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 

Five Myths about Mennonites and the Holocaust

“Not all the Jews were bad,” a widely respected Mennonite born in interwar Ukraine told me recently, “even though they started the [Bolshevik] Revolution. My father had good Jewish friends.” This statement is classically anti-Semitic. It falsely conflates communism with Judaism, while using the excuse of having a few Jewish friends to mask an implied belief that Jews in general were bad. At least as importantly, my conversation partner’s words reveal how people who do not consider themselves racist or anti-Semitic can still propagate harmful myths.

New scholarship and ongoing public discussion about the historic entanglement of tens of thousands of Mennonites on three continents with Nazism and the Holocaust during the 1930s and 1940s has yielded productive conversation regarding how present-day Anabaptists can and should respond to this history, as well as calls for further discussion. At the same time, some church-affiliated periodicals have printed articles, letters, and reviews that propagate troubling interpretations of Mennonite-Nazi connections, including anti-Semitic tropes.

Figure 1, Great Trek

Imagery of the “Great Trek” during WWII has dominated Mennonite depictions of the era, bolstering a narrative of suffering, mostly female refugees. In fact, the word “trek” was widely and triumphally used in the Third Reich to describe German-speakers relocating from Eastern Europe to Germany. This particular movement of Mennonites and others out of Ukraine in 1943 and 1944 was overseen by the SS. Participants were not primarily considered to be refugees but rather Aryan “re-settlers,” traveling to a fatherland newly cleansed of Jews. Credit: Mennonite Archives of Ontario, attributed to Hermann Rossner.

Such reactionary responses are not exceptional, either in Holocaust historiography or in the current context of Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians. In February, Poland passed legislation criminalizing mention of some Poles’ involvement in genocide, while part of the international backlash to Israeli violence has been couched in anti-Semitic terms. When certain Mennonites voice anti-Semitic sentiments, this often reflects—as is the case of other groups—both an attempt to protect their own and also a real, dangerous current of anti-Jewish prejudice.

The following five myths date to the Third Reich or its immediate aftermath. They remain in circulation, deployed today to excuse Mennonite involvement in Nazism or to foreclose public discussion. Examples given below all appeared in Mennonite periodicals within the past two years. Since my intention is to stimulate thoughtful reflection, not to shame individuals, I have chosen not to cite most quotations. However, all are easily accessible online and in print.

Myth #1: Mennonites suffered under Bolshevism, justifying Nazi collaboration.

This is the most typical excuse for Mennonite involvement for Nazism. The trope holds that life in the Soviet Union was so brutal, Mennonites had no choice but to embrace Hitler’s crusade. In fact, most Mennonites involved with the Third Reich had never lived in the USSR. The subset who did—approximately 35,000 individuals in Ukraine—came under Nazi occupation in 1941. Like millions of other Soviet citizens, most of these Mennonites welcomed Hitler’s armies as “liberators” from hardship and repression. Yet unlike the majority of their neighbors, Mennonites were generally considered Aryan, a status that provided additional incentives to support Nazism.

This trope is often accompanied by assertions that Mennonite suffering under communism has not been properly recognized. But in reality, Mennonite authors have been publicizing Soviet atrocities without abate since the Bolshevik Revolution. Scholarly literature and memoirs on Mennonite victimhood greatly outnumber texts that explore collaboration or perpetration. Nearly all of the latter have appeared only recently. The imbalance is so stark that Mennonite historians can claim to have created an entire subgenre on the “Soviet Inferno,” a term in academic use since the 1990s and whose deployment continues to refer almost exclusively to Mennonites.

Myth #2:  The Allied powers committed atrocities, too – why should we single out Nazism?

“The Nazis were bad, but the Bolsheviks were worse,” a Mennonite born in the USSR told me in March. “You mean from a Mennonite perspective,” I said. My conversation partner shrugged. “Of course.” When white Mennonites think about what life might have been like for them if they had lived in Hitler’s Germany, they invariably assume that they would have been Mennonite—and by extension Aryan. From such a viewpoint, each of the Allied powers, not just the Soviet Union, would have posed a greater threat to life and livelihood than Nazism. In other words, assuming one would have been Aryan creates a false equivalency that downplays genocide.

Studying the Holocaust from a Mennonite-centric perspective runs the added risk of repeating debunked Nazi propaganda, such as the myth that Bolshevism was Jewish. Some invocations of a “Soviet Inferno” falsely imply systematic persecution or even a “final solution” of Mennonites (by Jews) in the USSR. Nazi perpetrators commonly used such reversals to portray themselves as the true victims. Last year, one historian explained Mennonite participation in Nazi death squads, stating: “men and women of Jewish background worked as [Soviet] administrators, agents, and interrogators.” He had previously directed me to a webpage entitled “Jewish Mass Murderers.”

Myth #3: Mennonites were mostly women and children, so they either had no choice or could not have been involved.

Women and children are often invoked to claim Mennonite innocence in Nazi war making. One writer recently claimed, for example: “in the 1930s most Mennonite men [in the USSR] had been exiled, imprisoned or executed, leaving families to be led by mothers and grandmothers,” who were not “collaborators, anti-Semites or Aryan.” Mennonites in Nazi-occupied Ukraine were indeed disproportionately women and children. But there were also plenty of men—many of whom served in administrative positions, as translators, policemen, or soldiers. Gender disparity at the end of the war in part reflected the death or capture of Mennonite men in German uniform.

Figure 2, Chortitza table

A table compiled by Nazi occupiers showing the age and gender (men on the left, women on the right) of the 13,000 “ethnic Germans” in Ukraine’s Chortitza colony, ca. 1942. Forty-three percent of “ethnic German” families in Chortitza had no male head of household—but fifty-seven percent did. Source: Karl Stumpp, Bericht über das Gebiet Chortitza im Generalbezirk Dnjepropetrowsk (Berlin: Publikationsstelle Ost, 1943), Tafel H.

This myth further assumes that women or children could not have contributed to Nazism or the Holocaust. However, many Mennonite women served as translators or in bureaucratic capacities, sometimes enriching themselves with the spoils of genocide. More often, women supplied moral support to male relatives and contributed to the war effort through their labor. Meanwhile, some underage boys took up arms. And most Mennonite children in the Third Reich absorbed Nazi ideals at school and through organized youth activities. They helped boost morale by singing, marching, and telling stories. Some racist proclivities learned in the 1930s and 1940s persist today.

Myth #4: Mennonites knew nothing about Holocaust-related atrocities.

This is simply untrue, as numerous archival documents testify. Nonetheless, the way this myth is told is itself revealing. Consider one statement: “Although Mennonites under German occupation witnessed how their Jewish neighbours packed up and fled, they did not know about the outcome of this fleeing until much later.” Another, strikingly similar account holds that Mennonites “saw their Jewish neighbours pack up and flee eastward across the Dnepr; how many survived and how many were executed on the eastern side they did not know until later.” These authors care more about locating killing elsewhere than considering why Mennonites stayed as Jews fled.

Figure 3, Molotschna

A caption in one Mennonite history book for this scene from the Molotschna colony in Ukraine, 1942, reads: “This photo shows the uneasy meeting of two branches of the German and Low German cultures: the militarism of Prussia as well as of the Third Reich, and its opposite—the nonresistance of the Mennonite religious culture. The worldwide German culture is much richer given the existence of a community that did not soil itself with the militarist Nazi madness.” In fact, the men pictured here belonged to Waffen-SS cavalry units composed mostly of Mennonites. The photo was taken at a rally where Mennonite women and children performed for the visiting head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler. Source: Adina Reger and Delbert Plett, eds., Diese Steine: Die Russlandmennoniten (Steinbach, MB: Crossway Publications, 2001), 332.

To suggest that murder did not occur around some Mennonite settlements or that Mennonites in these areas had no knowledge of genocide is a form of Holocaust denial. Such myths repudiate known facts. Yet claims persist that Mennonites “had not heard of Aryanism and other racial theories until well after the conclusion of the war.” The author of this line, in subsequent postal correspondence, described glowingly her own wartime work as the secretary for a top German officer in Nazi-occupied Dnipropetrovsk, her receipt of German citizenship, and the voluntary induction of Mennonite men into the military; “I am a beneficiary of the German occupation!”

Myth #5: Mennonites suffered under Nazism.

Among the most disingenuous myths about Mennonite life under Nazism, this trope holds that the general suffering of Mennonites in the USSR continued under German rule. Nazi occupation was indeed catastrophic for a minority of Mennonites who were committed communists, as well as for disabled individuals and those of Jewish heritage. Some in Nazi-occupied France and the Netherlands joined the resistance or hid Jews. Yet claims of Mennonite suffering normally refer to those who in 1943 and 1944 participated in the “Great Trek” from Ukraine to Poland to escape the Red Army—an endeavor supervised by the SS and praised by Mennonite leaders at the time.

Indeed, closer inspection reveals that allegations of Mennonite hardship are often complaints that Nazism did not live up to its potential. If only the Eastern Front had held; if only religious reform had been more thorough; if only welfare programs were more generous—then Mennonite life would have been easier. Even the Holocaust and other persecutions are said to have “occasioned much disappointment among Mennonites.” This may be true. But note how the author chooses to emphasize the “disappointment” of Aryans, not the actual enslavement and slaughter of Jews. Despite the fading of his own initial “euphoria” for Germany, he could remain “deeply grateful.”

* * *

Mennonite authors and editors should think carefully before writing or printing pieces about the Third Reich. This is an important topic and requires our attention. But we must approach it in ways that do not recapitulate racism. Even those of us with good intentions need to be wary. In April, the cover story of a major denominational magazine laudably covered Mennonites and the Holocaust; yet in her introduction, the editor blithely compared Mennonites murdering Jews to Jews murdering Jesus—arguably the single most injurious trope of Christian anti-Semitism. Proofreaders apparently saw no problem with invoking “the crowd that yelled ‘Crucify him!’”

A few rules of thumb might be helpful. If you are discussing Nazism or the Holocaust, consider how someone from a different background might react—particularly if you are defending actions by your own group. Second, be aware of contextual differences: refocusing from the Holocaust to Soviet atrocities erases the specificity of Jewish genocide. Finally, when evaluating suffering, do not discriminate. While Mennonites have faced many difficulties, they never suffered alone. Nor were they always victims. Anabaptists, of all people, must surely grasp that violence can permeate even the most peaceable of cultures, a process we should understand but never justify.

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

When Master’s Theses Go Bad: Thoughts on Mennonite Exceptionalism and Self-Revisionism

A few years back, when I was a young PhD student, I went to one of my professors for advice. How could I turn some of my languishing seminar papers into publications? Particularly papers on Mennonites? My professor, himself a well-known historian of immigration and Jewish life, gave me this advice: when dealing with ethnic groups or subcultures you can emphasize difference from mainstream society or you can place them in the larger American story. He preferred the latter approach.

This advice percolated in my brain for a few years. It eventually helped me re-examine an earlier master’s thesis on Mennonite involvement in the antiwar movement during Vietnam. I had gone the route of emphasizing difference, rather than a story within a story, and in doing so I had missed something important– both about Mennonites and about the antiwar movement.

The thesis title, “Doves of a Different Feather: Mennonites and the Antiwar Movement During Vietnam,” symbolizes my approach. To quote from the thesis intro (italics not in the original):

The church issues in the 1960s were complex. There was debate on the issues of war, peace, and church-state relationships, a debate that would surround those Mennonites who engaged in antiwar activities. These Mennonites did share characteristics of the larger antiwar movement but, at heart, they cannot be described as a microcosm of that group. Instead, they are best understood within the context of their specific religious community.

Mennonites were a part of the national antiwar movement but they were also a part of a specific ethno-religious community. Some embraced this community, some challenged it, but overall, Mennonite activists engaged with it. Their opposition to the war, therefore, was a form of speaking to the United States government but also to their own community.1

Part of this thesis is fine. Mennonites who protested the Vietnam War did speak to both government and their own community. But this does not mean that Mennonites are best understood apart from the rest of the antiwar movement.

My thesis had focused on Eastern Mennonite College (now University) and Goshen College antiwar activity. I found examples of antiwar students who were hesitant to identify too closely with the larger antiwar movement. One EMC student wrote about attending a 1969 peace march in Washington, D.C. and explained that he felt “out of place” until the EMC group found other Mennonites at the rally. They linked arms, “mainly to let those who saw us know we had a unique reason for marching.”2 Others showed similar sentiment discussing draft resistance. Some antiwar students supported those who refused to cooperate with the Selective Service System but hesitated about secular draft resisters and a praised Mennonite draft resisters as different. A Goshen College student compared draft resisters to a “tornado” while claiming conscientious objectors had “stable, religious grounds” for their refusal to participate in war. Another Goshen student also criticized non-Mennonite draft resisters, calling them “starry-eyed” and vague. However, he agreed with them on the “terrible injustice of war.”3

Comments like these lead me to the conclusion that many Mennonites who protested the war saw themselves as doves of a different feather—in, but not of, the antiwar movement. But I was too quick to take the students at their own word. More than a decade later, much more fully immersed in the history of the antiwar movement, I see things differently (for more on my work on the 1960s—unrelated to Mennonite history—see here).

Considering the antiwar movement in all its diversity, Mennonite students appear more typical than not of peace activists. In the words of historian Charles DeBenedetti, the antiwar movement was “local and ephemeral.”4 Although images of student radicalism and confrontation dominated news coverage, recent scholarship has stressed the diversity of antiwar activists. Whether they acted as mothers, religious figures, or members of ethnic groups, activists nationwide often filtered their antiwar activism through local concerns or specific group identities. This is precisely what gave the movement its broad power—and its struggles with strategy and unity.5 The movement was filled with doves of different feathers. Mennonite activists were not so exceptional in this. Furthermore, some activists’ suspicions about the broader movement reflect key ways in which Mennonites were not unique from their non-Mennonite neighbors.

Sociologist Todd Gitlin has demonstrated that media coverage of antiwar protest was deeply problematic. Reporters depicted the movement as potentially subversive or, paradoxically, ineffective and trivial. Journalists privileged stories with conflict and violence, often focusing on action above ideas and issues. Gitlin argues this encouraged activists to plan ever more dramatic protests and meant that protests that did not involve confrontation failed to reach the eyes of many Americans.6 Gitlin does not blame media coverage for the antiwar movement’s image problems. The movement, he argues, made several of its own mistakes. However, he illustrates some of the very real limitations set up by this coverage.7

The Mennonite student activists who were wary of the larger movement show how much impact media could have, even on those critical of the war. These students defined themselves apart from the movement, perhaps because they did not recognize their own preferred methods of nonviolence and moderation as truly belonging to the movement. And yet, Mennonite students were hardly alone in their preference for a firmly nonviolent movement over the highly visible, but not universally embraced, turn to confrontation that came at the end of the 1960s.8

Mennonites were also not unique in a desire to relate antiwar activism to one’s home community. Historian Lorena Oropeza has described the way Mexican-Americans’ antiwar views became intertwined with the growing Chicano movement. Chicano antiwar leaders valued having their own organizations, separate from the rest of the antiwar movement. They worked with the broader movement but they also wanted space where the concerns and voices of their own community could flourish.9 Likewise, African Americans critiqued the war, arguing that African American men were more likely to be drafted and arguing that they should not have to fight abroad for a nation that denied them equal rights at home. Historian Simon Hall has noted a paradox: that African Americans were the group in America most critical of the war and yet largely absent from the antiwar movement, at least at a grassroots level.10

Many African Americans feared that joining forces with the peace movement would blunt their analysis of the way racial issues at home related to the war abroad. Some African Americans called for a black-led antiwar organization, as a way to take part in the movement without fear of being engulfed by it, but this never materialized. African Americans may not have joined antiwar organizations or events but they continued to address the war from within civil rights and black power groups. They were a part of the movement, but highly conscious of retaining a distinct identity within it.11

Beyond the experiences of racial and ethnic groups, Women Strike for Peace, one of the most active antiwar groups, couched their activism in what historian Amy Swerdlow has termed “maternalist” terms. They emphasized acting as women, “in service of others”—their sons at risk of the draft and the children injured in Vietnam. In doing so, they encouraged a more mainstream image of antiwar work, hoping to appeal to any American woman.12

In the American South, antiwar students tried to use southern identity to galvanize others. They encouraged southerners to “secede” from America over the war, hoping to capitalize on positive associations with a rebel image to inspire antiwar work. This tactic did not necessarily work—indeed it alienated many African Americans—but it was yet another attempt to draw on a specific group identity in protesting the war, as well as an example of seeking to transform a cultural value.13

Vietnam veterans would also form an important bloc of protesters, organizing in groups like Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). They, too, felt they had a unique perspective and reason for protesting. VVAW became yet another group that was distinct within the movement, yet integral to the cause, providing some of the most compelling testimony against the war.14

Mennonites shared another feature of the antiwar movement: intra-generational conflict. While the stereotype of the 1960s is that campuses were alight with protest this was not always the case. Antiwar student activism often involved a band of dedicated few, facing hostilities from other students and drawing on antiwar faculty for support.15 This was the case for Mennonite campuses where faculty members were often more supportive of student protest than other students. Goshen College professors like J. R. Burkholder, Dan Hess, Dan Leatherman, and Atlee Beechy were integral to antiwar work.16 Professors at EMC also defended students involved in peace vigils, cautioning in the campus newspaper that the Mennonite mentality of “die Stillen im Lande,” or being “the quiet in the land” could lead to terrible atrocities, citing the example of Nazi Germany as a situation when being quiet made ordinary people complicit in government violence.17 These faculty were part of a new interpretation of the peace position, one that questioned obedience to the state and looked for ways to make pacifism active.18 In the meantime, many students still interpreted Mennonite pacifism to preclude protest. In the words of an EMC student, critical of draft card burning in 1965, “. . . Let’s give Uncle Sam his due place in our society…While our citizenship is not in this world, we must serve our nation.”19

In the 1960s Mennonites were reconfiguring pacifism and this does make their story during the Vietnam years unique in some ways. But the ways Mennonites were not unique also matter. When I first took Mennonite expressions of exceptionalism at face value I contributed to two problems: over-simplification of the antiwar movement and romanticization of Mennonite sub-culture.

The story of the 1960s has too often been told as one of movements for social justice that started with the highest ideals, only to come crashing down in a haze of hedonism, violence, and excess by the end of the decade. Historians have been reassessing this narrative for a long time. Moving the spotlight away from students at elite universities, 1960s activism appears more complex, involving many types of people, often lasting well into the 1970s and having a constructive impact on communities. The antiwar movement was more flexible, broad, and diverse than memory has it. Acknowledging this makes the Mennonite story less unique.

Reframing my observations also avoids romanticizing Mennonite sub-culture. American Mennonites are, after all, Americans. In the 1960s they shared many characteristics with other Americans, including support for a war against communism, distrust of the antiwar movement, and susceptibility to negative news media framing of the antiwar movement. There are times to emphasize what is unique about Mennonites, but that should not distract from the ways that Mennonites are shaped by being American.

History is a process of constant revision. Usually this means scholars revise the interpretations of other scholars. But sometimes we need to revise ourselves—and speak more openly about how and why our own interpretations shift.


  1.  Holly Scott, “Doves of a Different Feather: Mennonites and the Antiwar Movement During Vietnam,” (MA thesis, Penn State Harrisburg, 2006). 
  2.  Mel Lehman, “The March, The Ball, The Man,” Weather Vane, January 24, 1969, p. 1 
  3. “The Draft. . .” >The Record, February 23, 1968, p. 4. 
  4. Charles DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1990), 1-2. 
  5. DeBenedetti argues that because the movement was so broad it was able to penetrate almost all aspects of American life, making it a very impactful movement culturally. However, he notes this loose coalition also made it difficult to strategize or clearly assess political gains made. 
  6. Todd Gitlin, The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media and the Making and Unmaking of the New Left (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003). Edward Morgan, What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010), makes similar arguments. 
  7. Gitlin, The Whole World is Watching
  8. See Kenneth Heineman Campus Wars: The Peace Movement at American State Universities in the Vietnam Era (New York: New York University Press, 1993) for an examination of the diversity within the movement. See also Robert Cohen, Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s (New York: University Press, 2009), and Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), particularly at 388-415. Gitlin notes the large number of student activists who felt no affinity with increasing radicalization and turn to violence at the end of the decade; indeed he faults the turn to violence in groups like SDS with destroying the antiwar movement. Most members did not want to be part of this turn and thus, losing their institutional home, were cast adrift. 
  9. Lorena Oropeza, ¡Raza Si! Guerra No! Chicano Protest and Patriotism During the Vietnam War Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005). 
  10. Simon Hall, Peace and Freedom: The Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements in the 1960s (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005). 
  11. Hall, 1-12, 70-71, 128-129. 
  12. Amy Swerdlow, Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). 
  13. See Jeffrey Turner, Sitting In and Speaking Out: Student Movements in the American South 1960-1970 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010). Even the student power approach to antiwar work can be seen as part of the trend to organize from within a set identity. See Robbie Lieberman, ed. Prairie Power: Voices of 1960s Midwestern Student Protest (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004). The oral histories she collected demonstrate how antiwar activists at conservative campuses were able to make common cause with students around issues they all agreed on—the need for more student rights. This created what were sometimes strange bedfellows, as activists made alliances with fraternities in working on student rights issues. They hoped sharing an identity as students could help to bring these other students into the larger movement. 
  14.  Richard Stacewicz, ed. Winter Soldiers: An Oral History of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997). See also Jerry Lembck, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam (New York: New York University Press, 1998). 
  15. An excellent treatment of this topic is Heineman, Campus Wars. A similar portrait of campus protest can be found in Lieberman, Prairie Power: Voices of 1960s Midwestern Student Protest and Rebecca Klatch, A Generation Divided: the New Left, the New Right and the 1960s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999). Klatch’s work details the way the baby boom generation is significant not only for shaping the New Left but also for providing many of the leaders of a New Right, thus placing intra-generational conflict at the heart of the story of the 1960s. 
  16. Doug Baker, interview by author, October 7, 2006 and Matthew Lind, interview by author, October 2, 2006. Sam Steiner, email to author, December 13, 2006 and J.R. Burkholder, interview by author, September 22, 2006. 
  17. Quote in “Reverberations,” Weather Vane, February 24, 1967, p. 3. See also Grant Stoltzfus, March 4, 1968, Opinion Board 1967-68 and posting by Gerald Brunk, November 2, 1970, Opinion Board 1970-71. These professors voiced support for protest and warned that excessive fears of communism or charges that protest was a threat to law and order at home were misguided at best, potentially dangerous for democracy, at worst. Professor John Lapp also contributed to the discussion, challenging the campus to see student protesters as authentically embodying the Anabaptist nonconformity to the world. See “The Ironies of Change at EMC,” John A. Lapp, posted April 17, 1967, Opinion Board file 1966-67 and “Beyond Irony or Living with Irony?” John A. Lapp, April 19, 1967, Opinion Board 1966-67. All Opinion Board files come from the archives of Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  18. For an examination of changing Mennonite peace theology see Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) and Leo Driedger and Donald Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994). 
  19. “The Draft: Our Worry?” Weather Vane, October 29, 1965, p. 2. 

Rethinking 606, the “Mennonite National Anthem”

Austin McCabe Juhnke

In 2015, Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” recorded a show on the campus of Goshen College in Indiana.1 As he often does, Keillor began the show with an introduction to the local area, describing the Mennonites who live there as “one of the most persecuted people in history.”  According to Keillor, these Mennonites developed a tradition of hymn singing “to keep up their spirits in the midst of all of this horrible cruelty and violence.”2 As if to prove his point, following this introduction, Keillor had the Goshen College choir lead the audience in singing “606,” a unique setting of Thomas Ken’s doxology (“Praise God from whom all blessings flow”) which many Mennonites know colloquially by its number in the 1969 Mennonite Hymnal. After recording the show, Keillor marveled at how his “Mennonite” audience “sang like angels. You just hummed a note and gave them the downbeat, and they sang in perfect four-part harmony.”3 Even though Keillor framed this performance of 606 as an expression of Mennonite-Anabaptist historical persecution, Mennonites have only been singing this hymn widely since its appearance in the 1969 Mennonite Hymnal. Since 1969, however, it has become commonplace for Mennonites to sing 606 not only in worship, but also as a celebration of Mennonite community in public places. The song has even sometimes been called “the Mennonite national anthem.”4 Though this nickname is used with somewhat jocular tone, it is perhaps more fitting than it appears, and it is worth considering the ways nationalist thinking has shaped Mennonite identity and musical practices.

Nationalists of the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thought of nations as naturally occurring, discrete groups of people. Within these groups one would expect to find essential similarities and between the groups one would find essential differences. Points of national comparison ranged from cultural practices to physical features to emotional temperaments. Today it is generally agreed that nations are constructed, rather than natural entities.5 Nevertheless this enticing idea has made for strong political solidarities that have been used both to resist and reinforce systems of oppression over the last centuries. Thus, at best, nationalism is used as a strategic simplification of the complexity of human social relationships. At worst, however, this ideology fuels a drive to maintain the “purity” of a supposedly natural identity.

One important way of legitimating national identities is history. If a group of people saw themselves in the same historical narrative, it helped create the sense of belonging to a national “we” that united people across space and time. “Praise God from whom” (606) was added to The Mennonite Hymnal during a period in which American Mennonites were more consciously looking to history to make sense of themselves in the modern world. Between the First and Second World Wars, Mennonites formalized a belief in nonviolent pacifism, identifying their tradition with the phrase “historic peace church.” In 1943 Harold Bender, founder of the Mennonite Historical Society and professor of history at Goshen College, penned his influential essay “The Anabaptist Vision.” In it he connects present-day Mennonites to an “authentic” Anabaptist lineage.

[W]e know enough today to draw a clear line of demarcation between original evangelical and constructive Anabaptism on the one hand, which was born in the bosom of Zwinglianism in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1525, and established in the Low Countries in 1533, and the various mystical, spiritualistic, revolutionary, or even antinomian related and unrelated groups on the other hand. . . The former, Anabaptism proper, maintained an unbroken course in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and Holland throughout the sixteenth century, and has continued until the present day in the Mennonite movement[.]6

In assuming that there is a definable “Anabaptism proper” and that it has an unbroken lineage to the present, Bender—consciously or not—was taking cues from nationalist models of identity. Later historians disputed the idea that it is possible to determine a single origin point for Anabaptism, but Bender’s “Vision” of a historical Anabaptist-Mennonite essence became an influential articulation of Mennonite identity in the mid-twentieth century and beyond.7

In this context, Mennonite hymnals became a powerful way of mediating ideas about Mennonite history, tradition, and identity. During the 1950s the (Old) Mennonite Church’s Music and Worship committee began to consider revising their 1927 Church Hymnal. There was a sense among many on the committee that the quality of Mennonite singing had been slipping. In 1959 committee member Chester K. Lehman gave a talk called “Congregational Singing – Our Losses and Gains” in which he criticized recent Mennonite hymnbooks for their heavy reliance on the “popular and emotional gospel songs,” which he viewed as a “retrogression” in Mennonite tastes.8 In 1960, another committee member and Goshen College music professor Walter E. Yoder spoke at a Music and Worship conference at Goshen. In his talk, “Raising Our Sights in Our Church Music” he bemoaned the loss of hymns from before Mennonites began speaking English and taking on Protestant- and evangelical-like church activities: “The unfortunate thing was, and we still have this problem with us today, that with the change of language and the taking on of many new activities, the church dropped its good german [sic] hymnody and sub[s]tituted for them the weaker texts and lighter tunes of the Gospel Hymns.”9 The years-long process of compiling and editing the 1969 Mennonite Hymnal formalized a Mennonite musical aesthetic that sought a return to the “solemn, sober, thoughtful and dignified” hymns of an imagined Mennonite past.10

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606 in the red Mennonite Hymnal (1969). Photograph by the author.

It was in this process of “recovering” the Mennonite musical past that “Praise God from whom” came into Mennonite institutional hymnbooks. The source for number 606 in The Mennonite Hymnal was a nineteenth-century song collection called Harmonia Sacra by Mennonite publisher Joseph Funk. Funk’s instructional songbooks were part of a broader “singing school” movement in the United States that influenced Mennonite and Protestant singing alike.11 The song had fallen into relative obscurity, before its inclusion in the 1969 Hymnal.12 By 1979, however, the song was described as “the favorite of Mennonites everywhere” in the Gospel Herald, and by the 1980s it was referred to as the “Mennonite national anthem.”13

In The Mennonite Hymnal, 606 was placed in the “Choral Hymns” section because the committee thought it was too difficult for general congregational use. Indeed, there are several musical features that make singing 606 especially difficult. Unlike most hymns, in which the voice parts move more or less in the same rhythm, in 606 the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass voices jump in and out unpredictably. One example of this is right at the beginning of the hymn. Here the soprano and tenor voices begin singing “Praise God from whom” in duet. Not until a measure later do the alto and bass voices join in, singing a compressed rhythm to catch up to the other voices by the end of the first musical phrase. Complicating the issue further, there are no verses in 606 and thus no “second chances” for learning one’s part. It is not a coincidence that the “Mennonite national anthem” has these difficult elements. In fact, it is precisely because it is difficult for outsiders to join in that the hymn works as a musical identity marker. For those who are able to sing along, 606 is a powerful auditory and embodied experience of Mennonite community, yet this insider experience is predicated on musical stumbling blocks that produce outsiders in the act of performance.

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“Project 606” on the banner of the webpage for MennoMedia’s new hymnal project. Screen capture November 7, 2017. (http://hymnalproject606.com)

In the most recent Mennonite hymnal (Hymnal: A Worship Book, 1992), 606 became number 118. Nevertheless, “606” continues to resonate as a favorite hymn and a Mennonite cultural symbol. At the 2011 Mennonite Church USA convention in Pittsburgh, a tally from the delegates put the “Mennonite national anthem” at the top of a list of “heart songs.”14 More recently, 606—or the idea of 606—has become a fundraising and publicity tool for Mennonite Church USA and Canada’s work on a new hymnal. According MennoMedia, the forthcoming hymnal’s publisher, the project aims to “take into account the breadth of the Mennonite Church [USA and Canada], the diverse ways Mennonites sing and worship, and new digital technologies.”15 Still, in an effort to raise money for the hymnal ($606,000), the work on the new hymnal was until recently nicknamed “Project 606.”16 This nickname highlights the tension between the desire to preserve and propagate a practice understood as “traditionally Mennonite” and the hope of making space for diversity within the Mennonite church.

In singing, do Mennonites, as Keillor, imagine connecting to a history of European-Anabaptist persecution? If so, will the church be able to embrace the new songs and joyful noises of a vibrant church community? I do not wish to propose here that Mennonites need a new “national anthem,” or that new musical styles will be inherently better or more inclusive. Nor do I mean to suggest that Mennonites must stop singing “Praise God from whom.” More important for Mennonites—particularly those who trace their heritage to European Anabaptists—is to confront the exclusive, ethnocentric mythologies that often inform the ways hymn singing is valued. In so doing, it would make possible a practice of singing that works not to undergird narrow formulations of Mennonite identity, but rather to reveal resonant experiences of the divine in community that transcend the logics of the world.
Austin McCabe Juhnke is a PhD candidate in Musicology at Ohio State University studying music in the Mennonite Church during the twentieth century.


  1. As of November 28, 2017, the show can be heard in its entirety here: https://www.prairiehome.org/shows/48522. 
  2.  Garrison Keillor, “Good Enough is Enough,” A Prairie Home Companion, American Public Media, May 2, 2015. 
  3.  Michela Tindera, “Quick Q&A: Garrison Keilor” Indianapolis Monthly,  August 6, 2015, http://www.indianapolismonthly.com/arts-culture/quick-qa-garrison-keillor/ (accessed November 28, 2017). 
  4.  See Anna Groff, “606: When, Why and How Do Mennonites Use the Anthem,” The Mennonite, March 18, 2008. 
  5.  See, e.g., Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, (New York: Verso, 2006). 
  6.  Harold S. Bender, “The Anabaptist Vision,” Church History 13, no. 1 (March 1, 1944): 8. 
  7.  James M. Stayer, Werner O. Packull, and Klaus Deppermann, “From Monogenesis to Polygenesis: The Historical Discussion of Anabaptist Origins,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 49, no. 2 (April 1975): 83–121. 
  8. Chester K. Lehman, “Congregational Singing – Our losses and gains,” (1959). Box 6, Folder 2. Mennonite Church, Music and Worship Committee, 1909-1992.  I-3-1. Mennonite Church USA Archives – Elkhart. Elkhart, Indiana. 
  9.  Walter E. Yoder, “Raising Our Sights in Our Church Music” (1960). Box 6, Folder 6. Mennonite Church, Music and Worship Committee, 1909-1992.  I-3-1. Mennonite Church USA Archives – Elkhart. Elkhart, Indiana. 
  10.  Yoder, “The New Church Hymnal and its Implications for Worship” (ca. 1962). Box 6, Folder 4. Mennonite Church, Music and Worship Committee, 1909-1992.  I-3-1. Mennonite Church USA Archives – Elkhart. Elkhart, Indiana. 
  11.  See, e.g., Walter E. Yoder, “Singing Schools,” in Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, 1958, http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Singing_Schools&oldid=113641. 
  12. “Praise God from Whom” Also appeared in the Songs of the Church, ed. Walter E. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1953), 10. 
  13.  “World’s Attic Goes to Kitchen for Help,” Gospel Herald, March, 13 1979. For a use of “Mennonite national anthem,” see, e.g., James C. Juhnke, Dialogue with a Heritage: Cornelius H. Wedel and the Beginnings of Bethel College (North Newton, KS: Super Speed Printing, 1987), 75. 
  14. “What Songs Will Mennonites Sing?” Canadian Mennonite, http://www.canadianmennonite.org/articles/what-songs-will-mennonites-sing 
  15.  “‘Project 606’: Mennonite Song Collection Project Aims for 2020 Release,” The Mennonite, January 4, 2016, https://themennonite.org/daily-news/project-606-mennonite-song-collection-project-aims-for-2020-release/. 
  16. MennoMedia, Project 606: A Gift for the Next Generation,  September 12, 2017, http://web.archive.org/web/20170912230138/http://hymnalproject606.com/ . The project has recently been rebranded as Resonate: Join the Everlasting Song, http://hymnalproject606.com (Accessed November 30, 2017), a change that was found after this post was initially published. 

On the Theological Uses of Anabaptist History: A Conversation

Note: The following is a conversation about the theological and ecclesiological uses of Anabaptist history from the perspectives of an early modernist and a modernist

By Christina Moss and Ben Goossen

CM: When the two of us presented on a panel together in June at the Crossing the Line conference at Eastern Mennonite University, one of the recurring themes during the discussion that followed was the ways in which contemporary Anabaptists engage with Anabaptist history. My own period of study, the sixteenth century, encompasses the beginnings of Anabaptism, so it continues to hold a lot of interest for the spiritual descendants of those first Anabaptists. But of course, Anabaptism is a dynamic tradition and has continued to evolve since the sixteenth century. Ben, your research has focused more on Anabaptists in the modern era. How have you found that contemporary Anabaptists engage (or perhaps fail to engage) with more recent Anabaptist history?

image1-17

The ongoing influence of Harold Bender’s Anabaptist Vision, despite extensive scholarly critique, represents the entanglement of history and theology in Anabaptist communities.

BG: That was a great discussion! One of the insights I have continued to ponder is your comment that Reformation-era Anabaptists lived during a radically different time that, if we are honest with ourselves, may not actually have that much bearing on our twenty-first century context. In my work, I have tried to trace some of the reasons why modern (i.e. nineteenth- and twentieth-century) Anabaptist church leaders, historians, and lay persons have attached such importance to Reformation history.[^1] Frequently, the answer seems to be a search for a “usable past,” in which sixteenth-century stories are brought to bear on more contemporary challengescrises of faith, external threats, shrinking congregations, etc. I might venture that for modern Anabaptists, the study of Reformation history has disproportionately been about modern issues. So in that sense, I would say that truly understanding either modern or early modern Anabaptism would first require deconstructing how we talkand have talked in the pastabout the Reformation. But you’re the sixteenth-century expert; where would you say the historiography falls on this point?

CM: I’ll admit to being much more familiar with how historians talk about sixteenth-century Anabaptists than how contemporary Anabaptist churches and theologians deal with that legacy, but from what I’ve seen there’s definitely a gap, though perhaps there wasn’t always. The dominant narrative in the mid-twentieth century was that cast by Harold Bender in his essay “The Anabaptist Vision.” Bender argued that Anabaptism was a logical culmination of the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. He distinguished between the “original evangelical and constructive Anabaptism,” or “Anabaptism proper,” and “the various mystical, spiritualistic, revolutionary, or even antinomian related and unrelated groups on the other hand.”[^2] The Bender school of Anabaptist history provided churches and theologians with a usable past, but from a historiographical standpoint it was roundly critiqued because it marginalized so many different expressions of sixteenth-century Anabaptism. Later seminal works like James Stayer’s Anabaptists and Sword and Stayer, Werner Packull, and Klaus Deppermann’s article “From Monogenesis to Polygenesis” emphasized the diversity of early Anabaptism, both in terms of theological views and geographical points of origin.[^3] Currently, some historians working on sixteenth-century have confessional commitments of their own and others don’t, but all would agree on their responsibility to explain the beliefs of their subjects as accurately as possible, regardless of whether those views are theologically relevant for contemporary Anabaptists.

I do want to be clear that I don’t think that churches shouldn’t look to the past for theological inspiration. Certainly, as we seek to be faithful in our own context, we can learn from others who sought to be faithful in theirs. But I do think we need to be really careful about it, and honest with ourselves. Often, as people of faith, we approach church history having already made up our mind about a theological question and seeking antecedents in order to validate our position. Take the question of women’s ordination, for instance. There are some truly fascinating women in sixteenth-century Anabaptism, and they are well worth studying, but even the most permissive Anabaptist groups wouldn’t have practiced women’s ordination the way we do in MC Canada and MCUSA churches today. Melchior Hoffman, who enthusiastically affirmed the callings of both male and female prophets, allowed for the possibility that women might also serve as teachers if no qualified men were present.[^4] As notable as this concession was for its time, reluctantly allowing women to serve as a “Plan B” is not a suitable approach to women in ministry for the twenty-first century church. Where legitimate antecedents do exist, they’re certainly worth highlighting to emphasize that there is, and has long been, room in our theological tradition for the views we’re trying to advance. However, our theological forebears weren’t infallible, and, if we sincerely believe that a theological position is worth advocating for, we should do so regardless of whether or not it has precedent, without trying to reshape the theology of our spiritual forebears to better fit our views.

In fact, I believe that reflecting on our theological tradition’s fallibility is perhaps one of the most crucial ways churches can and should engage with church history. Ben, I know that your work has touched on this quite a bit. Could you speak to that here? What does it look like for Anabaptist churches to reckon with our spiritual forebears’ fallibility, and to do so well?

BG: Perhaps we should pull a few theologians into this conversation. It strikes me that history as practiced by Anabaptists has probably always been theological in nature. For many conservative groups, history writing has in the past and continues today to offer an acceptable alternative to more “worldly” disciplines like philosophy and theology—which, in my opinion, makes it a kind of philosophy or theology par excellence. Meanwhile, those of us influenced by or working in the wider academy would, I think, tend to join other professional historians in seeing the practice of history as a means of tracking power relations in the past, often for purposes of altering them in the present. All historians do this according to a guiding (often changing) set of ethical or moral standards; and Anabaptist historians—like practitioners of other religious traditions—might see these standards as emanating specifically from their theological worldviews.

image3-19

Images and narratives about Reformation-era Anabaptists, such as this etching from Thieleman van Braght’s Martyrs Mirror, have held different resonances among Anabaptist communities over the centuries.

I like your notion of reckoning with past fallibility as a source for spiritual inspiration in our own time. This way of evaluating history both takes seriously the discipline’s fundamentally ethical character and also avoids purely laudatory accounts. That still leaves the question, however, of how to decide what to praise and what to lament. Here I’m thinking of David Weaver-Zercher’s excellent new book, Martyrs Mirror: A Social History, which examines how Anabaptists of various stripes have read and interpreted Thieleman van Braght’s famous seventeenth-century martyrology over the past four centuries.[^5] Weaver-Zercher persuasively argues that despite vastly different contexts and hermeneutics, Anabaptist readers have consistently seen the Martyrs Mirror as a tool for measuring their own communities’ faithfulness (understood in different ways), against the faithfulness of Reformation-era Anabaptists. Such a practice already depends on the construction of a theologically-grounded narrative dichotomy, which in this case presents Anabaptist martyrs as heroic and their Catholic and Protestant persecutors as fallen.

So I think the issue is less whether our histories—scholarly or popular—should or should not emphasize past fallibility; they do so inherently. Rather, the more significant question might be how closely that fallibility is associated with historical actors with whom we might be inclined to identify, especially “spiritual forebears,” as you put it. Displacing fallibility exclusively or mostly onto others can be appealing, but doing so tends to render the actions of our historical role models unimpeachable, in turn making it difficult to criticize the male-dominated gender relations of the early Anabaptists, to pick up on your example, or to recognize how contemporary discourses of peacemaking, discernment, and process can disadvantage LGBTQ members today. For me, one the basic purposes of Anabaptist history is to recognize when Anabaptism as a denomination or identity is invoked to disadvantage or marginalize others. Often, Anabaptism as an idea is so positively connoted in our minds—or in the minds of historical actors—that preserving its honor, unity, or very existence takes precedence over advocating for the needs of women, queer folks, people of color, or any other number of people. Thus I see recent work around gender, labor, and race by Felipe Hinojosa, Stephanie Krehbiel, Tobin Miller Shearer, and Janis Thiessen, among many others, as vitally important in the task of keeping us skeptical and honest about a faith we have chosen and a past we have not.[^6]

image5-21

Recent scholarship on Anabaptism in both the early modern and modern periods, such as this edited collection, owe much to non-Anabaptist historians.

In some ways, that brings us back to theology. Christina, I’d be fascinated to know how early modernists like yourself navigate disciplinary boundaries and even professional relationships within the discipline of history, where some practitioners identify as religious and others do not. I’m also wondering what sources Anabaptist and non-Anabaptist historians of the Reformation have drawn upon to develop the moral-theological lenses that they use and have used to evaluate past actions and events—scripture, revelation, arguments and texts developed during the sixteenth century?

CM: In my experience, the scholarly relationship between scholars of different religious affiliations (or non-affiliations) who study early modern Anabaptism has been really fruitful. We bring different questions, interests, and perspectives to the material at times, but we learn so much from each other. The field has been incredibly enriched both by historians who are rooted in contemporary Anabaptist communities and historians who aren’t. For instance, we know quite a bit more about Spiritualists and apocalyptically-minded Anabaptists thanks to the work of scholars who don’t belong to contemporary Anabaptist faith communities. If anything, I see less tension between Anabaptist and non-Anabaptist historians than has sometimes existed between Anabaptist historians and Anabaptist theologians. The debate between Denny Weaver and Arnold Snyder after the release of Anabaptist History and Theology comes to mind.[^7] Essentially, Weaver argued that Snyder had written a skewed historical survey of sixteenth-century Anabaptism that “[opened] the door to the accommodation of violence rather than seeing the rejection of violence as theologically normative.”[^8] Snyder, however, pointed out Weaver’s critique was historically insubstantial, since he failed to demonstrate from the sources how Snyder’s reading was skewed.[^9]

Personally, as someone who is both an active member of a faith community and a historian, I try as much as possible to separate out my historian and theologian hats. As a historian, my job is to be as faithful as I can to the source material—treatises, letters, court records—and to represent the views of the people I study as clearly and accurately as possible. It’s only after I’ve done that work that I can bring out my inner armchair theologian and start asking questions like “Is this a useful model for the Church today?” or “Does this Scriptural interpretation have the potential to lead to human flourishing?” The latter question gets at the heart of the moral/theological lens I’ve personally come to adopt when sifting through approaches to faith and Scriptural interpretation, but that’s highly individual and different scholars and people of faith often come in with different considerations.

BG: Your suggestion that our understanding of early modern Anabaptism has been enriched by dialogue with historians of various (or no) faith traditions is fascinating. It rings true to me for the modernist period as well. Non-Anabaptist scholars have done vital work to situate modern Anabaptist history within larger trends and contexts, often showing that Mennonites, Amish, Brethren, and others are not really as unusual or disconnected from the world as we’d sometimes like to think, but thereby also helping to make true instances of uniqueness all the more significant. More broadly, the integration of modern Anabaptist history into Marxist scholarship, gender analysis, or the so-called social and cultural “turns,” to name only a few important examples, has been possible only because of broader developments emerging from many voices across the academy and beyond. Each of these intellectual and methodological movements has further allowed us to see Anabaptist history as multiple, contested, and endlessly interesting. 

I’d like to thank you, Christina, for initiating this conversation, which I think demonstrates how dialogue between early modernists and modernists—like exchange between disciplines or across religious lines—can illuminate anew topics we thought we knew well. I’d be excited to see more such discussions in the future, and of course I look forward to reading more of your ongoing work and to thinking about how it can inform modernists’ thinking and writing about Anabaptist history. 

CM: Thank you so much for your willingness to take part in this conversation! It’s so important to keep having these discussions, both as historians and as members of faith communities.

Christina Moss is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Waterloo studying Anabaptist prophets in sixteenth-century Strasbourg. 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.

 

Power, History, and the Future Church Summit

Shortly after we married, my wife turned to me and asked, “Why are all the influential men in the Mennonite church historians?”

Strictly speaking, this is not a true statement, with Orie O. Miller and George Brunk1 being examples of North American Mennonite leaders who did not work historically. But, working from my context with Mennonites in the United States, there is a strong line of Mennonite leaders using history as a tool towards power, specifically the power that comes with shaping the story of Mennonites.2  The story has played a role in the way Mennonites understand their identity, and  has contributed to power dynamics in Mennonite historiography that must be reckoned with. (For a parallel in how institutions have shaped history, see posts by Jason Kauffman and Simone Horst.)

The following is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but merely a demonstration of how intimately enmeshed history is with influencing Mennonite identity and faith, a project many of these embraced as “creating a useable past.”

  • The immigrant Bishop Heinrich Funk (d. 1760) worked alongside Dielman Kolb and others to have the Ephrata Martyrs’ Mirror translated and printed as a way to remember the mythic origin of Anabaptism in the face of the Seven Years’ War.3

  • His grandson, John F. Funk (1835-1930), worked to create a unified Mennonite community, as best exemplified by Herald of Truth.  His publishing house worked to create a usable past for this newly “unified” community, reprinting texts such as The Martyrs’ Mirror  and the 1632 Dortrecht Confession of Faith.4

  • C. Henry Smith (1875-1948) wrote “Christian Peace: Four Hundred Years of Mennonite Peace Principles and Practice” as a brief overview of how Anabaptists have practiced nonresistance, written for workers in CO camps. The pamphlet ends with a doctrinal and ecclesiological discussion on the future of the peace testimony. Threats include “the subtle influence creeping into the church from certain short cut Bible schools which are committed to an unwholesome overemphasis on a militant millenarianism . . .”5

  • Harold S. Bender (1897-1962) perhaps most clearly illustrates this trend with the Anabaptist vision he and his students promoted. Because of some doctrinal disagreements, his position at Goshen was in history rather than Bible or theology, the fields of his formal training. Fred Kniss notes in Disquiet in the Land that this meant “he was thus able to avoid most of the divisive disputes over doctrine. By concentrating on Anabaptist-Mennonite history, he was able to concentrate on questions that drew communalism back into the center of Mennonite discussion.”6

  • John Howard Yoder (1927-1997), while a theologian, rooted his work in a historical methodology. The Politics of Jesus works towards systematic ethics and theology with biblical and historical scholarship. In his “Anabaptist Vision with Mennonite Reality,” John D. Roth notes that one of the innate tensions in Politics is a confusing use of history, where Anabaptism is claimed as a hermeneutic but used as a historical possibility.7

  • Moving towards the contemporary era, John D. Roth continues the tradition of historians playing leading roles in the Mennonite church with the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and its initiative, the Bearing Witness Stories Project, both of which work to create a useable past from the experience of Anabaptists around the globe.8

  • Ervin R. Stutzman, current executive director of Mennonite Church USA, also has historical inclinations. He has published a series of historical fiction novels, including the Return to Northkill series, looking at the encounters between the Hochstetler family and Native Americans, as well as From Nonresistance to Justice: The Transformation of Mennonite Church Peace Rhetoric 1908-2008, which is a rhetorical and historical look at how Mennonites articulate what they believe about peace.

All these have given valuable contributions to the Mennonite understanding of who they are, as well as helped conversations with how the faith community has related and interacted with broader culture. But it is important to recognize the power, albeit soft power, therein. One demonstration of this is, as Felipe Hinojosa notes, how “historian after historian has ignored the calls by Black and Brown Mennonites—and marginal white Mennonites— that offer us alternative visions of the future church.

The power of history as a tool for understanding and controlling identity came to the forefront during Mennonite Church USA’s Future Church Summit (FCS), part of MC USA’s biennial convention. The FCS was billed as an opportunity for the denomination to imagine what it means to “follow Jesus as Anabaptists in the 21st century.” After building community with the table groups on the first day, the process turned to the question, “How our past has shaped us and what this may mean for us going forward?”9 To provide context, there was a plenary presentation that featured John D. Roth, Erica Littlewolf (Northern Cheyenne), Jason B. Kauffman, Bishop Leslie Francisco III, and Regina Shands Stoltzfus presenting a timeline of Mennonite history, graphically presented as a tangled vine growing from sixteenth century roots and stretching into the future.

An effort was made to be as broad and inclusive as possible in the process. There was diversity represented among the presenters, with representation from African Americans and Native Americans, and participants were reassured that they would have the opportunity, indeed, were encouraged, to come up afterwards and expand the timeline. Some interesting dynamics were explored, especially as Erica Littlewolf teased out how Mennonite narratives of coming into the land and finding freedom and prosperity directly contradicted her people’s experience of suffering.

There were problems in the presentation’s content, however, with significant gaps in the material presented. There was no mention of the rich Hispanic Mennonite tradition (though this was partly because a representative could not make it at the last moment), no past for the LGBTQ Mennonites (perhaps not surprising given the politics of MC USA), and no mention of the old General Conference Mennonites (an omission, I am told, that left some people so angry they could barely speak). The history as it was told did not contain all people present.

However, the content gaps were not the most striking disconnect in the presentation. Most striking was that the lack of recognition of the power dynamics inherent in history, especially in the Mennonite church context, since church history has been equated with stories of belonging that are told in our faith tradition. The opening remark, “We all know that is history is an argument” was an example of this. It may be a true statement in the academy, but it is at odds with how history has been embodied publicly in Mennonite congregations and schools.10

History in the Mennonite church has been a tool of authority, giving an absolute view of what happened in the past. History has been a firm foundation for the purpose of maintaining Mennonite identity, not a malleable past that can be argued. There was a fundamental disconnect between the useable past given to summit participants and the history many attendees had been primed to receive by experience in church and school. This is in part why the reaction to the historical gaps was so strong: people were looking for a useable past that told them who they were, but instead were told that they needed to find history for themselves.11

As historians choosing to practice history within the church, we need to be aware of the weight of interpreting the past. The place to start is to give careful attention to the contours of power surrounding Mennonite historiography, an investigation that deserves further attention. It is from this place that we can work with individuals, congregations and broader church institutions to create history that is in the service of living traditions.12

 

 


  1.  I have not made an extensive study of George Brunk and his thought, but am basing this claim on a conversation with Javan Lapp, who has studied revivalism among Old Order and conservative Mennonites. 
  2.  There is also an interesting phenomena where non-historians writers have felt they need to translate their work into history in order to speak into the Church, but that is outside the scope of this post. 
  3.  Zijpp, Nanne van der, Harold S. Bender and Richard D. Thiessen, “Martyrs’ Mirror.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, November 2014 (accessed July 19, 2017). 
  4.  Ted Maust, “”Union with such as we might perhaps otherwise never know”: John F. Funk and the Herald of Truth, 1854-1864,” Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage 38 no. 2 (April 2015): 40-54. 
  5.  C. Henry Smith, “Christian Peace: Four Hundred Years of Mennonite Peace Principles and Practice” (Peace Committee of the General Conference of the Mennonite Church in North America, 1938), 31. 
  6.  Fred Kniss, Disquiet in the Land: Cultural Conflict in American Mennonite Communities (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 65; James C. Juhnke Vision, Doctrine, War: Mennonite Identity and Organization in America, 1890-1930 Mennonite Experience in America Vol. 3 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1985), 277-282. 
  7.  John D. Roth, “Living Between the Times: ‘The Anabaptist Vision and Mennonite Reality’ Revisited” in Refocusing a Vision, ed. John D. Roth (Goshen, Ind.: Mennonite Historical Society, 1995); John Howard Yoder, “Anabaptist Vision and Mennonite Reality,” in A. J. Klassen, ed., Consultation on Anabaptist-Mennonite Theology (Fresno, Cal.: Council of Mennonite Seminaries, 1970). 
  8. Goshen College, “Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism” goshen.edu, https://www.goshen.edu/isga/ (Accessed July 19,2017). 
  9.  Mennonite Church USA, “Future Church Summit,” http://convention.mennoniteusa.org/future-church-summit/ (accessed July 19, 2017). I attended as the delegate for Pilgrims Mennonite Church, Akron, Pennsylvania. Most of the material going forward is based on my personal notes. 
  10.  In his ethnographic study of Mennonite schools in Lancaster, Pa., Ken Sensenig notes, “Heritage [that is, history] awareness plays a significant role in Greenfield’s attempts to maintain its peace position. Remembering and interpreting the people and concepts which gave birth to the Anabaptist/Mennonites during the sixteenth century Reformation is one important method of teaching peace at this school. [. . .] More formal heritage training takes place in the classroom, with both schools devoting courses exclusively to the study of Mennonite and general church history. The commitment to peace and justice is an important focus of these studies. Kenneth L. Sensenig, “An Ethnographic Approach to the Study of Sociopolitical Views in Two Mennonite High Schools.” (Dissertation, Temple University, Philadelphia, 1991), 91-92. 
  11. This is not a bad way to do history in the church, but it is not how many are accustomed to it to being done. 
  12.  I borrow this phrase from William H. Katerberg, “Is there Such a Thing as ‘Christian’ History?” Fides et Historia 34:1 (winter/Spring 2002): 57-66. 

Does the Future Church Have a History?

Felipe Hinojosa

FCS-logo-colorThis week Mennonites will gather in Orlando at MCUSA Convention 2017 to worship, meet old friends, and learn together. I won’t be there this year and I regret that I will miss what is being called the “Future Church Summit.” The central driving question for the summit is: “How will we follow Jesus as Anabaptists in the 21st century?” All of this talk about the future of the church, via podcasts and church press articles, took me back to my very first Mennonite Convention in Philadelphia in 1993. Everything about the experience was spectacular. Philadelphia, an iconic American city, meant the Liberty Bell and Rocky for us kids from the United States/Mexico borderlands. It meant American history, American pop culture, and lots of Mennonites. Perfect. Because I have always been one to push boundaries and challenge established rules, one of the first things I did as a good American was buy a beautiful American flag shirt. The sleeves were blue, and across my chest and back were the stars and stripes. Why would I, then a sixteen-year-old Mexican American kid, want to walk into a Mennonite convention wearing the stars and stripes? Primarily because I wanted to stand out, I wanted people to know that I didn’t really buy into this Mennonite peace thing, and I wanted to show my patriotism in one of America’s most historic cities. Some people stared, some made comments, and others simply ignored me. But understand that I come from a community in South Texas with a proud military tradition. I was raised in a Mennonite Church where it was common to have both peace activists and military veterans worshiping side by side. In all of this I have often wondered if peace theology, rooted in the white Mennonite experience, has anything to say to us, to my Latina/o Mennonite community?

Even as I am a pacifist and a critic of the military industrial complex, I owe my utmost respect and honor to the Latina/o soldiers who in the years after World War II came home to a country that continued to treat them as second-class citizens. In fact, it was many of those veteranos y veteranas who launched the Mexican American and Puerto Rican civil rights movements in the years after World War II. Like African American soldiers who fought for “Double V,” victory against fascism overseas and victory over racism and segregation at home, Latina/o soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice for a country where they suffered discrimination, segregation, and poverty.

So, what are we to do with this history? How are we to reconcile a peace theology that does not speak to our diverse experiences, to our military tradition, and to our forms of peacemaking, which are often at odds with the very scholarly forms of white Mennonite peacemaking? These questions are not new. In the 1960s, as a student at Hesston College, Lupe De León asked why it was that peace-loving Mennonite boys were “driving around in hemi-charged cars, living like the devil and hiding behind the skirt of the church… If I have friends dying in Vietnam, then why are these Mennonite boys having such a good time?”1 When Lupe’s childhood friend, Raúl Hernandez, learned that one of his cousins had been killed in Vietnam, Raúl immediately gave up his conscientious objector status and joined the war effort for his country and as a way to honor his dead cousin. These experiences varied from the very clinical and effortless narratives that we read about conscientious objectors in Mennonite history books. And if these experiences were more complex, as I suspect they were, Mennonite historians have failed in their responsibility to tell us the stories of war and struggle that do not neatly fit the peace narrative that remains rooted in a mythical, sixteenth century story.

To counter these narratives and push back against white Mennonite peace theology, Black and Brown Mennonites drafted their own essays where they argued for a peace theology rooted in their own experiences as Americans in urban and rural sites. Curtis Burrell drafted an essay entitled “The Church and Black Militancy,” Lupe De León and John Powell penned essays on peacemaking in the “barrio” and the “ghetto,” María Rivera Snyder drafted essays on peacemaking in the home, and Seferina De León and Gracie Torres made peace by merging the hits of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez with Texas Mexican Border music. Much of this history remains unexplored, dug deep in the Mennonite archives where historian after historian has ignored the calls by Black and Brown Mennonites—and marginal white Mennonites— that offer us alternative visions of the future church.

As Mennonite church leaders gather to dream and envision a new church for the twenty-first century, I hope they are aware of this history. Not the history of white Mennonites captivated by Harold Bender’s Anabaptist Vision, but instead the history of Black and Brown Mennonites who—away from the careful watch of white Mennonites—have introduced their own visions, their own stories, and their own ways of being Anabaptist and Mennonite. Does the future church have a history? Yes, it does. And acquainting ourselves with the history of tomorrow can move us beyond tired attempts at unity as we imagine a new political and ecclesiastical future full of possibilities.


  1. Felipe Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 86.