Power, History, and the Future Church Summit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Does the Future Church Have a History?

Felipe Hinojosa

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Introductory Taxonomy of Anabaptist Histories

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

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

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

148. I’m the only Mennonite I know.

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

The Ethnic Genus of Anabaptist History

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

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

Ethnic: Peoplehood Studies

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

Ethnic: Boundary Politics

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

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

Ethnic: Genealogical/Family

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

The Ecclesiastical Genus of Anabaptist History

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

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

The Epistemological Genus of Anabaptist History

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


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

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