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?

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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.

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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]

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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. 

An Introductory Taxonomy of Anabaptist Histories

IMG_6493“Anabaptist Historians: Bringing the Anabaptist Past into a Digital Century” is a collaborative blog gathering scholars of Anabaptist history to share their research and engage on critical issues in contemporary Anabaptist life. But what is Anabaptist history? Part of the trouble is that the word “anabaptist” has many overlapping meanings, as does “Mennonite.” In this blog, each contributor will have his or her own understanding of what “Anabaptist” and “Anabaptist history” means.

In a conversation with Linford Stutzman during my Cross Cultural semester with Eastern Mennonite University, he postulated a three-part criteria for being a Mennonite, where meeting two out of three constituted a pass: 1) having Mennonite values; 2) belonging to a Mennonite congregation; 3) belonging to a Mennonite family. This construct concisely states the three strands of identity that are bound together in each individual’s experience (I recognize the lack of any may be as important– if not more important–in shaping the experience). The variations are not just an individual experience, they play out in the stories Anabaptists (and I include myself therein) tell themselves. As Dallas E. Wiebe ends his satirical work, The Sayings of Abraham Nofziger: A Guide for the Perplexed, vol. 3:1

147. The logical extension of Anabaptist thought is that each person becomes a church of one.

148. I’m the only Mennonite I know.

There are as many Anabaptist histories as there are Anabaptists. Since it is crucial to understand which type of history is being read in order to understand it, I am providing a brief taxonomy.

The Ethnic Genus of Anabaptist History

The Ethnic Genus of Anabaptist History is the story of Anabaptist peoplehood. That is, it is the story of how Anabaptists have been together.

To many understandings, an “ethnic” understanding of Anabaptism is simply not true, as believer’s baptism and the clear choice to join are central to Anabaptist faith. There are, however,  cultural markers that persist in differing Anabaptist communities, and the language of ethnicity can be a helpful tool to describe them—it is not meant as a pejorative.

Ethnic: Peoplehood Studies

Perhaps the most developed species of Anabaptist history is “Ethnic: Peoplehood Studies.” This is focused on looking at the many types of Anabaptist groups (say, “Ethnic: Peoplehood Studies: Amish Studies” or “Ethnic: Peoplehood Studies: Mennonite Studies”). It looks at trends, markers, and mores in the groups on the Anabaptist spectrum. There are as many subfields under “Ethnic: Peoplehood Studies” as there are Anabaptist groups.

Ethnic: Boundary Politics

The species of “Boundary Politics” is worthy of special attention: it is historical work that is less concerned about the past and more with the present. One example of this would be Thieleman J. van Braght’s guiding ethos when he considered whom to include in the Martyrs’ Mirror,  in counting only the “Defenseless Christians” as part of the true Brotherhood. Another can be found in the work of H. S. Bender—who through historical work attempted to recreate an Anabaptist vision.2 Bender systematically expunged violent Anabaptists from the mythic past: “this principle of nonresistance, or biblical pacifism, which was thoroughly believed and resolutely practiced by all the original Anabaptist Brethren and their descendants throughout Europe from the beginning until the last century.”3 The story of staunch pacifism had such sway for Bender that he ignored the likes of Thomas Müntzer, the Anabaptist Kingdom of Munster, or the Anabaptist Riot of 1535. Both Braght and Bender used history as their medium to work theologically“Bender was able to build the new vision because his initial position at Goshen College was in history rather than biblical studies. 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.” 4

The efforts of German Mennonite leaders to shift Mennonite identity by creating historical narratives from 1772 to 1950 is an example of “Boundary Politics.”  Mark Jantzen in Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772–1880, traces how Mennonites reworked their identity to move from closed sectarians to fully German.5 Ben Goossen, in his Mennonite Quarterly Review article, “From Aryanism to Anabaptism: Nazi Race Science and the Language of Mennonite Ethnicity,” looks at how that same identity-shifting work was brought to fullness under the Third Reich and then quickly redone to rebirth Anabaptists as a distinct Ethnicity for preferential treatment post World War II.6 Examples of “Boundary Politics” can be very problematic: they wear the clothing of history, but have another purpose. When encountering work that falls under “Ethnic: Boundary Politics,” it is especially necessary to understand what the type of work one is reading so that what is not being said can be considered, as well as that which is.7

Ethnic: Genealogical/Family

One popular form of folk-history among many Anabaptists is that of genealogy and family history. I call it a folk-history because it is not a field of study popular in the academy. Perhaps this is so because of the past efforts by eugenicists to develop it as a scientific field. Or it could be that while genealogists are busy collecting and archiving pieces of the past, they do not, strictly speaking, work historically; they are not using what they have collected to tell a story beyond personal and family identity. But for many Anabaptists, this is their primary way of thinking about history: Where and Who Did I Come From? Working at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, it is clear that most people who come through our doors are looking for answers about where they came from, and the tools they use or desire to answer that question are genealogical.

The Ecclesiastical Genus of Anabaptist History

The Ecclesiological Genus of Anabaptist History is concerned with the study of Anabaptist church history. That is, it is the story of how Anabaptists have been church.

As is the case with “Ethnic: Peoplehood Studies,” each sect and sub-organization therein has its own species and subspecies. For Lancaster Mennonite Conference, John Ruth’s tome, The Earth is The Lord’s: A Narrative History of Lancaster Conference is the defining work; Ruth’s Maintaining Right Fellowship would hold the same position for Franconia Mennonite Conference. For the Meserete Kristos church of Ethiopia, Alemu Checole’s work in Anabaptist Songs in African Hearts is another fine example.

The Epistemological Genus of Anabaptist History

This Epistemological Genus of Anabaptist History is concerned with how people considering themselves Anabaptist have known; it is Anabaptist historiography. When Julia Kasdorf traces how and looks towards why the Martyrs’ Mirror “has collapsed into only one story and one iconic image for many readers” (that of Dirk Willems), she is working in the Epistemological Genus of Anabaptist History.8 This area is receiving the most attention in emerging scholarship, not just from the historical arena but in literary studies. I will not try to give a synopsis of current state of the field here.

Conclusion

Here I have attempted to start a taxonomy of Anabaptist Histories, identifying in broad strokes the subsets of our discipline. However, unlike Linnaeus and his heirs, most of the specimens we see in the wild are chimeras, and so I have sought to describe various phenotypic packages rather than prescribe what this scholastic menagerie should look like. Surely there are species out there that I have not seen yet, in other parts of the world, in other languages, or in other fields. These classifications I have laid out are not fixed, nor are they meant to demean or devalue, but simply to help the hunters of Anabaptist History to properly place and understand that which they read.


  1. Dallas E. Wiebe, The Sayings of Abraham Nofziger: A Guide For the Perplexed (2004), 65. 
  2. Leonard Gross, “Bender, Harold Stauffer (1897-1962),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online,1990. <http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Bender,Harold_Stauffer(1897-1962); (Accessed August 29, 2016). 
  3. Harold S. Bender, The Anabaptist Vision, (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1944), 32. 
  4. Fred Kniss, Disquiet in the Land, (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 65. 
  5. Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-188, (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010). 
  6. Ben Goossen, “From Aryanism to Anabaptism: Nazi Race Science and the Language of Mennonite Ethnicity,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 40 no. 2 (April 2016). 
  7. I might be inclined to argue that the role of the historian in the church is to promote an unbounded boundary politics. “I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain.” 
  8. Julia Spicher Kasdorf, “Mightier than the Sword: Martyrs Mirror in the New World,” The Conrad Grebel Review 31, no. 1 (Winter 2013), https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/publications/conrad-grebel-review/issues/winter-2013/mightier-sword-martyrs-mirror-new-world (Accessed August 29, 2016).