Menno’s descendants in Quebec: The Mission Activity of Four Anabaptist Groups, 1956-2021: a conversation with author Richard Lougheed

Richard, first I’d like to congratulate you! The publication of Menno’s Descendants in Quebec has been a long time in the making!

Could you speak a bit about your background? You grew up in Quebec, in the home of a United Church of Canada minister and have worked as an ordained United Church minister, pastoring a joint Anglican and United Church parish in Northern Quebec. You have also trained at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and have been a member of both Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (Mennonite Church Canada) and are now with the Mennonite Brethren. In all of this you have told me that you are more comfortable worshiping on the French side. And your scholarly work has been primarily on French Protestants in Quebec. Can you talk about how your background brought you to the book?

It sounds a bit like I was a grasshopper, jumping all over the place. That works out well for church history, but not so much for a stable church member. I’ve always been interested in Quebec. I’ve lived here for most of my life, now. I met Robert Witmer, a Mennonite missionary formerly to France, when he came to Rouyn-Noranda, where I was serving as pastor in a joint ministry of the United Church of Canada and the Anglican Diocese of northern Quebec. He started a French Mennonite church in our building. We often spoke and when I asked him what he would do in various situations, I liked what he said. I left and went to Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries to see if I could fit into the Mennonites, and I was attracted at AMBS to Anabaptist values and mission. When we returned to Canada, my wife Margaret and I, with our four young children, settled in Montreal and attended a Mennonite Church Eastern Canada congregation, the Mennonite Fellowship of Montreal. I served as chair of Mennonites in Quebec for quite awhile. Eventually, I joined a Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren joint affiliation congregation, a church plant, then eventually came to the Mennonite Brethren.

Why the French side? My conversion to the Christian faith – although I was a preacher’s kid, I didn’t have faith. So evangelism has always been quite important to me, I was attending Laval University when I came to faith, so my first Bible readings and my first prayers and so on were in French so that has always had a special place for me. When I was looking for a subject for my PhD thesis in church history, French protestants in Quebec captured me as a field that was fascinating and not much work done so that’s how I ended up there.

Early in the process, do you remember me asking why you were focusing on French mission in Quebec rather than writing a more generic history of Mennonites in Quebec? Why did you choose to focus on mission?

I’m a church historian. I started off with a history first of the Mennonites, then of the Mennonite Brethren. I’ve been involved with two church plants, both closed, and I’ve been around all kinds of people doing mission as I taught at an evangelical college. I was aware of a lot of unsuccessful attempts at mission in Quebec, so when I was looking at the history it was mission, and particularly French mission which was very different than the English mission, even in Quebec. The history of Mennonites in Quebec was obvious, but my interest in mission in Quebec came from my own experience, and the need to find some answers for myself. I’m not a missiologist, which I say in the book, but history teaches some things about mission. It doesn’t give the solutions, but I think it teaches some things. Maybe more the problems than the solutions.

And why the four groups – Mennonite Brethren, Swiss Mennonites, Brethren in Christ and Church of God in Christ Mennonites – instead of focusing on just one?

I did an MCC assignment with Summerbridge. Since I was church historian and working at Mennonite Fellowship of Montreal, it was suggested that I work on history, so I worked, first of all, on the history of Mennonites, the beginning of the mission and interviewing people at Mennonite Fellowship of Montreal, the pioneers there. It was a video study, aiming for the fiftieth anniversary of Mennonites in Montreal. The membership lists showed that the majority were French. When I came to teach at L’École de Théologie Évangélique du Québec (L’ETEQ), there was a conference for the 100th anniversary of Mennonite Brethren worldwide. I did something preliminary on Quebec and an article out of that.

Meanwhile La Société d’histoire Mennonite du Québec (SHMQ) hired Zacharie Leclair to do some interviews in anticipation of their 50th anniversary. It was really the two fiftieth anniversaries of Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren that sparked the research. It was the idea of the historical society to do a history of the two, but there were also two others – the Brethren in Christ, whom I knew well, but also one whom I didn’t know, the Church of God in Christ Mennonites. The pastor of that church was agreeable to give information. A group of Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren went to visit, to find out more about it. They were so different than the others. It proved fruitful to compare – each of the four groups stresses aspects of Anabaptist identity without having everything. They have interesting differences that are positive, but each one has drawbacks – on mission and in Anabaptist values in general. They are the only four groups of Mennonites in Quebec – all claim to be Anabaptist.

I’m also curious about your comparison with France. What drew you to include France in the book? How does that comparison bolster your discussion?

That’s a question that one of the reviewers suggested. Why don’t you compare them with the Baptists and the Pentecostals in Quebec instead of with France? That would be interesting in some elements, but fundamentally, partly it was because of Robert Witmer, who was very involved in the community in France. The Mennonites in France also have a link with L’ETEQ. In terms of French, most of our theological and ethical materials in French come from France. So the Anabaptists here are informed by the ones on France. Secondly, I’ve been convinced for a while that in some ways you could say the Church Growth Movement is what I see as the main problem in mission in Quebec. The Baptists and the Pentecostals both go along with the ideas of church growth, whereas Mennonites in France don’t. I became convinced that Quebec is more like Europe than it’s like the rest of North America. The context of post-Christendom is what dominates particularly in western Europe and in Quebec. France has a lot to teach Quebec, in terms of mission.

This led me to organize a colloque on the subject, then secondly this book. I think subtly, but it clearly criticizes church growth replacing it with an Anabaptist mission in an emphasis on discipleship. The Mennonite Brethren just made that step recently. When I started the book, I’d say the Mennonite Brethren were dominated by a Church Growth approach. By the time I finished it, they had turned away from it. What I realized in France was that North American missionaries knew they were going to another culture, they were better trained in French, higher standards were expected than for those coming to Quebec. When It came to Quebec, they were dealing not only with those who weren’t Anabaptist, but were post Christian. In France, they got involved in teaching and they got involved in learning the context and they didn’t expect people to easily accept the Gospel whereas in Quebec it was very different because of the North American background. Church Growth assumes that if you talk about your soul needs saving that people will respond to that. In France, I think they quickly realized that they’re not going to respond to that; they had to go about it differently. I also looked to Stuart Murray in England, as someone who has faced post Christianity longer and hasn’t had the same American Church Growth influences that we have had in Quebec.

Your book has been released in English, but will shortly also be coming out in French. Why dual language? Are the two version identical, or will readers who are able to access both version learn different things?

I wrote it in English, but the historical society here in Quebec wanted it in the two languages. The two versions are reaching different audiences. They’re not identical, but virtually. The text of the English version was finished earlier and had less revision. With the French version I was able to reorganize it at some points, add a few things, particularly pictures including coloured pictures in the French version which are not in the English edition. My favourite’s the French version.

Who do you see as your primary audiences? Who are you hoping will read Menno’s Descendants?

My first thought was that there needed to be something in English for people outside of Quebec. There isn’t much in English. I’m also writing it for mission strategists. I want to try to change the thinking of people who organize mission to Quebec. I want to honour all the people who were involved and their descendants. That’s certainly part of the audience and people who are simply interested in Quebec in general. There are also people who are related to missionaries to Quebec. I’ve talked to some of those people. It can be used by all four groups, maybe less in the Brethren in Christ, because I’m not concentrating so much on them, but it’s important for the history of other three groups. In Quebec, there have been a lot of people who have been involved in all of these churches, but are no longer there. I’d like to give them a place too, maybe even good memories of what they used to be involved in. I do meet people who say I think I have a calling to be a missionary in Quebec. I’d like them to read it before they come to see it’s a little harder than you think. There are things to take into account to be prepared for it. It’s a very different culture.

You’ve chosen a striking title. I’m intrigued with the concept of descendants. It sounds sort of genealogical rather than theological. Can you tell us how you came up with this title? What it means to you?

The title in French is just Menno au Quebec (Menno in Quebec). Menno is only mentioned one time in the text. Anabaptist is what appears often in the text, more than Mennonite, since it incorporates all four groups. But they all look back to Menno – the early Anabaptists – but they each take different aspects of Menno or of the early Anabaptists. In terms of genealogy, it’s our ancestors, in my case and for the people in Quebec, they don’t have any Mennonite ancestors; it’s all theological descent, they don’t’ have parents or grandparents that were Anabaptists, so they look back to Menno. The theological descendants of Menno. Depending which group you’re a part of, you may not see traces of Menno in the other groups, but all look back to him.

You wrote the book while working at L’École de Théologie Évangélique du Québec and with support of MCC and La Société historique mennonite du Québec. How did these institutions support your work?

MCC had a tremendous impact on all of those aspects. I worked on Summerbridge with Mennonites through MCC; SHMQ is financed by MCC; the book through Pandora is financed by MCC. MCC has been very important all the way along. Working at L’ETEQ has given me time – as a librarian I have a lot of time plus great resources on MBs. The Centre d’etude anabaptist de Montreal which sponsors Mennonite books in Quebec was sponsored by MCC in its beginning. Plus I’ve got two historians with PhDs as consultants in the SHMQ. Financially, timewise and consultants along with MCC.

As historians, we believe that history is important, that unless we know where we’ve been, we can’t possibly know where we’re going. How do you anticipate your book supporting and furthering Mennonite mission in Quebec?

I wanted to preserve the history that can get lost – documents and people. It’s important to preserve the memories. None of the churches would have the resources to write their own histories. So it was a way of preserving the various histories. Zacharie Leclair says it will be a compulsory book for new pastors to the Mennonite Brethren, so for pastors, mission strategists, hopefully in the future with more information they’ll be able to avoid some problems. I don’t have solutions, but to identify some of the questions and some of the false steps that have been taken in the past and danger points. Hopefully those will be helpful. Another aspect is most French don’t know anything, or very little, about Anabaptists, so people in the churches are learning about Anabaptism. I also felt it was important to highlight missions that were in the same area as Mennonites and MBs started, one hundred years before. I thought that was important to show that these earlier missions faced some of the same obstacles. They persevered, although most disappeared. That can happen. But the Mennonites and MBs weren’t the first Protestant missionaries in the area. We can learn from the history that the church didn’t start yesterday. I also got into my book some things that others wouldn’t include. I also included a section on immigrant churches.

How can we access the book? The English version? The French version? Will it be available electronically? On kindle?

Regarding the English version, Pandora suggests ordering from Amazon. https://www.pandorapress.com/#/

The French version is being published by La Société d’histoire du protestantisme franco-québécois https://www.patrimoine-religieux.qc.ca/en/publications. It should be available by the middle of March At l’ETEQ (eteq.ca).

Electronic versions are still in conversation.

**Finally, a note of explanation regarding the photos. The first photo is the book’s cover; The second depicts Lucille Marr interviewing Richard Lougheed; third is a group of Quebec youth taken in the sixties; fourth is the first Mennonite baptismal candidates. The latter two photos appear in black and white in the English version of the book and in colour in the French version.

Histories of the Postsecular: An Interview with Maxwell Kennel

This interview is about Maxwell Kennel’s new book Postsecular History: Political Theology and the Politics of Time, published by Palgrave Macmillan in November 2021. In the exchanges below, coordinating editor of Anabaptist Historians Joel Nofziger asks how the book stands in relation to Anabaptist history and political theology, and questions how the book relates to the history of memory and the construction of national identity.

Postsecular History advances a critique of certain ways of dividing up time and history. Drawing from the field of political theology, it questions how theological and political ideas combine to form powerful legitimation strategies; and drawing from thinkers who approach the politics of time, it is concerned with how temporal and historical terms are periodized – especially how historical categories of ancient, medieval, and modern, and temporal categories of past, present, and future, are used in value-laden ways.

Joel Horst Nofziger: How did you become concerned with the ways that theopolitical thought creates temporality and historical periods?

Maxwell Kennel: I think that whether we are talking about reading and writing or teaching and research, scholarly activity is always influenced by biography, circumstance, and experience. The construction of historical periods and the configuration of time became important issues for me during my graduate studies, which is a time when the unstructured temporality of ‘study’ tends to replace more common ways of living in time (like the 9:00-5:00 schedule of the work-week).

As I managed my time and mediated between my academic work, family life, and other labor, I noticed that the terms and images I was receiving and using were simultaneously theological and political. One place where this realization came through most clearly was in the factory I worked in during the year between my masters and doctoral degrees. I wrote a personal essay on these experiences called “Factory Time,” which has recently been published in Hamilton Arts & Letters, and I think that it is a good introduction to the underlying concerns and problems that prompted my more abstract inquiries in Postsecular History.

JHN: Postsecular History is a theopolitical text. How do you understand political theology as a field?

MK: I think that, at its best, political theology should be a paradigm or lens through which to understand how concepts that appear to be secular often have very religious histories and structures.

For me, the field of political theology is far more diverse than one might gather from the anthologies that have been published in the past few years by Blackwell and T&T Clark. The term ‘political theology’ need not solely refer to the theological use of political analysis, and there are many scholars who work in political theology without doing so for the benefit of a particular religious tradition. By contrast with approaches that prioritize theology, I feel drawn toward the more pluralistic way of thinking about political theology that I see in the Political Theology Network, which presents its work as a rigorous form of interdisciplinary inquiry that is critical of power and oriented toward justice.

That said, political theology struggles to reckon with the traumatic memory and reception of its founding figures; the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt being the most salient example. Schmitt’s insight was that many modern state concepts are really secularized theological concepts, and the field of political theology has used this narrative of partial secularization to analyze a variety of social and cultural phenomena. But I worry about how enmity, competition, and violent forms of conceptual displacement remain within the discourse on political theology. In Postsecular History I critique the ways that political theology can be taken in by the desire for religion (especially Christianity) to remain in a relationship of competition or enmity with secularity, such that the identification of religious structures within secular concepts would represent another victory for religion over some caricatured image of secularism. In my dissertation I critique an exemplary expression of this pattern in John Milbank’s work, which first constructs an enemy called ‘secularism’ and then uses insights from political theology to position Christianity as the solution to the crises we experience in the ‘postsecular’ world. Instead of being beholden to this competitive displacement of secularity by Christianity, I think political theology is well equipped to think beyond dualistic oppositions between secular and religious ways of thinking, and instead theorize the complex mediations and entanglements between competing normative orders that structure our world.

JHN: In the acknowledgments section that opens the book, you note that you have been influenced by Travis Kroeker’s political theology, building on and from his approach which is “neither Catholic nor Protestant, neither Mennonite nor secularist, neither orthodox nor heterodox.” What does the pursuit of this kind of political theology look like to you?

MK: For a variety of reasons, I am fortunate that Travis Kroeker supervised my dissertation and guided me into political theology. Throughout my time at McMaster University between 2016 and 2021 my entire way of thinking was changed by both his seminars and published works. What I appreciate most about Travis’s work is his critique of possessive desire, and my appreciation for this way of thinking comes through most clearly in Postsecular History when I argue that the prefix ‘post’ cannot adequately fix upon the secular in a way that would allow us to move beyond it.

Travis’s work in Messianic Political Theology and Diaspora Ethics and his booklet Empire Erotics and Messianic Economies of Desire seems to be based on the idea that the desire to possess, control, and dominate things is a key theological problem, and I think it is just as much a problem for political theology as it is for religious studies. But where Travis tends to use Augustinian formulations to name this problem (the libido dominandi of the earthly city), I prefer Hartmut Rosa’s argument for the “uncontrollability [unverfügbarkeit] of the world.” However one puts it, the fact remains that it is not only a matter of ethics whether we are possessive and controlling in our scholarship. It is also a descriptive fact that such forms of possession do not work. One does not need theology or theory to know that the tighter and more anxiously we try to grasp things, the more we lose perspective.

Travis’s approach to political theology evades categorization and makes his work difficult to place in the discourse, but to me that is its benefit. His work inspires me to ask: must we be confined to the distinction between secular and theological approaches to political theology, where theologians confidently assert that we are ‘post-secular’ and secular scholars claim to have a better grasp on their object of study than those who believe in the doctrines they study? This is too simple. For me, political theology stands in a far more unique and generative relation with descriptive and normative approaches to the study of religion because it allows scholars to mediate between proximity and distance from what they study without either the fantasy of value-neutrality or the forcible imposition of normative categories.

Despite its flaws, I see the Anabaptist Mennonite tradition as one that can assist in this kind of critique of possessive desire in ways that have interdisciplinary consequences. Is it possible that a methodology based on the critique of violence could inform the works of scholars across the social sciences and humanities? I think so, and I explore this connection further in the introduction to a special issue of Political Theology that I edited earlier this year.

JHN: In what ways have your choice of topic and methodological approach been shaped by Anabaptist thought?

MK: Very deeply. My Mennonite background and Anabaptist sensibilities motivate my fundamental concern for how violence and other forms of force and coercion inhere in our ways of thinking, speaking, and knowing. This led me to write my dissertation on ontologies of violence in the works of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, Mennonite political theologians, and feminist philosopher of religion Grace M. Jantzen. As I revise my dissertation for publication, I have been reflecting on its relationship with Postsecular History, and I think that underneath the topics and sources of both works is a fundamental concern for the place of peace and justice in a world where the distinction between secularity and religion is inadequate.

In Postsecular History I critique ways of thinking about the category of the postsecular that privilege certain problematic configurations of time and history. I want to reject approaches to the ‘postsecular’ that use the prefix ‘post’ to indicate possession, novelty, freedom, and instrumentality. Rather than possessing the secular so as to move beyond it, and rather than proclaiming a new time after the demise of the secular, and rather than thinking that we can free ourselves from secular or religious histories, and rather than using the prefix ‘post’ as a conceptual instrument to mold the secular into a rejectable image, I argue for less violent ways of thinking about the postsecular that account for the complex mediations and entanglements that the term tends to point toward.

My current postdoctoral project “Critique of Conspiracism” is also underpinned by the same underlying values and questions, specifically concerning how conspiratorial thinking periodizes time and history in theopolitical ways, and how such ways of thinking can lead to violence. It seems to me that conspiracy theories are connected with religions in ways that entangle secularity and religion, and this is nowhere more evident than in the rise of QAnon and its connections with American evangelicalism. Postsecular ways of mediating between religion and secularity are at the heart of conspiratorial thinking, especially if we follow Michael Barkun’s suggestion that conspiracy theories are based on the idea that: “nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected.” My current work focuses on how this formulation serves as a theopolitical way of narrating the relationship between origins and ends, and does so in ways that allow for the justification of violence – for example, the events of January 6th 2021 in the American capitol. I think that the term ‘postsecular’ can helpfully name the confluence of religious and secular ways of thinking within conspiratorial thinking, and my next step in the project is to consider how conspiracy itself might be a secularized theological concept.

JHN: For the purposes of your argument, you settle on a definition of “postsecular” as “the confluence of Christianity, religion, and secularity with critiques of these terms that resist both religious and secular assertions of dominance.” What led you to this understanding?

MK: I conceive of the postsecular as a category that names the confluence of religious, secular, and Christian ways of thinking, but is also inseparable from the normative confrontations and contradictions that arise between these ways of thinking. My argument in Postsecular History is that we are better able to understand how religions and secularities become entangled and mutually critical of each other if we think about the postsecular without inscribing triumphalism into its prefix.

For example, I attempt to think about postsecular entanglements without Christian anxieties that motivate a return to foundations or a desire to assure final ends. Both the image of a return and the invocation of an end are simultaneously theological and political (‘theopolitical’). Messianic returns and teleological ends are theological concepts that also serve as politically usable means of persuasion. By pointing backward and forward in time simultaneously, a ‘return’ knits together tradition and novelty. So too with origins and ends, which are often mediated in persuasive ways by those who call for returns to a golden age or progress toward utopian or apocalyptic futures. All told, I see most ways of periodizing time (past, present, future) and history (ancient, medieval, modern, postmodern) as powerful persuasive techniques that ascribe value to certain terms and not others. Time and history are not given; they are made. What matters is how we engage in that act of making.

JHN: You discuss how “periodization serves as one kind of theopolitical justification narrative that is used within the logic of neoliberalism” and you suggest that “authoritative periodizations assist the neoliberal project in justifying and ordering the world.” The idea that neoliberal periodizations reorder our relationships with the past, present, and future reminds me of two texts on memory.

I am reminded first of Benedict Anderson’s argument in Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983) that “awareness of being embedded in secular, serial time, with all its implications of continuity, yet ‘forgetting’ the experience of this continuity …engenders the need for a narrative of identity” (265). How does the theopolitical control of defined historical periods interface with nation-building projects of communal memory? I also remember reading Jonathan Tran’s The Vietnam War and Theologies of Memory (London: Blackwell, 2010); especially Tran’s discussion of the possibility of a Eucharistic time where the Lord’s Supper becomes the reordering power rather than authoritarianism.

MK: Yes, I do see the connections that you are pointing towards between the construction of memory, community identity, and national identity.

It makes sense to me that, by his own admission, Benedict Anderson was influenced by Walter Benjamin and Erich Auerbach. When I look at Imagined Communities, I see substantial connections between the imaginative construction of nationhood and the theopolitical periodization of time and history that I write about in Postsecular History. For Anderson, the nation is an “imagined political community” that is “both inherently limited and sovereign” (6), and this limitation is found in the borders that demarcate the nation and prevent others from gaining access to its spatial body. Anderson argues that even “the most messianic nationalists do not dream of a day when all the members of the human race will join their nation,” by contrast with a Christian vision of universal membership (7). He also argues that the nation is imagined as sovereign because it arose during a time when “Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm” (7).

To me this shows how the nation – as a figure and bearer of identity – was born of legitimation crises where religious and secular ways of thinking confronted each other, and its hold on sovereignty is at least partly owed to how nation-building projects use theological and religious modes of persuasion to retain power. In answer to your question, I see theopolitical forms of periodization as usable strategies that nationalists tend to employ in order to keep the image of the nation stable. Although the former is extremely violent compared to the latter, both Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” use periodizing terms to build national identity. The words ‘back’ and ‘again’ serve to periodize time and history by reaching back into the past and bringing values into the present for the sake of a future. The figural mediations between these terms are powerful because religious visions of history endure in partly secularized forms of nationalism. In the final pages of Imagined Communities, Anderson is critical of narratives that forget the past and create identities out of this amnesia. For him, what cannot be remembered (bodily) “must be narrated,” and this narration occurs in “secular, serial time” that structures both individual life stories and the stories nations tell about themselves (204-205).

I am not as familiar with Jonathan Tran’s work, but when I look at The Vietnam War and Theologies of Memory, I feel a great affinity with its diagnoses of the temporal problems of modernity (as in the section on “The Detemporalization of Time”), but I am not very sympathetic with how Tran positions the Christian Eucharist as a solution to such temporal problems. Again, I appreciate Tran’s diagnosis of the problem of forgetting in his book’s seventh chapter, but I do not think that the Eucharist is the best way of performing the important bodily rituals of remembrance that, for example, one would require in order to heal from trauma. Isn’t the communion table also a site of exclusion where identity is formed by often-violent boundaries between the baptized and unbaptized? Tran’s concept of Eucharistic memory seems somewhat idealized and disconnected from the deep power problems that lie within community identity formation. When thinking about how to remember and work through traumatic events I think that something like the Internal Family Systems model has more potential for promoting healing in our ‘postsecular’ and ‘postreligious’ world.

JHN: One of the challenges you grapple with early on in Postsecular History is that the “postsecular” does not have a readily accepted definition, and in its construction of both the “post” and the “secular” the term promotes problematic forms of periodization. This might be most clearly addressed in your discussion of the Dutch Collegiants in Chapter 3 where you note that “despite its proclamations of novelty and succession – the term ‘postsecular’ cannot make good on the claim of its prefix by placing itself beyond the secular, nor can it successfully exceed or free itself from either its secular or religious history.” Why is it that “postsecular” continues to be a powerful idea despite this problematic assertion?

MK: I think that the main problem with the category of the postsecular, as it is applied to a whole range of ideas and experiences, is that it implies that we can get past the past. The very notion that secular ways of thinking can be placed in the past using the prefix ‘post’ is contrary to what historians do all the time. My argument, in part, is that the postsecular is situated within a history that it attempts to overcome, but cannot overcome because the past remains in the present. And I fear that this contradiction is not the kind of contradiction that results in dialectical tensions that lead to creativity and life. Instead, the aspiration to overcome the secular leads to forms of forgetting and memory loss that prevent the making of living connections between past, present, and future.

JHN: I think your fourth chapter is perhaps the most fascinating. In it, you give a parallel reading of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick alongside a consideration of fanatical Anabaptism—as understood in relation to the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster. Where did the inspiration come from to make such a juxtaposition?

MK: Well, that’s another interesting accident of history. Initially, the fourth chapter of Postsecular History was supposed to be a revision of my 2019 article in Political TheologyMüntzer, Taubes, and the Anabaptists” where I trace Anabaptist connections within Jacob Taubes’ Occidental Eschatology. But due to copyright problems I was forced to remove it at the last minute. However, in the early months of 2020, before the pandemic began in force, I was also auditing two graduate seminars. The first was Travis Kroeker’s seminar on Augustine’s City of God and Melville’s Moby Dick, and the second was Mike Driedger’s seminar on fanaticism at Brock University. The material I wrote while sitting in on these seminars was influenced by my work on the Postsecular History manuscript, and I began asking questions about how fanaticism figures in Melville’s novel and relates to how literary works periodize their narrative unfolding. Luckily, when I had to remove the middle chapter of the book, I had material from both sets of my seminar notes that fit together and meshed with the book’s argument, while also serving as a letter of gratitude to my teachers.

JHN: In conclusion, what would you say the contribution of Postsecular History is for historians and scholars in political theology?

MK: Jakob Burckhardt writes in his Reflections on History that “the philosophy of history is a centaur, a contradiction in terms [contradictio in adjecto] for history co-ordinates, and hence is unphilosophical, while philosophy subordinates, and hence is unhistorical.” Burckhardt argues that the problem with philosophy and history is that both are given to the idea that “our time is the consummation of all time” such that “the past may be regarded as fulfilled in us.” I suppose that my work in Postsecular History is focused on moving away from both coordination and subordination, toward richer and more textured ways of mediating between temporal and historical terms that do not abandon the desire for historical and temporal terms to facilitate movements from promise to fulfilment.

Part of this effort to find better ways of mediating between temporal and historical terms requires that we both understand the limitations of thinking in relation to origins and ends, and that we do not abandon the project of drawing promising and fulfilling connections between origins and ends. That is why I want to close with a quotation that followed me throughout the writing of this book but never fit well within its pages. In his book on Dostoevsky, Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin writes that

nothing conclusive has yet taken place in the world, the ultimate word of the world and about the world has not yet been spoken, the world is open and free, everything is still in the future and will always be in the future.

In the case of postsecular life where religions and secularities intermingle and the past returns ceaselessly in the present, I think it is important to hold things open and resist finality wherever it is found. My attempt to provide an historically attentive approach to the concept of the postsecular is part of this effort, and I hope it will cause its readers to pause and question the periodizing divisions of this age. But this pause should be informed by the topic of the concluding chapter of Postsecular History, which is waiting. I think that one remedial strategy for the temporal crises of our time – both the acceleration of time and the decay of its measures – is to cultivate a form of waiting that is actively engaged in the undoing of violent forms of periodization. For this I turn to the amazing work of German feminist Christian theologian Dorothee Sölle, whose mantra in her essay on waiting is “this is not it.” That’s what I think is the contribution of the book. Simply to say, with Bakhtin that the final word on the world has not been spoken, and with Sölle that the present state of things is not yet as it should be, in so many ways.

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

Martin Lutz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first page of the Familien-Chronik.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

3 Caine. Biography and History, 71.

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

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

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

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

8 Caine, Biography and History, 111.

9 Caine, Biography and History, 67.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 Caine, History and Biography, 114-15.

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

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

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

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

26 Caine, History and Biography, 72.

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

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

29 Sider, Nine Portraits, 159.

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

Making Meaning when the Historical Record is Silent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6Hoffman, “The Davidsons,” 55.

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

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

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

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

11Climenhaga, History, 53.

12Wittlinger, Quest, 19-23.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20Wittlinger, Quest, 23.

21Climenhaga, History, 58.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danang Kristiawan

Introduction

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

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

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

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

Local Churches and their Unrevealed Histories

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

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

Conclusion:

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

Mennonite War Crimes Testimony at Nuremberg

Ben Goossen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Reflections on Selective Immigration and Questions of Belonging

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

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

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

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

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

Why Think with Early Anabaptists?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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