Encountering Race, Creating Place, and Opening Space in the Hardings’ Mennonite House

In the early summer of 2020, I began drafting this essay about the Atlanta Mennonite House in the early 1960s as a vignette of the Civil Rights Movement and the Mennonite community. Created by black Mennonite leaders Vincent and Rosemarie Harding in 1961, the Mennonite House was both the organizational center of a voluntary service unit and an influential place in the geography of the Civil Rights Movement. However, the brutal murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, the spectacular resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the outburst of violence against people of color have thrust the needs and demands for racial justice to the forefront of the American social conscience once again. In such a contemporary situation, this short article has taken on increased pertinence and purpose. Although this study remains focused on the past, it is also an opportunity to reflect and learn about our present situation. Perhaps, in this time of turmoil, with the potential for significant change on the horizon, American Mennonites and others can find contemporary guidance in the early history of the Mennonite House. Significantly, this vignette of the Civil Rights Movement and the Mennonites highlights the importance of creating place and opening space for the cause of racial justice. As was the case in 1961, this process often requires institutional support, buy-in, and the funding of ideas to make a meaningful impact. To begin such a study of the Mennonite House, we must first understand the people who created such an significant place—Vincent and Rosemarie Harding.

Vincent Harding joined the General Conference Mennonite Church in 1957 and was soon appointed as a pastor at Woodlawn Mennonite Church in Chicago. His entrance into the Mennonite fold was rooted in his fascination with sixteenth-century Anabaptists, whom he discovered during his graduate studies at the University of Chicago. He was drawn to the “discipleship, self-sacrificing love, [defiance of] the power of kings and rulers . . . [and] willingness to accept death rather than inflict suffering” demonstrated by early Anabaptists, and he was eager to apply the ethics of “peacemaking, reconciliation, and nonviolence” to the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement.1 While at Woodlawn, Vincent met Rosemarie Freeney, a public school teacher in Chicago who had been attending a congregation in the “old” Mennonite Church, another Mennonite denomination, since 1951. They were married in 1960 and created the Mennonite House in Atlanta that next summer.2

Together and as individuals, the Hardings were “involved in trying to encourage that traditional peace church community to think more fully and creatively about how it could relate to the Freedom Movement,” and to see the “natural connection” between the Movement and Mennonite theology.3 Indeed, the Hardings’ dual identities positioned them to be effective agents for pushing Mennonites further to seek integration, practice nonviolence, and witness to society. On the one hand, the Hardings’ leadership, faith, and action within the church made them Mennonites among Mennonites. On the other hand, they were black people born outside of the Mennonite fold. This gave them a distinctive vantage point to guide white Mennonites toward their unrealized potential and criticize them for their shortcomings. The Hardings’ unique identity, personal investment in the Civil Rights Movement, and strong advocacy for Mennonite involvement in the Movement were critical in creating the Mennonite House.

Vincent and Rosemarie Harding. Source: The Mennonite, March 20, 1962, 207.

In the late summer of 1961, the Peace Section of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) established a voluntary service (VS) unit at 504 Houston Street, Atlanta, Georgia.4 The Peace Section appointed Vincent and Rosemarie Harding as its first directors, and as the first black directors of any MCC VS unit.5 Such an appointment was natural, as the Hardings had long been agitating for a greater Mennonite presence in the heart of the Freedom Movement. The Atlanta unit, which identified almost exclusively as “the Mennonite House,” was formed to “witness to the Christian way of love and self-sacrifice in all aspects of life.”6 This was part of MCC’s response to the Hardings’ charge for Mennonites “to think more fully and more creatively about how it could relate to the Freedom Movement.”7 This open-ended commission reflected the Peace Section’s recognition of the theological and social space the Hardings had carved out for themselves among socially-reticent white Mennonites. Indeed, the Hardings, with the support of MCC, created the Mennonite House with the explicit purpose of establishing a Mennonite presence in the Freedom Movement and connecting Mennonite volunteers with the work of the Movement. The MCC Peace Section recognized the importance of establishing a physical presence in the South to facilitate meaningful work. By 1961, Mennonites had made progress in the way of race relations, but much of that progress had come in the form of conferences, study groups, and statements. In 1961, much work remained to be done. Boldly, the Peace Section recognized that “Christian obedience may at times lead to violation of government laws and regulations.”8 Such a statement was reflective of Mennonites’ theological and practical departure from their traditional posture of nonresistance during the civil rights era.9

The Hardings’ dual identities helped imbue the Mennonite House’s work with a respectful, just, and Christ-centered spirit of volunteerism, rather than one of ‘white savior’ patronage. “The privilege is really ours to be allowed by God and by our brothers of the South to share in so noble a climb [toward justice],” the Hardings wrote, advertising the Mennonite House. “They urge us to come, not to carry them, not to patronize them, but simply to add our own lives to the brave company of persons who believe that God calls men to a better way than the path of segregation, discrimination, and hatred.”10 The Hardings placed volunteers—often numbering in the thirties during the summer months—with local social work organizations and community centers, the nationally known Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).11

Although the Mennonite volunteers who came to Atlanta did so with a desire to participate in the Freedom Movement, many quickly were forced to face the racism and classism that existed in their own hearts and minds. Living and working in Atlanta often came as a rude awakening for the volunteers, known colloquially as VSers. Many were struck and even staggered by the realities of racial injustice in the city. The Hardings found such attitudes and feelings unsurprising, seeing that many of these volunteers came from rural, white, Mennonite communities in the Midwest and Canada. They worked diligently to enlighten their volunteers. Reflecting on her time with the VSers at the Mennonite House, Rosemarie believed that their VSers did good meaningful work and were transformed for the better while working in Atlanta.12

Under the Hardings’ leadership, the Mennonite House certainly fulfilled its charge from MCC to connect Mennonites to the Freedom Movement. But the Hardings made the Mennonite House something far more than a home and organizational office for Mennonite VSers involved in the Civil Rights Movement. It became, in Vincent Harding’s words, “a kind of Movement center.”13 In the context of the Movement, the Mennonite House was unique in that it was the only place in Atlanta where white and black people lived together in community. “That life together,” Vincent remarked, “was a project in itself.”14 In addition to the Hardings and Mennonite volunteers, dozens, if not hundreds, of neighbors, scholars, theologians, and activists spent time sitting around the Hardings’ dining room table engaging in lively discussion, debate, and reflection. Those who gathered at the Mennonite House included Staughton Lynd, director of the SNCC; Andrew Young, SCLC leader and later prominent politician; Howard Zinn, a young American historian; and Fannie Lou Hamer, a well-known civil rights activist.15 Moreover, activists from the Civil Rights Movement, the Nation of Islam, and the Black Power movement came together under the Mennonite House’s roof. Among the most prominent and frequent guests at the Mennonite House were Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King, who lived just around the corner. Coretta would often visit to spend time with Rosemarie and the volunteers. Rosemarie believed that Coretta found their “little community house relaxing, maybe even a bit of a refuge.”16 Most of those who spent time at the Mennonite House found it to be a place of solace, a place where white and black people alike could share their experiences, process their emotions, and grow together.

The close relationship the Hardings developed with the Kings while in Atlanta became a central feature in the Hardings’ participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Not long after the Hardings’ arrived in Atlanta in 1961, King approached them with an invitation to join the SCLC and “help keep this a Christian movement.”17 Throughout the summer of 1962, Vincent and Rosemarie Harding traveled back and forth between Atlanta and Albany, Georgia, splitting their time between their Mennonite House responsibilities and the Civil Rights Movement. They did similar work with King and the Movement in Birmingham, Alabama, in the summer of 1964.18 Rosemarie recalled that while in Albany, they “quietly encourag[ed] conversation between black organizers and sympathetic whites, counsel[ed] movement participants, help[ed] to write speeches, and participat[ed] in the mass meetings, protests and marches at the Movement’s heart.”19 Through all of this, the Hardings felt called as Mennonites to teach and converse with others about peace and nonviolence—both as a tactic for the Movement and as a personal, faith-centered way of life.20

The Mennonite House, however, did not shelter those living there from the ugly realities of racism. In the early 1960s, those on “the front lines” of the Civil Rights Movement were often emotionally spent, physically exhausted, and at times severely wounded. The Mennonite House quickly became a place of physical and emotional healing. Fannie Lou Hamer originally came to the Mennonite House because she had been “brutally attacked [and] badly bruised” while working in Mississippi.21 Instead of being taken to a hospital, Hamer was brought to the Mennonite House by Andrew Young and others for a few days of rest and healing. Moreover, while this project of interracial community-building found wide acceptance among those sympathetic to the Freedom Movement in Atlanta, it was still a place that challenged a racist status quo. One VSer recalled that police cars would often slowly drive back and forth in front of the Mennonite House, “trying to check out what was going on” in there.22

The Mennonite House, at 504 Houston Street, Atlanta Georgia. Source: The Mennonite, March 20, 1962, 207.

The Hardings had a distinct vision for what the Mennonite House should be—a center for the Movement which existed in a context far broader than that of the Mennonite community. They understood their work in Atlanta to be groundbreaking on several fronts. First, they were pushing the boundaries of how Anabaptist-Mennonite theology could be understood and practiced. Second, as Rosemarie reflected, the importance of the Mennonite House was that it “was one of the places, perhaps one of the few, where interracial conversations and community was being consciously created in the South. Our work encouraged that impulse in the life of the city of Atlanta and in the life of the Freedom Movement.”23 The Hardings surely fulfilled their commission to “witness to the Christian way of love and self sacrifice in all aspects of life” in ways that few—if any—Mennonites at the time would have.24 During their time with the Mennonites, the Hardings pushed Anabaptist-Mennonite theology and social action outward in the cause of racial justice. In terms of their work at the Mennonite House, this pioneering occurred in the theological and social space the Hardings had carved out for themselves among Mennonites.

Reflecting today upon the early history of the Mennonite House, American Mennonites (and others) can find significance in what the MCC Peace Section did and did not do. The creation of the Mennonite House in Atlanta was a direct result of the early agitation of the Hardings. To a large degree, the Peace Section put their institutional, material, and spiritual support behind the Hardings’ Atlanta project while simultaneously providing the Hardings space to explore and realize new social applications of Anabaptist-Mennonite theology. This space, however, was conditional and more a result of the Hardings’ constant efforts than the benevolence of white Mennonites. For example, the Peace Section demanded that Vincent Harding account for and report on how he spent his time as leader of the Mennonite House.25 Despite such limitations, it was in this place and space that the Hardings created something important not only to the Mennonite community, but also to the Freedom Movement.

In our contemporary situation, guidance can be found in the Peace Section leaders of the early 1960s and—more importantly—in the Hardings. We must listen to and learn from our black brothers and sisters—both within and beyond our own denominational fold; create physical place and share material resources in the cause of racial justice; and, open intellectual, theological, and social spaces so that people of color can work for justice in ways white Mennonites never can. In the early history of the Mennonite House, the creation of place and opening up of space occurred because of the agitation and hard work of the Hardings. Although the institutional and financial support of the MCC Peace Section was necessary for the creation of the Mennonite House, the Hardings were the pioneers, not the white Mennonite leadership. Today, we can and should dare to do better. In these times of turmoil, white American Mennonites must turn inward to interrogate our own prejudices, turn backward to learn from our past, turn upward to understand what our faith calls us to do, and turn outward to learn from and support those fighting for freedom and justice. In Vincent Harding’s call to those seeking to serve in Atlanta comes a powerful commission—one simple in words, challenging in practice, and worthy of striving toward. “Above all, we will seek to understand our brothers [and sisters of color]. We will seek to share their living and dying; we will seek to help them in whatever ways we can. We will walk with them.”26


1. Vincent Harding, “Vincent Harding: A Black Historian,” in Peacemakers: Christian Voices from the New Abolitionist Movement, edited by Jim Wallis (San Fransisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1983), 88; Harding and Harding, “Biography, Democracy, and Spirit,” 689.

2. Vincent and Rosemarie Harding’s association with the Mennonite church ended by the end of 1966. It was a schism primarily caused by Vincent Harding’s growing frustration with the degree to which his faith community would abandon their traditional nonresistance and separatism for the cause of social and political activism. The Hardings’ leadership in and break from the Mennonite community lies outside this more specific study of the Mennonite House but is nevertheless important to note. For more on Vincent Harding’s time with the Mennonites, see Tobin Miller Shearer, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010)and Tobin Miller Shearer, “Moving Beyond Charisma in Civil Rights Scholarship: Vincent Harding’s Sojourn with the Mennonites, 1958-1966,Mennonite Quarterly Review (July, 2008), https://www.goshen.edu/mqr/2008/07/april-2008-millershearer/.

3. Rachel E. Harding and Vincent Harding, “Biography, Democracy, and Spirit: An Interview with Vincent Harding,” Callaloo 20, no. 3 (Summer, 1997), 688-689.

4. Tobin Miller Shearer, “A Prophet Pushed Out: Vincent Harding and the Mennonites,” Mennonite Life 69 (2015), https://mla.bethelks.edu/ml-archive/2015/a-prophet-pushed-out-vincent-harding-and-the-menno.php.

5. Rosemarie Freeney Harding with Rachel Elizabeth Harding, Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015),128.

6. Quoted in Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 213.

7. Harding and Harding, “Biography, Democracy, and Spirit,” 688-89.

8. Ibid.

9. For Mennonites, the postwar era was one of acculturation and politicization. See Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties; Leo Driedger and Donald B. Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994). My research has located the Civil Rights Movement as the first challenge to and a significant catalyst of the half-decade long transformation of Mennonite theology and social action. See Alec Loganbill, “A New Responsibility: The Awakening of the Mennonite Social Conscience During the Civil Rights Era, 1950-1965,” Mennonite Life 73 (2019), https://ml.bethelks.edu.

10. Vincent and Rosemarie Harding, “Come to Atlanta,” The Mennonite, March 20, 1962, 205.

11. Harding and Harding, “Biography, Democracy, and Spirit,” 689.

12. Harding, Remnants, 130.

13. Ibid.

14. Harding and Harding, “Biography, Democracy, and Spirit,” 689.

15. Harding, Remnants, 132.

16. Ibid.,133.

17. Quoted in Shearer, Daily Demonstrators, 107.

18. Ibid., 142.

19. Harding, Remnants, 156.

20. Ibid., 157.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid., 133.

23. Ibid., 135-136

24. Quoted in Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties, 213.

25. Shearer, Daily Demonstrators, 121.

26. Harding, “Come to Atlanta,” 205.

Celebrating “MCC at 100” from the perspective of Quebec

Mennonite Central Committee is poised to celebrate its centennial.1 The planning committee of an upcoming conference, scheduled for October 23-24, 2020 at Manitoba’s University of Winnipeg, is designed to celebrate “MCC at 100.” Former and current MCC workers, students, and all those with a heart for MCC and the service and humanitarian work for which it has become known over the century, are urged to submit proposals. MCC at 100: Call for Proposals | Intersections I serve on the conference planning committee as a voice from Quebec, but my ruminations here emerge largely from my thoughts as I prepare my own proposal.

MCC Summer service workers Nathan Bonneville, Armella Mpinga, Elizabeth Lougheed and Victoria Pelletier, taken by Mattieu Lambert, MCC Quebec

My thoughts go back to the beginning of the nearly seventy-five year history of Mennonites in Quebec. MCC’s presence comes fifteen years after two young ‘Old Mennonite’ couples, Tilman and Janet Martin, and Harold and Pauline Reesor, responded to their respective sense of call, establishing a Mennonite mission north of Montreal in 1956. Four years later, the Mennonite Brethren turned their attention to Quebec when civil strife in the Congo closed down their mission in that country; by 1961 Ernest Dyck had established a congregation in St. Jerome.2

It was a decade later, with the radical Front de libération du Québec’s kidnapping of two government leaders that MCC Canada, like Canadians across the country, turned its attention to the discontent that the “October Crisis” signalled.3 Quickly discerning that the issues were too complicated to have a direct role in promoting reconciliation in Quebec, MCC established a voluntary service program. By 1973 MCC programming was run mostly through the House of Friendship, or La Maison de l’Amitié, established by MCC Canada and the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and Quebec.4

MCC, by the very nature of the organization, is known for the possibilities that it has provided throughout its history for Mennonite and Brethren in Christ women to take on positions of leadership.5 My history of MCC Ontario, and Esther Epp’s Tiessen’s telling and analysis of the story of MCC Canada’s first 50 years, abundantly illustrate this.6 The photo that appears on the back cover of Mennonite Central Committee in Canada, and at the beginning of this post, taken at the 2009 Montreal peace festival, suggests the opportunities for young women. This, and the four other references in the book to MCC’s presence in Quebec, tantalize those readers who may wish to learn more about the voluntary service programs that began in the province in 1973.7

Annie Brosseau, co-director of Quebec’s MCC office from 1996-2008, speaking, MAID CA CMBS NP149-1-909.

Women’s leadership, as it was formed through their involvement in MCC, was evident in the Mennonite church congregation Mennonite Fellowship of Montreal, from 1980 with the hiring of Robert and Deborah Martin Koop as pastoral couple.8 My recent research on le Comité des femmes inter-églises, the inter-congregational women’s committee established among the Mennonite Brethren two years earlier, although not directly connected with MCC, revealed the strong female leadership in this Mennonite Brethren para-church organization, from its establishment in 1978 until its demise in 1998.9 A question that I have been left with is this: Did the women who sustained the organization for those two decades ultimately benefit MCC’s Quebec ministry?

The placement of two Mennonite Brethren couples in succession as directors of the Quebec office – Jean-Victor and Annie Brosseau (1996-2008) and Muriel and Claude Queval (2008-2017) – with both women having been previously involved in the MB women’s committee, would suggest the affirmative.10 A close look at these women and MCC’s Quebec programming during these years, along with Debbie Martin Koop’s management of the office in the previous decade, provides the opportunity to fill in the gaps in previous studies which have overlooked Quebec.11 For example, the void in Douglas Heidebrecht’s newly published and excellent analysis of Mennonite Brethren women and their journey to leadership ministry, when it comes both to MCC, and to Quebec, is suggestive. Indeed, it makes inquiry into women’s strong presence in MCC leadership in Quebec all the more intriguing.12 My goal will be to explore significant questions around Women in Ministry Leadership as it unfolded in Quebec’s MCC office from its founding in the mid-seventies, through the demise of Le Comité des femmes inter-églises. It is these and other significant questions that will be subject to enquiry at the MCC at 100 conference and I hope that you will consider submitting your own proposal proposal to what promises to be a wonderful time of celebration.ion. MCC’s centennial milestone.


  1. Photo credits: MCC Summer service workers Nathan Bonneville, Armella Mpinga, Elizabeth Lougheed and Victoria Pelletier, taken by Mattieu Lambert, MCC Quebec; Annie Brosseau, co-director of Quebec’s MCC office from 1996-2008, speaking, MAID CA CMBS NP149-1-909.
  2. Richard Lougheed tells these stories in Menno au Quebec: A History of French Mission by Four Anabaptist Groups, forthcoming from Pandora Press.
  3. Epp Tiessen, Mennonite Central Committee in Canada: A History (Winnipeg, MB, 2013), 102.
  4. For a brief history of the organization see my article, “A Lonely Outpost: The Mennonite Maison de l’Amitie of Montreal, 1973-2006,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 24 (2006), 149-67.
  5. Nancy Heisey has noted this in “Getting the Steps Right,” 100, in Telling our Stories: Personal Accounts of Engagement with Scripture, edited by Ray Gingerich and Earl Zimmerman (Telford, Pa.: Cascadia Publishing House and Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2006).
  6. Marr, the transforming power of a century: Mennonite Central Committee and its Evolution in Ontario (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, and Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2003); Epp Tiessen, Mennonite Central Committee in Canada: A History (Winnipeg, MB, 2013). My review of the latter highlights this facet of Epp Tiessen’s storytelling and historical analysis. Please see Mennonite Historian 40, no. 1 (March 2014, 9-10.
  7. Epp Tiessen, Mennonite Central Committee, 101.
  8. Richard Lougheed, Dory Reimer, Lucille Marr and Dora-Marie Goulet, “Mennonite Fellowship of Montreal: 1978-2003” (unpublished essay, 2003).
  9. Le Comité des femmes inter-églises, 1978-1998: a compass for the women of l’église des frères mennonites du Québec, Journal of Mennonite Studies Vol. 37 (2019), 105-18.
  10. Lougheed, Menno au Quebec.
  11. For instance, Epp Tiessen, Mennonite Central Committee in Canada; Marlene Epp, Mennonite Women in Canada: A History (Winnipeg, MB: University of Manitoba Press, 2008); Gloria Neufeld Redekop, The Work of their Hands: Mennonite Women’s Societies in Canada (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996).
  12. Heidebrecht, Women in Ministry Leadership: The Journey of the Mennonite Brethren, 1954-2010 (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred Publications, 2019).

America’s Pastor and the “Quiet in the Land”: Billy Graham and North American Anabaptists, Part II

Author’s Note: Earlier this year, while reflecting on the death of Billy Graham, I promised a multi-part series examining the long history of North American Anabaptist engagement with American evangelicalism, and especially the towering figure of Graham himself. In my first post, I described the ways in which primarily white Anabaptists in Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches looked favorably upon Graham and his evangelistic empire. In this post, I explore some of the negative reactions to “America’s pastor.” In a final post, I plan to use these reflective comments about Graham’s influence as a jumping off point for thinking about one of my major areas of research interest: the relationship between Anabaptism and evangelical Protestantism in twentieth century America.  

In 1967, the National Association of Evangelicals celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. At a commemorative banquet at the Statler Hilton Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, the evangelist Billy Graham delivered a keynote sermon that featured all the trappings of a classical white evangelical remonstration. He warned against the liberty-imperiling advance of secularism and Communism; he described the urgent need for global revival; he prophesied the imminent return of Christ; and he proposed born-again religion as the solution for America’s moral crisis. The nearly 1,000 banquet attendees greeted Graham’s message with a standing ovation.1

Among those applauding Graham’s oration that night were C. N. Hostetter Jr., and Arthur Climenhaga, two leaders in the mid-century North American Brethren in Christ Church. Both expressed favorable reactions to Graham’s speech and to the anniversary celebration itself in the denominational press and in subsequent reflections.2 And indeed, as part of the celebration, both men posed for a snapshot with the famed evangelist.

Five white men pose for a photograph

In this 1967 photo, two Brethren in Christ leaders—C. N. Hostetter Jr. (second from left) and Arthur Climenhaga (fourth from left)—pose next to the evangelist Billy Graham (fifth from left) at the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of the National Association of Evangelicals. Also pictured are NAE officials Clyde Taylor (first from left) and Herbert Graffam (third from left). (Source: Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives, Messiah College, Mechanicsburg, Pa.)

Though smiling brightly alongside America’s pastor in this photo, neither Hostetter nor Climenhaga had always looked favorably upon Graham and his ministry—as we shall shortly see. Indeed, although many Brethren in Christ and their Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren contemporaries celebrated, emulated, and participated in Graham’s evangelistic empire, still others from these Anabaptist communities reacted negatively to Graham.

Anabaptist critiques of Billy Graham typically fell into one of two categories: ecclesial or theological. Ecclesial critiques tended to frame Graham’s ministry as too emotional, too greedy, or too popular—and therefore, and most importantly, a threat to Mennonite churchliness. In other words, these critics contended that the bright lights and big crowds associated with Graham might draw people and money away from Mennonite congregations.

Examples of this kind of critique abound. Writing in the Gospel Herald in 1953, and responding specifically to reports of revival campaigns carried out under the auspices of the Mennonite-related Christian Layman’s Evangelism Inc. but referring obliquely to Graham’s ministry, the editor Nelson Kauffman opined,

The large crowds of our time give us a false sense of values. The man who can fill a big auditorium is by no means always the man with the most important message. . . . Every big crowd is pervaded by a strong emotional factor.3

A similar report came from a Mennonite layman who attended one of Graham’s crusades in Virginia in the late 1950s. In an article in the Gospel Herald, Moses Slabaugh gave a generally ambivalent assessment of the Graham campaign. He appreciated that the “message was simple and Christ was lifted up as Savior of men,” although he objected to the choir and especially the coiffeur of its female members. (“Cut hair and jewelry were very much in evidence,” he observed.) In his conclusion, he pointed to his real concern about such mass meetings: that they sap human and financial resources away from the local congregation.

My concern is this: Are we equally as zealous at home as we were to go to Richmond? Could you spill a little enthusiasm for your home pastor and the evangelism of the lost as you did for Billy? Would you lose sleep and travel miles for the work of the kingdom at home?4

Slabaugh’s concern that Graham crusades might draw financial resources away from local congregations and into the evangelist’s coffers indicates a wariness among Mennonites about Graham’s personal finances—another sign of his “big-ness.” Such was the topic of the editor G. D. Huebert’s 1962 article in the Mennonite Brethren Herald. In the piece, Huebert assured readers that they should not worry about Graham for financial reasons. Charges that Graham was a “multi-millionaire,” Huebert contended, were false; the evangelist made a “regular salary” of $15,000. Moreover, Huebert guaranteed his readers that Graham’s organization, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, was incorporated as a non-profit and regularly audited. Though positive in its assessment of Graham, Huebert’s article nevertheless takes for granted that at least some of its Mennonite Brethren readers harbor concerns about Graham’s financial extravagance.

A magazine cover. It is an emerald green color and features the words "Mennonite Brethren Herald" in white at the top of the page. In the middle of the page is a white box with text, featuring an image of Billy Graham speaking to an audience while holding an open Bible.

The cover of the February 1962 issue of the Mennonite Brethren Herald. The cover story offered an “evaluation” of Graham, including his personal finances. (Source: Borrowing Bones blog)

Still other Anabaptists objected to Graham not on ecclesial grounds, but on theological ones. Reflecting the influence of Protestant fundamentalism, one Mennonite Brethren writer penned an article in the Mennonite Brethren Herald addressing the question, “Is Billy Graham liberal?” Starting in the late 1950s, fundamentalists had started asking such questions about the evangelist because of his decision to cooperate with mainline Protestants and Catholics in conducting his 1957 New York City crusade. The article’s author, former Mennonite Observer editor Leslie H. Stobbe, concluded in an unambiguous “no.” Far from compromising, Stobbe contended, Graham “was taking every opportunity to assail modernist and neo-orthodox theological weaknesses.” Indeed, according to Stobbe, counselor trainees coming from “non-fundamentalist” churches were being converted themselves during the crusades. And on the rare occasions that Graham appeared to used “neo-orthodox terminology” in his sermons, Stobbe claimed, he actually meant a term used by fundamentalists. For instance, Graham may have said “commitment” but he meant “to be saved.”

Again, Stobbe gave a positive assessment of Graham—but his decision to even address the question of Graham’s alleged liberalism suggests that at least some Mennonite Brethren harbored such critiques of the evangelist.

Certainly other Anabaptists were concerned about Graham’s potential liberalism. The Brethren in Christ missionary and bishop Arthur Climenhaga, for example, who posed smilingly alongside the evangelist in 1967 did not always possess such affinity for Graham. Climenhaga confessed in his memoirs that he initially opposed Graham for “mixing in a bit too much on certain wide theological levels.”5 This phrasing suggests a covert reference to Graham’s 1957 decision to cooperate with mainliners and Catholics. Climenhaga later changed his mind about Graham, particularly after working alongside the evangelist when he came to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in 1960. Climenhaga would later serve as executive director of the National Association of Evangelicals, in which role he worked closely and frequently with Graham.6

Other Mennonites and Brethren in Christ objected on more conventionally Anabaptist theological grounds. They looked askance at the evangelist’s embodiment of American nationalism and his implicit if not-always-explicit support for war and militarism. For instance, as a doctoral student living in Amsterdam in 1954, the future Eastern Mennonite College and University of Amsterdam professor Irvin B. Horst lobbed such a critique at the globe-trotting evangelist. Horst reported on Graham’s services in that city. While he praised Graham’s skills as an evangelist and concluded that evangelists “are direly needed in our sinful world,” Horst nevertheless had criticisms of Graham and his style:

He is certainly not an Amos or a Jeremiah and has very little perception of the social and economic implications of the Gospel. Unlike the early Christians and Anabaptists, [he sees] . . . no tension between his program and the powers of this world. . . . [W]ith the sensation that goes with evangelism we must not unthinkingly consider evangelism the sole work of the church or the note of repentance the complete message of the Gospel.”7

Black and white photo of four men sitting around a table with food on it.

In this photo from the Oct. 21, 1961 issue of the Evangelical Visitor, Billy Graham (third from left) meets with representatives of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches to discuss his views on war and peace

Horst’s critique of Graham on the basis of his conformity to “the world” parallels another Anabaptist critique of Graham: that he was too uncritical about war and military violence. Indeed, this view of Graham among some North American Anabaptists prompted several leaders within Mennonite Central Committee to invite Graham to a sit-down discussion about war, peace, and nonresistance. The discussion, held over breakfast in Philadelphia during Graham’s 1961 crusade in that city, including some of the luminaries of MCC at that time, including Mennonites John C. Wenger and Elmer Neufeld, and Brethren in Christ C. N. Hostetter Jr.

According to the scant records available about the gathering, MCC leaders apparently hoped to convince Graham of the gospel message of peace. In turn, Graham—then at the apex of his national popularity—would proclaim that message far beyond the bounds of American Anabaptism. Reports suggested that Graham politely listened to leaders’ presentations and then declared himself in agreement with “about 99%” of what they had said. He then “commented briefly on the problems involved in taking the nonresistant position, but noted the uncertainty and confusion among Christians regarding the proper attitude toward participation in war. He stated his personal openness and interested in meeting for more extended discussion on the doctrine of nonresistance.” (To learn more about this meeting, check out my previous post on the topic.)

A few observations about these critiques of Graham. First, they appear to cut across the various factions within mid-twentieth century white North American Anabaptism. Both “acculturated” and more conservative Anabaptists had difficulties with Graham’s message and style. More conservative Anabaptists tended to critique his “big-ness,” by which I mean his conformity to certain expectations of middle-class, white Protestant culture. More acculturated Mennonites and Brethren in Christ worried about the extent to which he had been infected by liberal theology and by his patriotic nationalism. Importantly, more acculturated Anabaptists also saw Graham as a potential ally; the MCC leaders who met with him in 1961 wanted to convert him to nonresistance and then use his platform to spread this theological message. (They also noted that they also sought from Graham “a word which might encourage and stimulate our churches to become more evangelistic.”)

Second, these criticisms tell us much about the ideological diversity of mid-century Anabaptists (especially white Anabaptists). Clearly some Mennonites and Brethren in Christ were moving in circles in which the specter of “liberal theology” still functioned as a cultural boogeyman. Others were engaged in transnational exchanges in which they worried about the importation of white, middle-class North American values into global marketplaces. Still others were institution builders who saw media coverage and Graham’s celebrity as something upon which they could capitalize as they advanced, say, the humanitarian work and the peace education programs of MCC.

Such diverse impulses should remind us that there was no singular “Mennonite” or “Anabaptist response” to Graham or to the post-World War II evangelical Protestantism that he represented—an observation that has not characterized much of the historiography on Anabaptist-evangelical relations since the 1970s. (I’ll say more about this historiography in my next post.) It should also remind us about who is missing from our portraits of Anabaptist encounters with Billy Graham—that is, it should call to mind the forms of Anabaptist diversity glossed over by the historians and archivists whose work has visibly and invisibly shaped our scholarship and public memory.

So, why does any of this analysis matter? Short of remembering Graham in the wake of his recent death, why should we care about Anabaptist responses to and encounters with the evangelist and his ministry? In the third post in this short series, I want to use these reflective comments about Graham’s influence as a jumping off point for thinking about one of my major areas of research interest: the relationship between Anabaptism and evangelical Protestantism in twentieth-century America. Stay tuned!

NOTES:


  1. On the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration and Graham’s speech, see “Certainty in a World of Change,” United Evangelical Action, May 1967, 11-14. 
  2. On Hostetter and Climenhaga’s reactions to Graham and the NAE celebration, see John N. Hostetter, “NAE Celebrates Twenty-Five Years,” Evangelical Visitor, April 24, 1967, 2, and Arthur Climenhaga, “Memoirs,” Book II, 370, Arthur M. Climenhaga Papers, Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives (Mechanicsburg, Pa.). 
  3. Nelson E. Kauffman, “Report of the First Annual Meeting of Christman Layman’s Evangelism, Inc.,” Gospel Herald, February 3, 1953, 102-103. 
  4. Moses Slabaugh, “We Went to Hear Billy Graham,” Gospel Herald, October 23, 1956, 1012. 
  5. Climenhaga, “Memoirs,” Book II, 262, Arthur M. Climenhaga Papers, Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives. 
  6. For more on Climenhaga, see Harvey R. Sider, Casting a Long Shadow: A Biography of Arthur Merlin Climenhaga (Grantham, Pa.: Brethren in Christ Historical Society, 2004). 
  7. Irvin B. Horst, “Graham and Boniface,” Gospel Herald, August 3, 1954, 729. 

La Rouviere Children’s Home, Marseilles, France, ca. 1941

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#2-La Rouviere Children's Home, ca 1941

(MCC Photo/Virgil Vogt)

During and after World War II, Mennonite Central Committee operated or supported numerous homes for orphaned children throughout Europe. Here MCC worker Edna Ramseyer, in front, holds the youngest member of the La Rouviere Children’s Home near Marseilles, France. Names of others pictured are unavailable.

Frank Peachey, Mennonite Central Committee Archives

Chortitza region, Russia, October 1922

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#1-Chortitza, Fordson Tractors, Oct 1922

By mid-1922, many of the horses and other draft animals in South Russia had died due to the war and starvation. On June 26, Mennonite Central Committee purchased 25 Fordson tractors and Oliver gang plows, plus necessary spare parts, which left New York on July 24, arriving in Odessa in late August. These first tractor-plow units went to Chortitza and Molotschna. The total cost of the delivered shipment was US$13,838.90. A second shipment of tractors and plows left New York on December 23.

Frank Peachey, Mennonite Central Committee Archives