where the Davidson’s lived.16 Whatever the case, we must assume that as a young man Henry Davidson, similar to his friend William Baker, was attracted to the warmth of these people and the way that they lived out the particular convictions that set the River Brethren apart from other groups.17 The similarity of emphasis on a new birth before baptism must have felt familiar to the young Henry. Somehow the clarity of conviction that church order must insist on a single mode of baptism, triune immersion, appealed to him, as it had to his friend William Baker.18 Davidson’s attraction to the clarity of conviction that allowed for the warmth of testimonials where members told of their conversion experiences, their “sorrows, joys and future hope,” yet insisted on ordinances such as river baptism and foot washing rituals would have a far reaching impact on the denomination; fifteen years later in the 1860s it would claim the name Brethren in Christ, remaining distinct from the United Brethren in Christ of Henry Davidson’s origin.19

Although River Brethren pietism distinguished them from their Mennonite relatives with the insistence of the former, as Wittlinger has put it, on “a personal, heartfelt experience of the new birth as normative for the beginning of the Christian life,” their evangelism was practised in a quiet, relational way.20 It was the way they lived their faith that attracted others. Some, similar to William Baker and Henry Davidson, expressed the desire to become a part of a particular congregation, joining in the “full fellowship” that meant choosing to be baptized by triune immersion and to adopt the practices of those particular Brethren.21

It is impossible to fully understand the motives of another, but history does provide a way to know ourselves as individuals, as families, as churches, as societies, a way into becoming more deeply rooted as we are intentional about understanding faith in the context from which we came. In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer has wisely suggested that Knowing of any sort is relational, animated by a desire to come into deeper community with what we know.”22 The formative role that Henry Davidson and his friend William Baker took in introducing to the Brethren in Christ changes that had marked the pietist movement from the eighteenth century, including communication through print culture, missions, and opportunities for women to serve in public ways, had far reaching effects on the denomination.23 As the Brethren in Christ (in Canada Be in Christ) continue to develop during these fast-changing and tumultuous times, with secularism and evangelicalism in head to head combat, both shaped by the pietist impulse with their privileging experience over authority, it is essential that we know our history.24

On a personal note as I have explained in the occasional series “Growing up Brethren in Christ,” published in Brethren in Christ History & Life, it is in the on-going attempt to come to deeper understanding of my own spiritual journey and the denomination in which I grew up that I continue to explore the lives and spirituality of my ancestors Henry Davidson and his daughter Frances Davidson.25 Indeed, my journey has taken me in the opposite direction to Henry Davidson with my journey away from my Brethren in Christ roots to eventually be ordained in the Mennonite Church, while serving as chaplain and professor in a Presbyterian theological school. As I reflect on how my spiritual journey has taken me out of the Brethren in Christ to the Mennonites and Presbyterian communities, I am curious about my ancestor’s journey. Henry Davidson’s spiritual quest took him away from his Presbyterian and United Brethren in Christ roots to a group founded by Jacob Engel, another seeker whose journey brought from his Mennonite roots, to establish a tiny group convicted of the efficacy of triune baptism. The curiousity of the detective continues to motivate me as I continue to explore, as Palmer has put it, “how much of the past lives in us today,” and to seek community among the great cloud of witnesses.26

1“Henry B and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson: Life and Vision,” Brethren in Christ History & Life, Volume XLI, no. 2 (August 2018), 115-54; See also Micah B. Brickner, “One of God’s Avenues of Progress: Exploring the Outcomes of the Evangelical Visitor, Brethren in Christ History & Life, Volume XLI, no. 2 (August 2018), 323.

2Nancy Theriot has explored the potential in reading texts in ways that the historian can attempt to understand something of how people from the past were making meaning from their lives. See her Mothers & Daughters in Nineteenth-Century America: The Biosocial Construction of Femininity (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1996).

3Paul Hoffman, compiler, “History of the Davidson descendants,” printed in Earl Brechbill, “The Ancestry of John and Henrietta Davidson Brechbill: A Historical Narrative,” Robert K. Brechbill, printer (July 1973), 55.

4Earlier publications developing the story of Henry Davidson and his family include “Searching for Mary Mathilda Yoder,” https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2020/07/02/searching-for-mary-mathilda-davidson-yoder/; “Mysticism and Evangelicalism in the Writings of a Spiritual ‘Mother” https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2020/01/28/mysticism-and-evangelicalism-in-the-writings-of-a-spiritual-mother/ “In Pursuit of the Missing Portrait https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2019/06/27/in-pursuit-of-the-missing-portrait/ “History as Relationship” https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2018/10/16/history-as-relationship/ “Henry B and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson: Life and Vision;” “Conflict, Confession and Conversion: H. Frances Davidson’s Call to Brethren in Christ Mission.” Brethren in Christ History & Life XI, No. 3 (December 2017): 335-52; “Reverend Henry Davidson,” (1823 – 1903): Maintaining and Creating Boundaries, Historical Papers, Canadian Society of Church History (2014), 5-16.

5Paul Hoffman, “The Davidsons,” in Earl Brechbill, “The Ancestry of John and Henrietta Davidson Brechbill: A Historical Narrative” (Independence, KS: Robert K. Brechbill, printer, 1973), 49 – 59.

6Hoffman, “The Davidsons,” 55.

7Hoffman, “The Davidsons,” 53, 55; “Henry B. and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson,” 127, n 41.

8Douglas Shantz, An Introduction to German Pietism: Protestant Renewal at the Dawn of Modern Europe (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press, 2013), 205, 277, 278-79.

9Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 68.

10Paul A. Graham, “The Beginnings,” 45-46 and Raymond Waldfogel, 130, in Paul R. Fetters, TrialsandTriumphs:HistoryoftheChurchoftheUnitedBrethreninChrist (Huntington, IND: Church of the United Brethren in Christ Department of Church Services, 1984); See also William Hanby, “The United Brethren in Christ, in John Winebrenner, History of All the Religious Denominations in the United States (Harrisburg, PA: John Winebrenner, 1848), 550, 561; Carlton Wittlinger, QuestforPietyandObedience:TheStoryoftheBrethreninChrist (Nappanee, Indiana: Evangel Press, 1978), 129-33.

11Climenhaga, History, 53.

12Wittlinger, Quest, 19-23.

13Wittlinger, Quest, 14, n. 41; see “A Familiar Friend,” in Winebrenner, History, 550-56.

14Evangelical Visitor I, 1 (1 August 1887), 9; In his biography, D. Ray Heisey, Healing Body and Soul: The Life and Times of Dr. W. O. Baker, 1827-1916 Grantham, PA: The Brethren in Christ Historical Society, 2004), 22, places 1854 as the year that Baker was baptized.

15A. W. Climenhaga, History of the Brethren in Christ Church (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1952), 55-56, 69.

16Homer Rosenberger, “Migrations of the Pennsylvania Germans to Western Pennsylvania,” Part II, 61 file:///C:/Users/lucille.marr/Downloads/3099-Article%20Text-2944-1-10-20121002%20(2).pdf Accessed August 2020.

17In her diaries, Davidson’s daughter Frances noted how she missed “our own meeting,” when she was studying at Ashland College. “It does me so much good to get to our own meeting. It warms me up.” Hannah Frances Davidson, Diary 1 (11 Feb 1881) Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives, Messiah College, Grantham, PA. https://messiaharchives.pastperfectonline.com/archive?utf8=%E2%9C%93&search_criteria=HFD+Diary&searchButton=Search accessed 22 June 2020.

18Wittlinger, Quest, 23-24; see also Laban Brechbill, History of the Old Order River Brethren, edited by Myron S. Dietz (N.P: Brechbill & Strickler, 1972), 27-28, 33.

19Climenhaga, History, 70; Wittlinger, Quest, 24, 136.

20Wittlinger, Quest, 23.

21Climenhaga, History, 58.

22Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 54.

23Shantz, Introduction to German Pietism, 238, 275, 278-79, 285.

24Shantz, Introduction to German Pietism, 275-76; Indeed, in the view of McGill Emeritus professor philosopher Charles Taylor, both modern secularism and modern evangelicalism with their privileging experience and action are rooted in the seventeenth-century Pietist impulse. See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 26-27.

25“Growing up Brethren in Christ,” Brethren in Christ History & Life, Vol. XLI, no. II, no 1 (April 2020), 118-25.

26Palmer, Courage to Teach, 54. See, for example, Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers: sayings, lives, and stories of early Christian women, (New York: Paulist Press, 2001), 4.

The Faint Past and Constructed Identity: The Challenges of Historical Awareness in Javanese Mennonite Church

Danang Kristiawan

Introduction

Talking about history in the Javanese Mennonite Church (Gereja Injili di Tanah Jawa) is always difficult and challenging due to several factors. First, as the oldest Mennonite community outside of Europe and North America, dating back to 1854, the Javanese Mennonite Church has such a long history and has existed through many dynamic events, including Dutch colonization, Japanese occupation, the Indonesian revolution and struggle for independence, and the anti-Communist massacres of 1965-66. All of these events, and others, have had significant impacts on the survival of the archives and historical documents as well as the kinds of memories that have been handed down. Second, most Javanese Mennonite congregations live in rural and coastal areas in Northern Java and some parts of Sumatra. In the past, many rural people were uneducated and told their stories with an oral rather than written tradition. Third, many local churches show a lack of concern for history and administrative issues, including documenting and writing their experiences.

Making History, Constructing Identity: Hegemony of written tradition in an oral culture?

It is commonly understood that the most important resources for constructing and writing history are archival and documentary records. This inevitably means that history will be written from the perspective of the elites and educated people who had access and the ability to write. To know about early Javanese Mennonites, the written primary documents records are found in the writings of Pieter Janzs, the Dutch Mennonite Mission reports, and the colonial government documents, all of which are in Dutch. The most complete source is the Dutch-language diary of Pieter Janzs which has been edited by Alle Hoekema and published 1997 with title “Tot Heil van Java’s Arme Bevolking. Een Keuze uit het Dagboek (1851-1860) van Pieter Jansz, Doopsgezind Zendeling in Jepara, Midden-Java”. The mission report is preserved in Amsterdam. Additionally, there is a book by T. H. E. Jensma, Doopsgezinde Zending in Indonesie, written in 1968, about history of Mennonite mission in Indonesia based on Mennonite mission archives in Amsterdam. Therefore, our historical construction of Mennonites in Java starts from the Dutch Mission perspective. The lives, theology, and teaching of Javanese evangelists and believers are hidden because they did not leave written materials. Even though Kyai Ibrahim Tunggul Wulung had far more followers than Jansz, information about him is very limited. In mission documents, Jansz’s diary and reports, Wulung was pictured negatively, as not “really Christian” because of his many Javanese ways and ideas.

Writing history is also constructing identity and those who have power will make their story the dominant identity. In oral cultures, it’s very important to give attention to the oral story as well as written records. Both written and oral resources contain the same probability of truth and\or bias. Written documents were written in paper and preserved in archives. But oral tradition was also written in the hearts of the people and passed down between generations. For oral societies, validity does not become the main concern, but the question instead is how the story touch experiential meaning and values that they live.

Local Churches and their Unrevealed Histories

Of the 110 local churches which are members of the Javanese Mennonite Conference/Synod, only few churches have written histories. Many more churches haven’t written their history yet, even though they have existed more than forty years. These churches face similar problems when they start to write their local church histories:

  • The absence of documents and archives. Many churches are located in rural and coastal area and they lack concern to write church administrative records and documentation, even membership and baptismal records. So oral history approach will be useful for writing their history.
  • Many of those who know most about their church history have already passed away. Later generations often don’t understand their history because the history was not passed down to them.
  • There is a tendency in writing history in Indonesia to focus on leaders and church buildings. Many churches are mad about history which regards of whom, how, what, and where was the first of something. Sometimes the church history becomes the list of buildings.
  • Difficulty to decide on the start or the beginning of a new church in history. Is the beginning of the church counted from the first worship? Or is it the first baptism of local? Or is it the first church building? Or is it the first local church organization?

Conclusion:

This short reflection shows our struggles with archiving and maintaining history in the Javanese Mennonite Church. Talked about writing history is related to cultural tradition of society. It is important to think about archiving oral tradition by collecting story, legend, and myth which is connected to church and consider it as resource for writing history. Finally, I would encourage Anabaptist/Mennonite churches to more aware about their history, which is very important. Local churches should be more aware about documents, archives, local stories before all documents are lost, memories fade, and all witnesses die.

Mennonite War Crimes Testimony at Nuremberg

Ben Goossen

Why is it news in 2019 that some Mennonites participated in the Nazi Holocaust of European Jews? Last month, the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada sponsored a symposium in Winnipeg on the history of Mennonite-Nazi collaboration. During the question and answer period, audience members asked historians Aileen Friesen and Hans Werner why this story is only now gaining public attention. The scholars gave two main answers. First, new sources in East European archives have recently come to light. And second, Mennonite memoir literature has tended to treat the Holocaust cursorily or emphasized Mennonites’ own wartime suffering.

To these two responses might be added a third reason: Mennonite leaders and others affiliated with the church actively repressed evidence of Nazi collaboration and Holocaust participation. As the recent scholarship by Friesen, Werner, and others suggests, the story of why it has taken so long for Mennonites to speak publicly and extensively about this dark chapter in twentieth-century history requires investigation in its own right. This essay considers one small slice of that larger question. It examines testimony given by two witnesses, Benjamin Unruh and Franziska Reimers, at trials of Nazi war criminals held in Nuremberg in occupied Germany in the 1940s.

Defendants in the case United States of America vs. Ulrich Greifelt, et al. in the dock at Nuremberg. Defense lawyers are in the foreground. Werner Lorenz is at center back, chin in palm. Credit: Trials of War Criminals, 605.

The first witness, Benjamin Unruh, testified at Nuremberg on December 17, 1947 on behalf of the Nazi administrator Werner Lorenz. Lorenz had headed the Ethnic German Office of the SS, which during the war had resettled hundreds of thousands of people in Eastern Europe with the purpose of demographically engineering an Aryan utopia. At Nuremberg, Lorenz was tried along with thirteen other defendants in the eighth of twelve trials organized by United States authorities to prosecute war criminals. Unruh, who had been born in a Mennonite colony in Crimea in 1881, had liaised with Lorenz in his capacity as a leading Mennonite church leader in the Third Reich.

Unruh testified to the court that Lorenz and his subordinates had extended favorable treatment to Mennonites and other so-called Ethnic Germans in Eastern Europe. From 1941 to 1943, Nazi offices had provided aid to German-speaking Mennonite colonies in occupied areas of the Soviet Union, and in 1944, the SS had overseen their evacuation from Ukraine to more western regions. Unruh emphasized a longer history of Mennonite suffering under communist rule in the USSR. He himself had helped to organize a mass exodus of tens of thousands of church members during the 1920s, and he considered Lorenz’s activities a continuation of this older humanitarian effort.

The court understood that the favorable policies of SS leaders like Lorenz toward Mennonites and other “Ethnic Germans” had come at the expense of populations the Nazis had considered to be non-Aryans. Judges sentenced Lorenz to twenty years imprisonment for his crimes. However, Unruh refused to acknowledge links between welfare and genocide. During cross-examination, he claimed that “we, the Mennonite Church, always collaborated in perfect harmony with all other churches and also with the Jewish church.” When asked about the Holocaust, Unruh said that he knew of the killings, but he insisted that he “always protested against that energetically.”1

Benjamin Unruh’s postwar claims of helping Jews and of opposing genocide are not supported by the extensive correspondence preserved in his personal papers, government archives, or other sources. In fact, he appears to have hastened the turn toward extreme antisemitism in Mennonite church organizations in the Third Reich. Unruh contributed financially to the SS already in 1933, and in the same year, he personally quashed a request by two Jewish physicians for Mennonite help in leaving Germany.2 During the Second World War, Unruh collaborated with various Nazi agencies to aid Mennonites while these same offices expropriated and murdered Jews and others.

The second Mennonite to testify at Nuremberg, Franziska Reimers, served as a witness at the ninth and next war crimes trial organized by the United States. Born in 1911 in the Mennonite Chortitza colony in Ukraine, Reimers came under Nazi rule during Hitler’s wartime invasion of the USSR. As a young woman, she had experienced the Bolshevik revolution and the horrors of Stalinization. Soviet secret police had arrested her husband in 1937, along with numerous other Mennonites. She had not heard from him since. In August 1941, as the Nazis advanced eastward, Soviet secret police pressured Reimers to spy behind German lines, threatening her young child.

During her testimony at Nuremberg on January 7, 1948, Reimers reported that Romanian troops had apprehended her. The Romanians sent Reimers to the Nazi killing squad, Einsatzkommando 6, then based in the Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih. It was on behalf of one member of this group, Mathias Graf, that the court called Reimers to testify. Graf had served as a low-ranking member of the death squad, and he was on trial along with twenty-three other members of the liquidation units called Einsatzgruppen, or Task Forces. Each of the four main Task Forces had between 800 and 1,200 members, and they were collectively responsible for murdering two million people.

A Mennonite woman at her home in the Chortitza colony in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, 1943, sewing with photograph of Hitler on the wall. Credit: Image NN11456799, Herbert List/Magnum Photos

Reimers described Graf as an upstanding and pious man. In cross examination, the prosecution expressed surprise that Graf’s Commando 6, which was a subunit of the larger Task Group C, had not summarily shot Reimers, a Soviet spy. But she explained that as an “Ethnic German,” she had seen the invading Nazis as liberators, and in turn they had treated her as a persecuted conational. Reimers testified that Mennonites in the USSR “had to suffer terribly from cruelties in Russia; in the flourishing locations at the time not one man ever came home in the villages, all the men were expelled to Siberia.” Reimers responded by offering “service to my countrymen.”3

For several weeks during September 1941, Reimers lived under special protection of Commando 6 in Kryvyi Rih. She gave Russian language lessons to several death squad members, including Graf. According to Reimers, Graf arranged with the commando’s leader, Erhard Kroeger, to take her back to the region around Chortitza to search for her child, and she arrived in late September or early October. While Reimers presented this move as a happy tale of family reunification, the transfer of part of Commando 6 from Kryvyi Rih to Chortitza coincided with the Nazi capture of the nearby city of Zaporizhia. The group murdered 3,000 Jews there over the next month alone.4

Asked at Nuremberg if she had known about the operations of Commando 6, Reimers said, “in general I saw that Jews were herded together with bundles on their back. What happened to these people I could not find out.”5 Reimer’s claim that she learned of the Holocaust only years later, after leaving Ukraine, is certainly false. Commander Erhard Kroeger’s personal involvement in Reimer’s transfer to the Chortitza area suggests that he considered her valuable as a translator and cultural link to the local Mennonite population. Upon arrival at Chortitiza, the Commando 6 subgroup recruited dozens of volunteer auxiliary policemen, including a number of Mennonites.6

Whether Reimers directly participated in the recruitment of Mennonite killers for the Nazi death squad, or whether she herself was present during related actions, is difficult to know. However, her testimony does reveal that she reestablished contact with her child and other relatives thanks to Commando 6. Even children among this local Mennonite population were aware of Holocaust atrocities. Years after the war, one Mennonite woman recalled how as a girl, she had encountered the body of a murdered Jew in the hedgerow by her farm. In another case, she helped distributed bloodstained clothing. She herself washed and wore a dress with a bullet hole through the chest.7

Nazi officials organized Mennonite men in occupied Ukraine into police and military units, such as this “self-defense” group in the Molotschna colony in 1942. Credit: Bild 137-78955, Bundesarchiv, Berlin.

That Reimers acquitted herself well in the eyes of Commando 6 is suggested by the fact that she continued onward with Graf and other squad members from the Chortitza area to another city, Dnipropetrovsk. Reimers reported working there for the German civil administration, although she continued to provide Russian language lessons to Commando 6 two or three times weekly. Reimers was one of numerous Mennonites to join the Nazi administration in Ukraine. Others served as mayors for cities like Zaporizhia. Collaborators aided various aspects of the Holocaust, expropriating Jews, forcing them to wear identifying symbols, and assembling them in ghettos.8

Although Graf left Dnipropetrovsk after several weeks, Reimers remained in touch with him by post. After the city’s evacuation in 1943, Graf invited Reimers to resettle near his own home in Germany along with her mother and child. He helped her find office work in a munition factory. Reimer’s testimony in support of Graf may or may not have positively influenced the Nuremberg court’s verdict. The judges ultimately sentenced Graf to time served and ordered his release. The ruling noted that while Graf had certainly belonged to a criminal organization, lack of evidence due to his low rank meant that his presence at killing actions could not be definitively proved.9

The Nuremberg testimony of Benjamin Unruh and Franziska Reimers shows how Mennonites with vastly different relationships to church leadership could suppress histories of collaboration. While Reimers lived in Bonn after the war, a city without any Mennonite congregations, Unruh worked closely with both the North America-based Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Germany’s largest conference, the Mennonite Union. He helped MCC provide aid to Mennonite refugees from Ukraine as the agency downplayed their wartime actions.10 Meanwhile, his Union colleagues sought to intercede with Allied authorities for former Nazis facing criminal charges.11

While Mennonite participation in the Holocaust is making headlines in 2019, the fact that two Mennonites testified at Nuremberg is not news. Transcripts of their remarks have been available for years in church archives, alongside numerous reels of Nazi documents copied from state repositories.12 Researchers have more often used such materials to recount suffering in the Soviet Union than to reveal complicity with genocide. Indeed, one person was sufficiently taken with Reimer’s testimony to pen a fictional coda. Grateful for ostensibly having saved each other, Graf and Reimers fall in love, although she and her child eventually depart with MCC for Canada.13

One anonymous author imagined a romantic affair between the Mennonite Franziska Reimers and the former death squad member Mathias Graf, pictured here at Nuremberg in 1947. Credit: Image 09930, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

How could it ever have been possible to imagine such a tone-deaf fantasy? Stories of Mennonite victimhood in the Soviet Union circulated so widely through official and informal channels, and memories of Mennonite involvement in murdering Jewish neighbors had become so thoroughly repressed, that this author found it possible to compare Graf’s imprisonment in postwar Germany to Reimer’s suffering under Stalinism. It apparently seemed unproblematic to laud romantic love between a Mennonite and a former member of a Nazi death squad. The reality that such an idea could inspire not horror but wistful longing should give pause to Mennonites and others today.

Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University and the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.


  1. “United States of America v. Ulrich Greifelt et al.,” December 17, 1947, M894, roll 4, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland, USA (hereafter NARA).
  2. Benjamin Unruh to Emil Händiges, August 25, 1933, Nachlaß Otto Schowalter, Folder: Korrespondenz 1929-1945, Mennonitische Forschungsstellte, Bolanden-Weierhof, Germany. Thanks to Arnold Neufeldt-Fast for sharing this source.
  3. “The United States of America vs. Otto Ohlendorf, et al.,” January 7, 1948, M-895, roll 5, NARA. Reimers was summoned by Graf’s legal counsel. Eduard Belzer, “Defendant’s Application for Summons for Witness,” September 15, 1947, M895, roll 34, NARA.
  4. Alexander Kruglov, “Jewish Losses in Ukraine, 1941-1944,” in The Shoah in Ukraine, ed. Ray Brandon and Wendy Lower (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 279.
  5. “The United States of America vs. Otto Ohlendorf.”
  6. Gerhard Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetuation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 4 (2010): 530-535.
  7. Pamela Klassen, Going by the Moon and Stars: Stories of Two Russian Mennonite Women (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1994), 85. Mennonite women in Ukraine participated in the distribution of clothing from murder victims on several occasions. The Nazi press referred to such clothing as “used” but did not specify its origins. For example, “Kleider für 13000 Volksdeutsche,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, June 30, 1943, 3; “Kleidungsstücke für 13000 Volksdeutsche,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, July 6, 1943; “Die Hilfsaktion wird fortgesetzt,” Ukraine Post, July 20, 1943, 8. However, archival correspondence demonstrates that clothes and other goods taken from Jews were to be designated for redistribution among Mennonites and others. On one occasion, Himmler ordered that items from warehouses in Auschwitz and Lublin be sent to the 55,000 “Ethnic Germans” in the Molotschna and Chortitza colonies for Christmas 1942. His instructions included that each person was “to be given a dress or suit, a coat and hat if available, each three shirts and relevant underwear and other daily necessities including utensils as well as a trunk. The needy are also to be given featherbeds and blankets as well as linens.” Heinrich Himmler to Oswald Pohl and Werner Lorenz, October 14, 1942, T-175, roll 129, NARA.
  8. Martin Dean, “Soviet Ethnic Germans and the Holocaust in the Reich Commissariat Ukraine, 1941-1944,” in The Shoah in Ukraine, ed. Brandon and Lower, 248-271; Markus Eikel and Valentina Sivaieva, “City Mayors, Raion Chiefs and Village Elders in Ukraine, 1941-4: How Local Administrators Co-operated with the German Occupation Authorities,” Contemporary European History 23, no. 3 (2014): 405-428; Viktor Klets, “Caught between Two Poles; Ukrainian Mennonites and the Trauma of the Second World War,” in Minority Report: Mennonite Identities in Imperial Russia and Soviet Ukraine Reconsidered, 1789-1945, ed. Leonard Friesen (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018), 287-318; James Urry, “Mennonites in Ukraine During World War II: Thoughts and Questions,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 93, no. 1 (2019): 81-111.
  9. Michael Musmanno, John Speight, and Richard Dixon, “Mathias Graf,” in Trials of War Criminals before the Nuernberg Military Tribunals, vol. IV(Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office, 1949), 587. See also Hilary Earl, The Nuremberg SS-Einsatzgruppen Trial, 1945-1958 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 258-260.
  10. Part of this history is told in Benjamin W. Goossen, “From Aryanism to Anabaptism: Nazi Race Science and the Language of Mennonite Ethnicity,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90, no. 2 (2016): 135-163.
  11. In one case, the Union’s de facto postwar leader claimed to British authorities that Heinrich Enß, a Mennonite who had served with the Waffen-SS at the Stutthof concentration camp, “had only to do with the financial administration and was able to help some of the prisoners in that camp.” Ernst Crous to Religious Affairs Branch Zonal Executive Offices, October 22, 1947, FO 1050/1565, The National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom. Enß joined the Nazi Party and the SS in 1933. By 1941, he had advanced to the rank of SS-Oberscharführer. See A3343-SM-C107, Heinrich Enß 2.3.7, NARA. Postwar charges against Enß are archived in BY 5/V279/124, vol. 7, Bundesarchiv, Berlin, Germany.
  12. “Official Transcript of the American Military Tribunal against Otto Ohlendorf et. al. Nurnberg, Germany,” 1948, Siegfried Janzen Papers, Volume 5456, Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg, Canada; “Case #8 Tribunal 1 US vs. Ulrich Greifelt, et al., Volume 7 Transcripts,” December 17, 1947, SA.I.184, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas, USA.
  13. “Leben u. Liebe im Sowjetparadiese,” Henry B. Hoover Papers, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA. This account appears to be entirely fictional, with Reimer’s name changed to “Ella.” Records of Mennonite immigrants to arrive in Canada after World War II do not include a Franziska Reimers.

Reflections on Selective Immigration and Questions of Belonging

There is a strange thing about academia, namely, that once a book or article is published, one’s research has often moved to other topics. My research remains related to larger questions involved in my book about Mennonites and Mormons in Mexico, such as the relative power or weakness of the nation-state, and how and why a nation-state might include or exclude various minority groups, but no longer focuses on a group of people related to the topic of Anabaptism. More importantly, for the purposes of this short post, none of my recent research would help me write a post for this blog.

Then, last week, I received an invitation to speak about the work that led me to this blog in the first place, and I am reminded that while Mennonites are not the largest or most important group in Mexico (my area of study) let alone anywhere else, the questions that came up in my research for Liminal Sovereignty, remain relevant. The country where I live (the USA), the country I’m from (Canada), and the country I study (Mexico) are all trying to regulate who gets to come in.

I am particularly struck by the commonalities between my own experience as an immigrant to the United States, and those of early Mennonite immigrants to Mexico. I moved to the US for a job, and my current employer was willing to sponsor me to become a permanent resident. This process – which is inaccessible to millions of undocumented immigrants, and incredibly lengthy for people who immigrate for the purposes of family reunification – was remarkably easy for me. My employer has an office to do most of the work, to coach me for my interview, to make sure every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed. I also am white, middle class, educated and speak English in a way that makes people immediately realize these things about me.

I think again about the Low German Mennonites who migrated to Mexico. They also had “brokers” who dealt with the Mexican government to negotiate their initial immigration and “brokers,” like David Redekop, who could assist them with their dealings with Mexican officials once they arrived. I still wonder, though, how with all the troubles that these people face how they went about creating a new life, how they went about trying to understand the ways that Mexican agrarian reform would affect them, and how, in more recent years, their lives would be changed by drug trafficking.

All this wondering is because I want to understand who these people were, what they were doing, and why. Sometimes, the way the past resonates with our lives today can give us some indications.

Why Think with Early Anabaptists?

The history of sixteenth-century Anabaptists has occupied a privileged position in North American and European Mennonite historiography and self-understanding during the last century. The reasons for this are myriad. Most importantly, this history, and the theological writings associated with it, have offered these Mennonite communities legitimacy and a framework for determining a shared purpose.1

The role that early Anabaptist history has played in this context is undergoing reevaluation. Firstly, historical Anabaptist theology is diminishing in prominence as a resource for shaping Mennonite belief and practice. Secondly, as more North American and European Mennonite groups reflect to a greater degree the diversity of their societies and as distinctive Mennonite traditions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America shape a global church’s conception of itself–developments to be celebrated, surely–a history of origins rooted solely in early modern Europe is insufficient to the task of describing a common story. The question of whether the study of sixteenth-century Anabaptists is relevant to twenty-first century Mennonites requires continuous answering; a positive response should not be assumed.

Beyond these dynamics, a decentering of the sixteenth century in Anabaptist-Mennonite historiography–a trend represented in the content of this blog and one which I do not oppose–also coincides with a broader growth of doubts, in educational institutions and society more generally, about the value of studying a deeper past. Demand for pre-twentieth-century history (wars, presidents, and palace intrigue aside) is drying up, as indicated by class enrollments, hiring lines, and page views.

This colors the everyday experience of teaching, research, and writing for those working in fields of premodern history. When my colleague Cory Davis and I were recently approached to contribute to a fiftieth anniversary issue of the Sixteenth Century Journal entitled “Taking the Temperature of Early Modern Studies,” we wrote about the value of early modern history. Beyond questions of utility and origins, we argued, premodern historical scholarship retains relevance because of the habits of thought that it embodies and promotes. In the introduction to the piece, we highlighted two of these habits:

“First, early modern scholarship privileges empathetic understanding over judgment; while sharing with all good historical research the impulse to comprehend human subjects on their own terms, it is uniquely equipped to model this objective. Early modernists join historians of the ancient world and Middle Ages in noting the alterity of the values, worldviews, and modes of behavior of these eras’ peoples; the nature and quantity of early modern sources, however, make larger pieces of this foreign past accessible. We cannot claim to ever know what a person thought or felt in the past, even (or perhaps especially) when he or she recorded it. Nevertheless, our sources make it possible for us to practice and train others in the empathetic task of thinking with an enormous variety of people in radically different, and yet accessible, worlds.

Second, because of the period’s importance in shaping the structures that undergird modern life, early modern research reveals the contingency of both the past and present. Recognizing the circumstances in which world systems have come into being serves to denaturalize our own reality and provides alternative examples of how past communities have dealt with challenges comparable to those we face today. Thinking with early modern subjects requires us to set aside the privilege of hindsight in order to reconstruct their world and the possible futures they envisioned. Reducing the inevitability of the present in the minds of readers and students spurs us all to recognize that oppressive systems and ideologies are not destined to exist.

The promotion of these habits of thought, demanded by the practice of early modern scholarship, has taken on renewed import in present circumstances. By encouraging an impulse to understand the Other and by demonstrating possibilities for systemic change, the significance of early modern scholarship extends beyond its explanatory function and aids us to live better.”2

Scholarship on a deeper Anabaptist past epitomizes and encourages these same impulses. Engagement with the writings of early Anabaptists, and the search for traces of their existence in archives of the governments which repressed them, obligate us to wrestle with these people’s apparent strangeness. This encounter often confounds the assumption, or desire, that we will find ourselves in them. Attempts to overcome our basic difference from these subjects have at times led to projects of selective forgetting; better are efforts to reach across chronological distance to consider motivations and deeds of those who are inescapably foreign and to carry out the task of reconstructing environments in which their thoughts and actions made sense.

If thinking with early Anabaptists requires imaginative empathy, it also pushes us to take the contingency of their experience and legacy seriously. Early modern Anabaptist history is characterized by paths laid out and then diverted or blocked off, the result of moments of social and imaginative possibility punctuating generalized hostility. Recent scholarship has reinforced the notion that our understanding of Anabaptist phenomena is illuminated as much by the thoughts and actions of those figures and groups without a surviving tradition as by those whose link to the present is strengthened by shared convictions, organizational structures, or family names. These historical outliers too reasoned in ways worthy of consideration and demonstrated the capacity to temporarily construct alternative communities with geographical breadth and emotional and theological depth.3

When such an approach is taken, early Anabaptist history grows in its capacity to illuminate present questions and concerns rather than serving as a shibboleth.


  1. This point could be demonstrated variously, but Albert N. Keim’s description of the role of Anabaptist historiography in the work of H.S. Bender and the “Concern” group provides an example. Harold S. Bender, 1897-1962 (Scottdale, PA and Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 1998), esp. 306-31 and 450-71.
  2. Cory D. Davis and David Y. Neufeld, “Thinking with the Early Modern Past: The Relevance of our Scholarship,” The Sixteenth Century Journal (forthcoming, spring 2019).
  3. Recent studies of instances of this phenomenon include Martin Rothkegel, “Pilgram Marpeck and the Fellows of the Covenant: The Short and Fragmentary History of the Rise and Decline of an Anabaptist Denominational Network,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 85, no. 1 (2011): 7-36; Kat Hill, Baptism, Brotherhood, and Belief in Reformation Germany: Anabaptism and Lutheranism, 1525-1585 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

America’s Pastor and the “Quiet in the Land”: Billy Graham and North American Anabaptists, Part II

Author’s Note: Earlier this year, while reflecting on the death of Billy Graham, I promised a multi-part series examining the long history of North American Anabaptist engagement with American evangelicalism, and especially the towering figure of Graham himself. In my first post, I described the ways in which primarily white Anabaptists in Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches looked favorably upon Graham and his evangelistic empire. In this post, I explore some of the negative reactions to “America’s pastor.” In a final post, I plan to use these reflective comments about Graham’s influence as a jumping off point for thinking about one of my major areas of research interest: the relationship between Anabaptism and evangelical Protestantism in twentieth century America.  

In 1967, the National Association of Evangelicals celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. At a commemorative banquet at the Statler Hilton Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, the evangelist Billy Graham delivered a keynote sermon that featured all the trappings of a classical white evangelical remonstration. He warned against the liberty-imperiling advance of secularism and Communism; he described the urgent need for global revival; he prophesied the imminent return of Christ; and he proposed born-again religion as the solution for America’s moral crisis. The nearly 1,000 banquet attendees greeted Graham’s message with a standing ovation.1

Among those applauding Graham’s oration that night were C. N. Hostetter Jr., and Arthur Climenhaga, two leaders in the mid-century North American Brethren in Christ Church. Both expressed favorable reactions to Graham’s speech and to the anniversary celebration itself in the denominational press and in subsequent reflections.2 And indeed, as part of the celebration, both men posed for a snapshot with the famed evangelist.

Five white men pose for a photograph

In this 1967 photo, two Brethren in Christ leaders—C. N. Hostetter Jr. (second from left) and Arthur Climenhaga (fourth from left)—pose next to the evangelist Billy Graham (fifth from left) at the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of the National Association of Evangelicals. Also pictured are NAE officials Clyde Taylor (first from left) and Herbert Graffam (third from left). (Source: Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives, Messiah College, Mechanicsburg, Pa.)

Though smiling brightly alongside America’s pastor in this photo, neither Hostetter nor Climenhaga had always looked favorably upon Graham and his ministry—as we shall shortly see. Indeed, although many Brethren in Christ and their Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren contemporaries celebrated, emulated, and participated in Graham’s evangelistic empire, still others from these Anabaptist communities reacted negatively to Graham.

Anabaptist critiques of Billy Graham typically fell into one of two categories: ecclesial or theological. Ecclesial critiques tended to frame Graham’s ministry as too emotional, too greedy, or too popular—and therefore, and most importantly, a threat to Mennonite churchliness. In other words, these critics contended that the bright lights and big crowds associated with Graham might draw people and money away from Mennonite congregations.

Examples of this kind of critique abound. Writing in the Gospel Herald in 1953, and responding specifically to reports of revival campaigns carried out under the auspices of the Mennonite-related Christian Layman’s Evangelism Inc. but referring obliquely to Graham’s ministry, the editor Nelson Kauffman opined,

The large crowds of our time give us a false sense of values. The man who can fill a big auditorium is by no means always the man with the most important message. . . . Every big crowd is pervaded by a strong emotional factor.3

A similar report came from a Mennonite layman who attended one of Graham’s crusades in Virginia in the late 1950s. In an article in the Gospel Herald, Moses Slabaugh gave a generally ambivalent assessment of the Graham campaign. He appreciated that the “message was simple and Christ was lifted up as Savior of men,” although he objected to the choir and especially the coiffeur of its female members. (“Cut hair and jewelry were very much in evidence,” he observed.) In his conclusion, he pointed to his real concern about such mass meetings: that they sap human and financial resources away from the local congregation.

My concern is this: Are we equally as zealous at home as we were to go to Richmond? Could you spill a little enthusiasm for your home pastor and the evangelism of the lost as you did for Billy? Would you lose sleep and travel miles for the work of the kingdom at home?4

Slabaugh’s concern that Graham crusades might draw financial resources away from local congregations and into the evangelist’s coffers indicates a wariness among Mennonites about Graham’s personal finances—another sign of his “big-ness.” Such was the topic of the editor G. D. Huebert’s 1962 article in the Mennonite Brethren Herald. In the piece, Huebert assured readers that they should not worry about Graham for financial reasons. Charges that Graham was a “multi-millionaire,” Huebert contended, were false; the evangelist made a “regular salary” of $15,000. Moreover, Huebert guaranteed his readers that Graham’s organization, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, was incorporated as a non-profit and regularly audited. Though positive in its assessment of Graham, Huebert’s article nevertheless takes for granted that at least some of its Mennonite Brethren readers harbor concerns about Graham’s financial extravagance.

A magazine cover. It is an emerald green color and features the words "Mennonite Brethren Herald" in white at the top of the page. In the middle of the page is a white box with text, featuring an image of Billy Graham speaking to an audience while holding an open Bible.

The cover of the February 1962 issue of the Mennonite Brethren Herald. The cover story offered an “evaluation” of Graham, including his personal finances. (Source: Borrowing Bones blog)

Still other Anabaptists objected to Graham not on ecclesial grounds, but on theological ones. Reflecting the influence of Protestant fundamentalism, one Mennonite Brethren writer penned an article in the Mennonite Brethren Herald addressing the question, “Is Billy Graham liberal?” Starting in the late 1950s, fundamentalists had started asking such questions about the evangelist because of his decision to cooperate with mainline Protestants and Catholics in conducting his 1957 New York City crusade. The article’s author, former Mennonite Observer editor Leslie H. Stobbe, concluded in an unambiguous “no.” Far from compromising, Stobbe contended, Graham “was taking every opportunity to assail modernist and neo-orthodox theological weaknesses.” Indeed, according to Stobbe, counselor trainees coming from “non-fundamentalist” churches were being converted themselves during the crusades. And on the rare occasions that Graham appeared to used “neo-orthodox terminology” in his sermons, Stobbe claimed, he actually meant a term used by fundamentalists. For instance, Graham may have said “commitment” but he meant “to be saved.”

Again, Stobbe gave a positive assessment of Graham—but his decision to even address the question of Graham’s alleged liberalism suggests that at least some Mennonite Brethren harbored such critiques of the evangelist.

Certainly other Anabaptists were concerned about Graham’s potential liberalism. The Brethren in Christ missionary and bishop Arthur Climenhaga, for example, who posed smilingly alongside the evangelist in 1967 did not always possess such affinity for Graham. Climenhaga confessed in his memoirs that he initially opposed Graham for “mixing in a bit too much on certain wide theological levels.”5 This phrasing suggests a covert reference to Graham’s 1957 decision to cooperate with mainliners and Catholics. Climenhaga later changed his mind about Graham, particularly after working alongside the evangelist when he came to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in 1960. Climenhaga would later serve as executive director of the National Association of Evangelicals, in which role he worked closely and frequently with Graham.6

Other Mennonites and Brethren in Christ objected on more conventionally Anabaptist theological grounds. They looked askance at the evangelist’s embodiment of American nationalism and his implicit if not-always-explicit support for war and militarism. For instance, as a doctoral student living in Amsterdam in 1954, the future Eastern Mennonite College and University of Amsterdam professor Irvin B. Horst lobbed such a critique at the globe-trotting evangelist. Horst reported on Graham’s services in that city. While he praised Graham’s skills as an evangelist and concluded that evangelists “are direly needed in our sinful world,” Horst nevertheless had criticisms of Graham and his style:

He is certainly not an Amos or a Jeremiah and has very little perception of the social and economic implications of the Gospel. Unlike the early Christians and Anabaptists, [he sees] . . . no tension between his program and the powers of this world. . . . [W]ith the sensation that goes with evangelism we must not unthinkingly consider evangelism the sole work of the church or the note of repentance the complete message of the Gospel.”7

Black and white photo of four men sitting around a table with food on it.

In this photo from the Oct. 21, 1961 issue of the Evangelical Visitor, Billy Graham (third from left) meets with representatives of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches to discuss his views on war and peace

Horst’s critique of Graham on the basis of his conformity to “the world” parallels another Anabaptist critique of Graham: that he was too uncritical about war and military violence. Indeed, this view of Graham among some North American Anabaptists prompted several leaders within Mennonite Central Committee to invite Graham to a sit-down discussion about war, peace, and nonresistance. The discussion, held over breakfast in Philadelphia during Graham’s 1961 crusade in that city, including some of the luminaries of MCC at that time, including Mennonites John C. Wenger and Elmer Neufeld, and Brethren in Christ C. N. Hostetter Jr.

According to the scant records available about the gathering, MCC leaders apparently hoped to convince Graham of the gospel message of peace. In turn, Graham—then at the apex of his national popularity—would proclaim that message far beyond the bounds of American Anabaptism. Reports suggested that Graham politely listened to leaders’ presentations and then declared himself in agreement with “about 99%” of what they had said. He then “commented briefly on the problems involved in taking the nonresistant position, but noted the uncertainty and confusion among Christians regarding the proper attitude toward participation in war. He stated his personal openness and interested in meeting for more extended discussion on the doctrine of nonresistance.” (To learn more about this meeting, check out my previous post on the topic.)

A few observations about these critiques of Graham. First, they appear to cut across the various factions within mid-twentieth century white North American Anabaptism. Both “acculturated” and more conservative Anabaptists had difficulties with Graham’s message and style. More conservative Anabaptists tended to critique his “big-ness,” by which I mean his conformity to certain expectations of middle-class, white Protestant culture. More acculturated Mennonites and Brethren in Christ worried about the extent to which he had been infected by liberal theology and by his patriotic nationalism. Importantly, more acculturated Anabaptists also saw Graham as a potential ally; the MCC leaders who met with him in 1961 wanted to convert him to nonresistance and then use his platform to spread this theological message. (They also noted that they also sought from Graham “a word which might encourage and stimulate our churches to become more evangelistic.”)

Second, these criticisms tell us much about the ideological diversity of mid-century Anabaptists (especially white Anabaptists). Clearly some Mennonites and Brethren in Christ were moving in circles in which the specter of “liberal theology” still functioned as a cultural boogeyman. Others were engaged in transnational exchanges in which they worried about the importation of white, middle-class North American values into global marketplaces. Still others were institution builders who saw media coverage and Graham’s celebrity as something upon which they could capitalize as they advanced, say, the humanitarian work and the peace education programs of MCC.

Such diverse impulses should remind us that there was no singular “Mennonite” or “Anabaptist response” to Graham or to the post-World War II evangelical Protestantism that he represented—an observation that has not characterized much of the historiography on Anabaptist-evangelical relations since the 1970s. (I’ll say more about this historiography in my next post.) It should also remind us about who is missing from our portraits of Anabaptist encounters with Billy Graham—that is, it should call to mind the forms of Anabaptist diversity glossed over by the historians and archivists whose work has visibly and invisibly shaped our scholarship and public memory.

So, why does any of this analysis matter? Short of remembering Graham in the wake of his recent death, why should we care about Anabaptist responses to and encounters with the evangelist and his ministry? In the third post in this short series, I want to use these reflective comments about Graham’s influence as a jumping off point for thinking about one of my major areas of research interest: the relationship between Anabaptism and evangelical Protestantism in twentieth-century America. Stay tuned!

NOTES:


  1. On the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration and Graham’s speech, see “Certainty in a World of Change,” United Evangelical Action, May 1967, 11-14. 
  2. On Hostetter and Climenhaga’s reactions to Graham and the NAE celebration, see John N. Hostetter, “NAE Celebrates Twenty-Five Years,” Evangelical Visitor, April 24, 1967, 2, and Arthur Climenhaga, “Memoirs,” Book II, 370, Arthur M. Climenhaga Papers, Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives (Mechanicsburg, Pa.). 
  3. Nelson E. Kauffman, “Report of the First Annual Meeting of Christman Layman’s Evangelism, Inc.,” Gospel Herald, February 3, 1953, 102-103. 
  4. Moses Slabaugh, “We Went to Hear Billy Graham,” Gospel Herald, October 23, 1956, 1012. 
  5. Climenhaga, “Memoirs,” Book II, 262, Arthur M. Climenhaga Papers, Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives. 
  6. For more on Climenhaga, see Harvey R. Sider, Casting a Long Shadow: A Biography of Arthur Merlin Climenhaga (Grantham, Pa.: Brethren in Christ Historical Society, 2004). 
  7. Irvin B. Horst, “Graham and Boniface,” Gospel Herald, August 3, 1954, 729. 

Writing History in the First-Person

Nearly a decade ago, in one of Steve Nolt’s classes at Goshen College, I read Hasia Diner’s essay “Insights and Blind Spots: Writing History from Inside and Outside.”1 In just a few pages, Diner succinctly sums up the historian’s complicated relationship with the concept of objectivity and then makes a coherent argument for the relative strengths and weaknesses of approaching a historical project as, first, an insider, and, then, as an outsider.

The piece might be a graduate student’s first-semester essay on the question of objectivity and bias, except for one thing: Diner uses the first-person voice throughout. She illustrates her points with her experiences writing about Jewish history, a subject to which she is an insider, and Irish history, which she has written about an outsider.

It is an instructive essay for the history student, in that it renders the challenge of a scholar’s position to their subject not only in a digestible fashion but in a detailed, compelling, and memorable one. Diner’s name and the title of her essay had long faded from my memory, yet the effect of her words remained and I periodically remembered the general outlines of the piece.

I thought of the essay in the last few weeks and went looking for it. Due to the sadly limited quantity of essay collections about and by Mennonite women with a historical lens (and the relative rarity of overlap between Jewish and Mennonite scholarship), I was able to find it. Diner’s essay came to mind because I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the first-person in preparation for a course I’m teaching: “First Person America.

This class, a general education requirement listed under American Studies in the Temple University course catalog, has been taught in a variety of ways. Typically it involves readings ranging from diaries and recollections of American colonists to late twentieth-century coming-of-age stories. I decided to think about the first-person more broadly and I am assigning texts ranging from visual art to music videos to podcasts. Ultimately I see the course as a primer on critical thinking, historical consciousness, and identity.

In my class, my students and I are exploring the lived experiences of people and how they claim identities based on their place in the world, or in spite of it. We are finding common ground with people whose lives are very different from ours. Perhaps more importantly, we’re trying to understand the limits of our own experiences, the places where our fellow humans face challenges and find motivations that we don’t know. We are looking for the structures which are often invisible to us and oppressive to others, but also learning how responses to those structures vary from person to person. I hope to give my students a window into other people’s realities and a skill set that will help them examine their own existence.

I am choosing to assign a variety of media rather than “breaking”2 historical monographs in part because it will allow us to fit in more people’s views and in part because while first-person writing does find its way into historical monographs, it is typically resigned to the introduction and (occasionally) the conclusion, like a frame narrative. The transition from the introduction, in which the author is present, to the main text, where they are not, is a bit like Sean Connery’s first scene in The Hunt for Red October, where he and his interlocutor switch from Russian to English in the midst of a Bible passage and the audience spends the rest of the movie suspending their disbelief on that particular point. Readers of a history book know that the author’s voice is in there somewhere but it is discreetly hiding. While not every history needs to be a memoir, an author has already inserted themselves into the story by conducting research. Why not acknowledge it?

The historical monograph, as we know it today, came from an era when history was a young profession and its practitioners believed they were working toward a common, universal, truth. They might have understood the folly of this endeavor sooner had they not had so much in common with each other: they were predominantly white men educated in the finest schools in the nation. The identity of any given historical writer could, for decades, be assumed to be something of a cookie-cutter academic. These historians were divided by politics, perhaps, but sought to build their arguments with the illusion of dispassionate facts.

The occlusion of the authorial voice is not only a pitfall of the academy. Public history spaces such as museums have long bolstered their authority in the eyes of visitors by adopting a third-person omniscient perspective to signage and interpretation. The artifacts or images are presented as though they are part of some organic collection, discovered en masse by the visitors, rather than a curated set of available artifacts.

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In historical work as in art, sometimes it is useful to see the artist’s hand. Painting by Dennis Maust.

Our scholarship is much better when we acknowledge our own position in society, our own foibles and petty preferences, and our own deepest-held beliefs, not only in the introduction but throughout our arguments. In museum contexts, labels should come with an author photo and curators should give regular talks about why and how they do their work. I advocate these practices not simply to make history consumers better informed, but in the hopes that historians continue rigorous self-exploration and understand something of the field they work in.

For those of us working from personal histories in the Anabaptist tradition, Diner’s arguments about the relative merits of the insider/outsider dichotomy should linger in our minds. Whether we are tackling subjects of church history or the broader world, we need to acknowledge the tradition from which we come. When I claim Anabaptist roots, I must wrestle with the tendency toward exceptionalism that I absorbed throughout my childhood and adolescence, from my church, my teachers, and my peers. I find this more difficult to reckon with than the history of racial inequality in the denomination as well as the ongoing denial of queer humanity. The more deeply-embedded the assumption, the harder it is to confront in one’s work.

In class tomorrow, I will lead my class in analyzing texts and discussing our own identities. I hope our discussions equip them to recognize their role as historical actors and the forces that have shaped their view of the world. We will talk about ourselves and learn about ourselves, and that is a good thing.


  1. “Insights and Blind Spots: Writing History from Inside and Outside.” in Strangers at Home: Amish and Mennonite Women in History,  ed. Kimberly D. Schmidt, Diane Zimmerman Umble, and Steven D. Reschly (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002): 21-38. 
  2. If you have not heard the term “book breaking,” here is a good summary of the practice: Douglas Hunter, “Book Breaking and Book Mending,” Slate, 15 July 2018: https://slate.com/human-interest/2018/07/academic-publishing-and-book-breaking-why-scholars-write-books-that-arent-meant-to-be-read.html