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 

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

3

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.

4

“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.