Melchior Hoffman’s Defense of Female Prophets

The relatively wide array of roles open to women in Melchiorite congregations—Anabaptist congregations found in the Netherlands and North Germany in the sixteenth century and founded by the itinerant apostle Melchior Hoffman—has long been recognized by scholars of early modern Anabaptism. As Arnold Snyder noted in Anabaptist History and Theology, “nowhere in the Anabaptist movement did women achieve and maintain as lofty a pastoral and leadership role as in the Strasbourg Melchiorite community.”1  Sigrun Haude, in her 1998 essay “Anabaptist Women—Radical Women” echoed the point and argued that “the greatest freedom enjoyed by women can be found in those Anabaptist groups that emphasized visions, prophecies, and the Spirit.”2 Hoffman did indeed emphasize visions, prophecies, and the Spirit. He believed, firmly, that he lived in the Last Days, a time in which God would pour out his Spirit on all people, men and women alike.3

After his arrival in Strasbourg in 1529, Melchior Hoffman encountered Lienhard and Ursula Jost, a married couple who had both had visionary and prophetic experiences over the course of the 1520s. He set out to disseminate their visions and prophecies through print (the Josts were illiterate, and had thus not been able to publish them themselves). Hoffman first published Ursula’s visions in 1530. This first edition of her visions, published by the Strasbourg printer Balthasar Beck, did not record her name, but instead referred to her simply as a Gottesliebhaberin, a feminine noun meaning “lover of God.”4 For Hoffman, the emergence of contemporary prophets such as Ursula and her husband Lienhard served as validation for his apocalyptic ideas. Hoffman’s ideas about prophecy and the work of the Spirit also shaped his views of how church hierarchies should be structured. In the afterword to the 1530 edition of Ursula’s visions he included a discussion of church offices and the gifts of the Spirit; Ursula, for instance, possessed the gift of prophecy but not the gift of interpretation.5

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The title page to the 1532 edition of Ursula’s visions, published jointly with Lienhard’s prophecies and housed at the Austrian National Library in Vienna

In the 1530 edition of the visions, neither Melchior Hoffman nor Ursula Jost made an issue of Ursula’s gender. They simply took for granted that women could prophesy. In 1532, however, Hoffman offered a more systematic defense of female prophets in a foreword to the second edition of Ursula’s visions. This second edition, printed by Albert Paffraet in Deventer, appeared alongside an edition of Lienhard Jost’s prophecies and its survival at the Austrian National Library in Vienna was unknown to Klaus Deppermann, Hoffman’s most recent biographer.6 In his foreword, Hoffman acknowledged that “some are bewildered and angry that God works and lays out his plans through such a poor and simple little woman.”7 Hoffman contended, however, that this was not remotely novel, and that God had spoken to and through women since the beginning of the world.

To reinforce this point, Hoffman provided a list of women in the Old and New Testament through whom God had spoken or accomplished His purposes in other ways. His list was comprehensive, with a few exceptions—curiously, he omitted Huldah, whom the authors of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles explicitly identified as a prophetess.8 He began his list of biblical prophetesses and female servants of God with the women of Genesis: Eve, Sarah and Hagar (both of whom heard the voice of God), and Rebecca, Isaac’s wife, who became the mother of two people groups.9 Exodus provided the example of Myriam, Aaron’s sister, and Judges the stories of Samson’s mother, Jael (who defeated the general Sisera), and Deborah (who was not only a prophetess, but also a “great teacher of Israel”).10 Hannah, who prayed so fervently for a child that the priest Eli mistook her for a drunk woman, went on to become the mother of a great prophet of Israel in 1 Samuel, and Judith and Esther both rescued the people of Israel in the books that bore their names.11 Finally, Hoffman highlighted the woman with seven sons in 2 Maccabees, whose sons died for the sake of God’s law and who ultimately gave up her own life “in a very manly way.”12

Unsurprisingly, Hoffman began the New Testament portion of his survey of biblical women with Mary the mother of Jesus, and he went on to list two other women from the beginning of Luke: Elizabeth, who recognized Christ while he was still in the womb, and the prophetess Anna, who recognized Him at the Temple.13 Mary Magdalene, he continued, became the first of Christ’s followers to see Him after the Resurrection and was tasked with spreading this good news to the apostles.14 The Samaritan woman met with Jesus and preached about him to her city in the book of John, and the daughters of the deacon Philip in Acts had the gift of prophecy.15 Hoffman ended this cast of characters with a reference to twelve Gentile prophetesses “reported in the histories”—a possible reference to prominent women from the early and medieval church, though the reason for the number twelve is not clear.16

Since the Bible explicitly called certain women prophetesses, the theoretical possibility of female prophets was undisputed among medieval and early modern Christians, even as many other ecclesiastical roles remained closed to women. Hoffman, however, went further than many of his contemporaries; he described the Samaritan woman’s actions as “preaching” (predigen) and used the word “teacher” (lerrerin) to refer to both Judith and Deborah.17 He did not directly acknowledge or attempt to reinterpret the Pauline command from 1 Timothy that women should remain silent in the churches, but instead mined other Pauline letters for support for his position. After all, had not Paul said in Galatians that all—male or female—were one in Christ? And had he not acknowledged in 1 Corinthians that women could prophesy, provided they did so in an orderly fashion? Moreover, Hoffman added, women could also take on the role of teaching, “if there were no enlightened men.”18

Ultimately, for Hoffman, God gave the gift of prophecy to all who hungered for truth and righteousness without regard for age, gender, or social station, as was made clear in Joel 2, which spoke of sons and daughters, old and young, manservants and maidservants as recipients of the Spirit of God.19 The only trait that disqualified a person from prophesying was pride and hardness of heart. Indeed, Hoffman acknowledged that there were many learned women (schriftgelerder weyber), who were better-educated and more prominent than Ursula, to whom God might have revealed Himself instead. However, despite their prestige, these women were unsuitable because they were proud and haughty.20

While Hoffman’s support of women such as Ursula Jost and Barbara Rebstock has long been known, the recently rediscovered foreword to the second edition of Ursula’s visions sheds further light both on the biblical examples Hoffman used to justify his support of women’s active leadership in Melchiorite communities and the boundaries he still placed on this leadership. The range of possibilities Hoffman envisioned for women in the church was wider than that afforded to them by many of his contemporaries. Ultimately, however, women were second to men even in Hoffman’s congregations, since the role of teaching was open to them only when no qualified men were present to fill it.


  1.   C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: Revised Student Edition (Kitchener: Pandora Press, 1997), 321. 
  2. Sigrun Haude, “Anabaptist Women—Radical Women?” in Infinite Boundaries: Order, Disorder, and Reorder in Early Modern German Culture, ed. Max Reinhart (Kirksville: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1998), 318-319. 
  3. Cf Joel 2 
  4. Ursula Jost, Prophetische Gesicht un[d] Offenbarung der götliche[n] würckung zu diser letste[n] zeit (Strasbourg: Balthasar Beck, 1530), passim. 
  5. Melchior Hoffman, afterword to Jost, Prophetische Gesicht, fols. C vii r-v. 
  6. For the English version of Deppermann’s seminal biography, see Klaus Deppermann, Melchior Hoffman: Social Unrest and Apocalyptic Visions in the Age of Reformation, edited by Benjamin Drewery, translated by Malcolm Wren (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1987). The survival of the 1532 edition of the Josts’ prophetic writings was briefly noted in Andrew Pettegree and Malcolm Walsby (Eds), Netherlandish Books: Books Published in the Low Countries and Dutch Books Printed Abroad Before 1601, Volume 1 A-J (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 753 and its contents were the subject of Jonathan Green, ‘The Lost Book of the Strasbourg Prophets: Orality, Literacy, and Enactment in Lienhard Jost’s Visions,’ in: The Sixteenth Century Journal 46:2 (Summer 2015), 313-330. 
  7. Melchior Hoffman, foreword to Ursula Jost, Eyn wore prophettin zu disser letzsten zeitt (Deventer: Albert Paffraet, 1532), fol. F4r. 
  8. For the story of Huldah, see 2 Kings 22:13-20 and 2 Chronicles 34:22-33. 
  9. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4r. 
  10. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4r. 
  11. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fols. F4r-F4v. 
  12. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4v. 
  13. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4v. 
  14. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4v. 
  15. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4v. 
  16. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4v. 
  17. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fols. F4r-F4v. 
  18. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4v. 
  19. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4r. 
  20. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F3v. 

In A Reunion Like This We Can Share

Anita Hooley Yoder

History matters in the church. It matters what kinds of stories are told about our past, and who gets to tell them.

This was obvious at the recent Mennonite Church USA convention in Orlando, where a timeline exercise brought up some past events and issues but left out others. (See Joel Nofziger’s recent post)

As I worked on a book on the history of Mennonite women’s organizations, I found myself especially captivated by stories I had not heard before, and did not fit neatly into a typical understanding of Mennonite women. I was specifically fascinated to learn about the activities of Black and Hispanic Mennonite women, which began in an organized way in the 1970s and, to some extent, continue to today.

These activities are narrated in just one chapter in the book, but I hope the chapter I wrote is just the beginning of more writing and sharing about what happened at these events and the way God continues to work through Mennonite women of all kinds of backgrounds.

Below is an excerpt from Circles of Sisterhood, about the start of the Hispanic Mennonite women’s conferences. To read more, purchase the book! You can order online from Mennonite Women USA or MennoMedia.


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Seferina De León speaking at an Hispanic Mennonite women’s conference in the 1970s

The first Spanish-speaking Mennonite women’s conference was held in April 1973 in Moline, Illinois. Maria Bustos, wife of pastor Mac Bustos, coordinated the gathering, along with Lupe Bustos and Maria Rivera Snyder. Several reasons were given for the one-day event, which was called a servicio de inspiración. Seferina De León described it as an opportunity “to have a group of our own to listen to each other and figure out how we can help each other.”1 The organizers specifically wanted to gather women whose husbands were involved in church work and spent much time traveling, so the women could have a meaningful time together while their husbands stayed home.2 In a Voice article about the conference, Lupe Bustos wrote that the gathering arose from a concern for women who could not speak English and had never had the benefit of participating in the WMSC [the Mennonite Church women’s organization].3 As a woman of “American-Spanish descent,” she had been encouraged by attending WMSC meetings and wanted to provide similar encouragement for Spanish-speaking women.4

At the first conference, about sixty women gathered from churches in several Midwestern states as well as New York and Texas. Lupe Bustos’s article described the event as having women’s marks of creativity and care: hospitable overnight hosts, corsages for each participant, a craft project fashioning crosses out of a variety of materials. But the most memorable aspect of the event was the spiritual presence that pervaded it. The Spirit-led singing, prayer, and testimonies came to a climax when the women gathered to take communion. Mac Bustos wished to join the group for the communion service, which was led by pastor Mario Bustos. Suffering from leg pain and other health complications so severe that he was planning to give up his pastoral work, Pastor Mac was assisted into the sanctuary. Women nearby laid hands on him as they prayed and praised God. Suddenly, Mac got up and said, “Praise the Lord, all pain is gone!” He began going up and down the steps to show his increased mobility.5 “Tears just streamed from all of us,” Lupe Bustos wrote. “We realized that God still performs miracles; and a miracle happened to all of us there, because we were renewed again in Him.”6

The conference’s leaders viewed the miraculous healing of Mac Bustos as confirmation of God’s presence with them and as encouragement to continue their gatherings. At the October 1973 Minority Ministries Council meeting, they made plans for another conference and also adopted the name Conferencia Femenil Hispana Menonita (Hispanic Mennonite Women’s Conference). This is the name the group uses today, after a several-year period of using the name Sociedad de Damas Cristianas en Acción (Society of Christian Women in Action).

A 1974 gathering was planned for Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The first gathering was presumably paid for by the women themselves; Maria Bustos lists “faith” in the finances column on a chart showing figures for the early conferences.7 To help with the second conference, the Concilio leaders wrote to the WMSC requesting a grant of $3,000 for “las hermanas.” The WMSC executive committee decided to make the money available, even though it required some temporary reallocation of funds. Beulah Kauffman, WMSC director, wrote a letter to the WMSC district presidents explaining the move and reminding them of the WMSC meeting at the 1973 MC assembly. . . . At that meeting, women had expressed that they would “stand ready to help in whatever ways possible” when “clearly defined” needs of Spanish-speaking members were presented. Kauffman described this request as just such a need and expressed hope that women across the denomination would consider making the Hispanic women’s conference their annual giving project.8

The WMSC money was apparently the only outside funding received for the 1974 conference. Women from many Hispanic churches contributed through offerings, craft sales, and other fundraisers, either to support the conference in general or to fund the travel of their own members. Lois Gunden Clemens attended the gathering as a WMSC representative. She reflected in a July 1974 Voice article: “It has been good for me at various times to be a minority within a Christian group representing a cultural heritage different from mine. My heart has been strangely warmed in sensing the oneness I could feel with them. This was true again when I joined our Spanish-speaking sisters gathered together in their Lancaster meeting.”9 Enriqueta Diaz summed up her sentiments about the conference in an August 1974 Voice article: “It is marvelous that in a reunion like this we can share with each other ideas, emotions, and thoughts, all in our own language and in a cordial environment. Praise God for His love!”10

Excerpt and photo are from Circles of Sisterhood by Anita Hooley Yoder. © 2017 Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Va. All rights reserved. Used with permission. www.HeraldPress.com


  1. Quoted in Felipe Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 152. Maria Bustos is often referred to as “Mary Bustos” in publications, since there were many other “Marias” involved with the organization. I follow Hinojosa in using “Maria.” 
  2.  Ibid., 152–53. 
  3. Lupe Bustos, “Historic Women’s Assembly,” Voice, April 1973, 5. 
  4.  Ibid. 
  5.  This event is also written about in several other places, including Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites, 153. 
  6.  Bustos, “Historic Women’s Assembly,” 5–6. 
  7.  Mary Bustos, “Report to the Executive Committee,” November 10, 1978, box 1, folder 3, WMSC Partnerships Records, 1973–1992 (IV-20-008), MCUSAA– Elkhart.  
  8.  Beulah Kauffman, letter to district WMSC presidents, April 3, 1974, box 4, folder 19, Women’s Missionary and Service Commission Executive Committee Records, 1917–1997 (IV-20-001), MCUSAA– Elkhart. 
  9. Lois Gunden Clemens, “Editorially Speaking,” Voice, July 1974, 2. 
  10.  Enriqueta Díaz, “Hispanic Women’s Conference,” Voice, August 1974, 11. 

“Crossing the Line” Reflections

Wendy Urban-Mead

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Two notable elements of the “Crossing the Line” conference come to mind: first, it was exceptionally well-planned, logistically, and flowed beautifully at a rich but manageable pace. Second, the offerings were refreshingly varied, ranging from serious academic work in the fields of history, sociology, literary analysis, and theology, but also offered memoirs and family histories, as well as a range of fine arts including dance, poetry, and visual arts. The tour to nearby notable Mennonite sites was truly beautiful and memorable. I would like to draw your attention to the photo I took of Mrs. Barbara Nkala, as she exited a church building we visited on the tour. This photo speaks to the question, “who is an Anabaptist today?” The image reaches from Old Order Mennonites in the Shenandoah Valley to a Brethren in Christ Church Zimbabwean mother in the faith—who journeyed far and at significant expense, together with her sister, to participate in and lead at Crossing the Line.  The impact of this admirably well-thought-out and holistic program was to offer participants both spiritual and intellectual refreshment.

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The long supper table and delicious-looking dessert comes from our meal at the home of Janet Shank.

I came to the conference in response to urging from Jan Bender Shetler that I send in a paper proposal, and at the invitation of Devin Manzullo-Thomas, to join a panel he was proposing on BICC women in leadership. I gave a talk about Sithembile Nkala, a member of the Brethren in Christ Church, Zimbabwe, who served as pastor of her BICC church during the 1970s. The story I shared centered around Pastor Nkala’s encounter with liberation war guerrillas. She drew on what I called “spiritual muscles” to find courage to confront the guerrillas, challenging them not to believe at face value the “sell-out” accusations they heard, in spite of the real possibility that they could have executed her for speaking out in this manner. This material is based on research I did for my dissertation in history at Columbia University and which in turn served as the basis for my book, The Gender of Piety: Family, Faith, and Colonial Rule in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe (Ohio Univ Press, 2015.) Devin spoke about women of the BICC in North America in the post-WWII era during the BICC’s “evangelical turn.”  Also presenting on this panel was Lucille Marr, a historian from McGill University in Canada. Lucille spoke on the early life and calling of Hannah Frances Davidson, the BICC’s first foreign missionary. H. F. Davidson, Lucille’s own great-aunt, was a crucial leader of the BICC’s mission to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe.) See the photo of Lucille, Devin, and me—which Devin has also posted in his social media platforms.

19399675_10154676829305869_7987347151558697291_nBarbara Nkala’s talk on “Unsung Heroines” of the BICC Zimbabwe was delivered with clarity and authority. Based on her own and her sister Doris Dube’s extensive work of collecting stories of women of the BICC Zimbabwe, Barbara’s joyful spirit came through, as well as her well-honed teacher’s expertise.  A longtime secondary school teacher at the BICC’s Matopo Secondary School, she is now a publisher of Christian and Ndebele literature and serves as the southern Africa regional representative for MWC.  I had not seen Doris and Barbara since 1999; our reunion at Crossing the Line was poignant and joyful. See the photo of the three of us standing before EMU seminary’s gorgeous stained glass window. Note also the photo of the conference’s wrap-up panel, which includes Barbara Nkala seated at the far right.

19429639_10154676830320869_914360242205161917_nI may well have been one of the only (if not the only) participants in the conference who is not a member of an Anabaptist-derived church.  I felt welcome; I became more deeply acquainted with the Anabaptist tradition, and came to admire and appreciate my Anabaptist fellows in Christ and in scholarship all the more. Thank you to the conference planners who accepted my paper proposal, allowing me to partake of these riches.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.

Reflection on “Crossing the Line”

Anita Hooley Yoder

at book signing

Anita Hooley Yoder (right) with Doris Dube (left) and Marian Buckwalter (center)

For me, part of the fun of attending a conference in Harrisonburg, Virginia, is the drive there. It’s about six and a half hours from my home near Cleveland, Ohio, and I enjoyed taking a somewhat mountainous route and stopping to hike along the way. I also enjoyed staying with my sister and brother-in-law, who live in town.

The first day I spent with my sister, before the conference began, and she shared some past struggles that I knew little about. I thought that, unlike many of our female Anabaptist ancestors, my sisters and I had a pretty great childhood. And in many ways we did. But I suspect that all of us have stories in our past—our own histories—that we haven’t heard or acknowledged.

“Crossing the Line” was, at least in part, about honoring those kinds of stories.

One of the most poignant moments was hearing Jean Janzen, an 83-year-old Mennonite Brethren writer, share one of her first published poems, which focused on a long-buried family story about the suicide of her grandmother. “I am speaking the syllables you could not say,” Janzen read.

As part of the conference wrap-up panel, Doris Dube mentioned that Zimbabwean women often carry children wrapped tightly on their backs. Then she shared a proverb: “A weaning baby that does not cry aloud will die on its mother’s back.”

We, gathered here, are the children crying aloud on our mothers’ (mother church’s?) backs, I thought. And, we are the mothers who hear the cries and will not leave the child to die.

Hearing people’s cries—their most heartfelt stories—has become a kind of vocation for me.

I spent a large part of the past several years listening to stories of Mennonite women as I worked on a book about the history of Mennonite women’s organizations. These stories inspired me, as I encountered women who received little recognition but continued serving faithfully for decades.

Last August I started working as a campus minister at a small Catholic college. In that role I listen to students, faculty and staff, sometimes for most of the day. Their stories are sometimes painful, even shocking, but also full of resilience and serendipity and grace.

However, my experiences at and around this conference made me wonder about other stories I need to attend to. If hearing people’s stories is my vocation, how did I miss the stories my sister had been living for so long?

Sometimes it seems easier to focus on faraway stories, whether from distant times or distant lands. That was perhaps a shortcoming of this generally wonderful conference. While the presence of international attenders was commendable and clearly a focus of conference organizers, there was a lack of women from U.S. minority groups, even though there are Mennonite congregations of various ethnicities not far from our gathering place.

“We need all the women’s stories we can get,” Sofia Samatar said in her brilliant and broad-sweeping plenary address. So I am left to consider whose stories are still missing. What are the stories in my own family, my own community, my own soul that need to be heard? What about the stories of Mother Earth, the ground I drove across and walked over during my trip to Virginia?

Really hearing and honoring these kinds of stories often entails “crossing a line” of sorts, because such stories have been ignored and marginalized for so long. This conference was brimming with women and men who seem compelled to lift up all kinds of stories—the stories of undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ folks, Mennonite ancestors who had uncomfortable nationalistic tendencies. We didn’t cover everything, didn’t include everyone. But we know more stories now than we arrived in Harrisonburg, and that fills me hope for years to come.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.

Dispatches from “Crossing the Line: Crossing the Line Art Exhibition

Dr. Rachel Epp Buller, curator

20170624_211435Artists are in the habit of crossing lines. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp caused an uproar by submitting to an exhibition a mass-produced urinal that he had signed, titled, and declared art. In 1989, Andres Serrano drew fire when several prominent Republicans in the United States Congress objected to his receipt of National Endowment for the Arts funding for his religiously themed photographs that achieved saturated colors through the use of materials such as blood and urine.1 The collective known as the Guerrilla Girls regularly raises a ruckus with their activist informational posters that draw attention to the disparities of gender and race representation in the art world, calling out museums and gallerists by name for their discriminatory practices. And just this year, the online art daily Hyperallergic has been awash in articles of activist artists protesting gentrification, the occupation of Palestine, the underwhelming global response to the Syrian refugee crisis, as well as many of the policies and executive orders of the Trump administration still in its infancy.

Editor’s Note: While Anabaptist Historians generally focuses on historical research, in the interdisciplinary spirit of “Crossing the Line”, we are broadening our scope during this series to include a wide variety of Anabaptist studies.

Artists affiliated with Anabaptist traditions cross lines in ways quiet and bold, subtle and overt. The conference during which this exhibition takes place, Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries, invited presenters to consider border- and boundary-crossings in terms of ethnic and religious heritage, gender and sexual identity, geographic borders, private and public spaces, or disciplinary expression. The artists included in this exhibition most often cross lines in order to experiment and question, to make statements, or to think back through time.

A number of the artists represented here cross temporal borders and the boundaries of memory as they engage with the stories of ancestors. In her panels from Nine Tetrameters, Jayne Holsinger collapses varied historical references. Working in a four-patch quilt block format, Holsinger crosses easily between visual echoes of fabric patterns, historical prints, and bread baking, all modes of reaching out to the women of her Anabaptist heritage. Three prints by Gesine Janzen speak to her paternal family’s history of emigration from Poland’s Vistula Delta to central Kansas. By exploring the narratives evoked by historic photographs and letters, Janzen imagines a cross-generational dialogue, moving their stories forward across the decades and offering a meditation on family, intimacy, and absence. Teresa Braun’s video, The Plaint, explores family lore surrounding a specific place. A family cemetery and the fusion of human and plant organisms feature as mythological elements in Braun’s weaving of a fragmented ancestral narrative. Teresa Pankratz’s multi-act The View from a House in Kansas, excerpts of which are included in this exhibition and other parts of which will be performed during the conference, engages with semi-fictional narratives revolving around the artist’s childhood home, which was destroyed by fire some years ago.

20170624_211429Other artists purposefully cross borders of material. Historically, the highly regarded “fine arts” materials of painting and sculpture have far outweighed the importance of craft traditions such as needlework. However, one important legacy of the Feminist Art Movement of the 1970s has been the revaluation of media long denigrated as “women’s work.” Karen Reimer employs methods of embroidery and appliqué not only to bring feminized craft traditions into a high art context but also as a means by which to question the value of certain kinds of labor and notions of originality. Reimer intentionally copies her texts from other contexts as a way to destabilize definitions of creativity and innovation. As she writes, “Generally speaking, in the art world copies are of less value than originals. However, when I copy by embroidering, the value of the copy is increased because of the added elements of labor, handicraft, and singularity–traditional sources of value. The copy is now an ‘original’ as well as a copy.”2 At the same time, Reimer’s hand-sewn texts sometimes border on illegibility, producing a bad copy and inviting us to question the relative value of such painstaking labor. Kandis Friesen seeks to examine how textiles and other materials might impart narratives about migration and exile. In Onsa Japse Jeit Jantsied, drawing sewn onto leather makes reference to both indigenous and colonial histories. Friesen draws on a clothing pattern from a Russian Mennonite museum artifact from the 1800s, one that also incorporated buffalo skin from newly colonized lands. Like Gesine Janzen, Friesen looks to visual culture as a connection between the past and the future, yet in this case she also problematizes the narrative of hard-working Russian Mennonite immigrants as she uses textiles to implicate the diaspora’s participation in colonial processes.

Mary Lou Weaver Houser and Jen Dyck cross boundaries of medium through their work with found materials. Dyck’s collages investigate dream imagery, in some cases, and in others, such as Potluck, speak to her personal experiences of Anabaptist cultural traditions. Weaver Houser, on the other hands, positions her mixed media assemblages as metaphors: as she walks an edge between varied art materials, she also imagines edges – between generations, between different world views, between what is and what could be.3 Similarly, Jessie Pohl crosses material boundaries and points to the possibility of crossing emotional bridges as well. As she incorporates the unexpected material of scrap lumber as the substrate for delicate pen-and-ink drawings, she emphasizes a contrast of strength and vulnerability.

20170624_211422Some artists cross lines as a political gesture, seeing their methods as a way to issue public statements, either subtle or explicit. In Blamed Shamed Abandoned, one from a series of 60 paintings, Jerry Holsopple directly addresses the failures of U.S. Mennonite communities to protect, believe, or even listen to the many women abused by well-known Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. Holsopple grapples in his expressive portraits with the idea of collective responsibility and he explicitly brings the issue of sexual abuse out from behind closed doors, for public discussion and accountability. Audra Miller’s The Gender Project, which is represented here by two photographic diptychs, explores what it can mean to cross between feminine and masculine gender presentations. Through Miller’s photographs, we see not only the possibilities of either/or but also of in-between, of gender identities that are not always so easily classified in a binary system.

Lora Jost regularly engages with political activism, on topics ranging from local school closures to the local and global impacts of climate change. In her piece for this exhibition, Jost emphasizes more broadly the importance of critical thinking in our world. Informed by her experiences of a Mennonite historical focus on peace and social justice, Jost uses a combination of text and linework to ask the viewer to more carefully consider, when confronted with any issue of substance, “Does this make sense?” Jennifer Miller takes on a topic with both personal and political meanings in addressing the Keystone XL pipeline. Crude, a mixed media drawing, makes topographical references to the proposed path of crude oil transfer from the Tar Sands of Alberta to the Gulf Coast. The map follows the same path traveled by Miller’s family in their move from north to south for her father’s job as a pilot for the oil industry, pointing to complicated convergences of politics, business, childhood memories, and a family’s financial security. While the pipeline was halted under President Obama in 2015, a new administration has proven more receptive to the interests of big oil and Miller’s piece becomes relevant for political discussion once again.

Our Anabaptist ancestors wrestled with the idea of how to be in the world but not of it, an intentional choice not to cross borders. The art on display in this exhibition might be seen to run the gamut between insularity and worldliness, yet each artist thoughtful engages with notions of borders and boundaries. Whether speaking to themselves and their Anabaptist communities or to much broader audiences, these artists traverse edges of materials, politics, identity, generation, and memory, and they invite us to join them on the journey.  

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.


  1.  For in-depth discussion of Serrano and the NEA controversy, see Steven C. Dubin, Arresting Images: Impolitic Art and Uncivil Actions (New Jersey: Routledge, 1994). Other texts that examine high-profile crossing of lines in contemporary art include Dubin’s Displays of Power: Controversy in the American Museum from the Enola Gay to Sensation! (New York: New York University Press, 2001) and Michael Kammen, Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 2006). 
  2. Karen Reimer, artist statement. Emailed to the author, 12 October 2016. 
  3. Mary Lou Weaver Houser, artist statement. Email to the author, 2 April 2017. 

In Search of Women’s Histories: Crossing Space, Crossing Communities, Crossing Time at “Crossing the Line”

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Sofia Samatar answering questions at “Crossing the Line.”

“We need all the women’s stories we can get.” This was the message of the third plenary talk at Crossing the Line, “In Search of Women’s Histories: Crossing Space, Crossing Communities, Crossing Time,” delivered by award-winning novelist Sofia Samatar.

Samatar, who teaches literature at James Madison University, opened her presentation with a discussion of the poem “Annie,” published in 1912 by the French writer Guillaume Apollinaire. The poem describes a chance encounter between the rakish poet and a Mennonite woman in a rose garden in eastern Texas.

“Her rose bushes and dress have no buttons,” Apollinaire writes. “And as my coat has lost two / She and I are almost of the same religion.”

Like many of us who have run across unexpected Mennonite references in literature, Samatar described the small “flash of joy” she felt upon reading Apollinaire’s poem, as well as the “sting” of wondering what, exactly, this woman in the rose garden represents. How does this short, possibly inaccurate representation reflect on Anabaptists as a whole?

Arcing through the twentieth century, Samatar took us on an insightful, often hilarious tour of Mennonites and Amish in popular media. We reflected on Witness (1985), in which Harrison Ford goes Amish to solve a crime, and learned about the thriving subgenre of Amish romance novels—so-called “bonnet rippers”—that apparently include Amish vampire romance.

Common to all these examples, according to Samatar, is the stereotyped figure of the sexualized Anabaptist woman. Chaste and coy beneath her bonnet and cape dress, this trope inherently invites uncovering by the male gaze. Think of Rachel in Witness, who memorably locks lips with Harrison Ford—or of Apollinaire’s “Annie,” based on a governess whom the poet wished to bed.

Or consider the first season of Breaking Amish, which features a young Mennonite woman named Sabrina. She is of Puerto Rican background and leaves her conservative adoptive family to find biological relatives in New York City. Long-lost sisters run a beauty parlor, it turns out, and Sabrina gets a makeover—traditional dress swapped for a t-shirt and tight shorts.

For Samatar, Sabrina’s transformation (from innocent Mennonite into sexy Latina) presupposes a narrative strategy incapable of acknowledging both aspects of the young woman’s identity. She cannot simultaneously be both Puerto Rican and Anabaptist. According to the logic of mass entertainment, she must choose.

Samatar rejects this dichotomy. Only when we welcome the messiness, the complexity of women’s lives, she suggests—when we cross lines of gender, race, religion, and language—will we be able to understand our cultural richness as well as, ultimately, ourselves.

Giving body to this idea, Samatar concluded her keynote with three readings. She chose autobiographical pieces by three Mennonite women: her grandmother, her mother, and herself. Through the multi-generational voices of Amy Kreider Glick, Lydia Glick, and Sofia Samatar, we heard unexpected, beautiful stories: of a girl growing up in rural Missouri; of a young woman traveling to Somalia and falling in love; of a brown student reading fantasy and navigating fashion at her boarding school.  

These are the stories we need. We can all look forward to Samatar’s forthcoming short story collection, Monster Portraits, as well as to her next project, an exploration of women’s experiences in a nineteenth-century Mennonite-Muslim settlement in Central Asia.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.

Dispatches from Crossing the Line: “Lines of Memory and Encounter on the ‘Mission Field'”

Lines of Memory and Encounter on the ‘Mission Field

Panel 2: Friday, June 23, 8:30 to 10

Three presenters gave papers focused on women on the “mission field”—either those serving as missionaries, or being missionized.

Joel Horst Nofziger presents his paper on Eastern Mennonite Mission workers in Ethiopia.

‘I Was the Kind of Woman Whom the Culture Expected’: The Experience of Mennonite Missionary Women in Ethiopia

By Joel Horst Nofziger, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society

  • Recorded and transcribed oral histories of ten Eastern Mennonite Mission workers who served in Ethiopia in the 1940s-1990s.
  • Explored the challenges of language training—and lack thereof. While women missionaries wanted such training, mission administrators rarely supplied it. As a result, these missionaries often experienced loneliness and tended to communicate only with those who shared their language, mostly other missionaries and male converts.
  • Described the interpersonal, cultural, and religious challenges associated with “intercultural mixing.” Although EMM actively discouraged it, some single women missionaries married Ethiopian men. These couples faced discipline from the mission board as well as social stigma.
  • Conclusion: EMM workers crossed national lines as well as cultural and religious boundaries in their work.

“Mennonite Brethren Missionary Women Encounter Dalit Women in Colonial South India”

By Yennamalla Jayaker, Mennonite Brethren Centenary Bible College:

  • Twentieth-century Mennonite Brethren mission workers in colonial South India had significant impact, especially in uplifting Dalits (the “untouchables,” members of the lowest caste system) through education.
  • MB missionaries provided not just religious education, but also general education in subjects such as reading, writing, etc.
  • Women missionaries played a key role in these educational endeavor, as school builders, teachers, and more. The key to their success was learning the local language of the Dalit and teaching in that language, rather than English.

“Gendered Historical Memory, Tanzania Mennonite Church Women and the East African Revival, 1940s-1950s”

By Jan Bender Shetler, Goshen College:

  • Due to a family situation, Bender Shetler could not attend and instead sent a student to read her paper.
  • Advancing the work of Africanists such as Derek Peterson, Bender argued that the East African Revival was not only a cosmopolitan, transnational discourse that provided Christian converts with an alternative to the nationalist discourse of ethnic patriots—but also a gendered discourse.
  • Through participation in this revival movement, church women learned a particular kind of life narrative or testimony (in which they described their move from spiritual darkness to salvation) that they repeated in church settings. This testimony enabled them to resist certain tribal rituals (i.e. female circumcision) and to understand storytelling as a form of empowerment—one that was threatening to male leaders.
  • In this sense, the East African Revival was a “feminist space,” one in which women participated in cross-ethnic fellowship and forged relationships beyond the Mennonite Church and beyond Tanzania.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.