Mysticism and Evangelicalism in the writings of a “Spiritual Mother”

“She should have been a bishop!” Barbara Nkala pounded the table emphatically.1 An historian and long standing member of the Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe, Nkala’s voice echoes that of many in that community, who continue to hold up the memory of pioneer missionary H. Frances Davidson.2 Davidson is remembered for having travelled from the Kansas prairie to the Matopo Hills in 1898 to help establish a mission there; well over a century later, members of the Zimbabwean Brethren in Christ church still regard her as their “spiritual mother.”3

My current research is taking further my previous observations on the spiritual awakening that inspired Davidson’s conversion from college teacher to missionary.4 Following in the wake of other Protestants who have retained a reverence for Mary, for Davidson, an encounter with what she called “that great work Murillo’s Immaculate Conception” proved to be a moment of transformation and awakening.5 Coming face to face with that masterpiece on a class trip to the Chicago Fine Arts Museum immediately followed what she recorded in her journal as a moving and productive session of writing on the Faery Queen for a literature class she was taking at University of Chicago.6 These encounters in March 1895 coincided with Davidson’s thirty-fifth birthday, and seem to have kindled a passion which had previously lain dormant.7 As she recorded in her journal that evening, “Beauty, in its supreme development, invariable (sic) excites the sensitive soul to tears. There seemed to be in me a longing and restlessness, a desire for something higher and beyond.”8

As these recollections suggest, Davidson’s journals appear to have provided her with a confidante, a safe place where she could express joy and process inner turmoil. In her missionary career, for instance, she wrote of her struggles as she denied the urge to step out in leadership in ways that she, as the social mores of the time, deemed inappropriate for a woman. Scholars have investigated the pioneer leadership emphasizing her vision, and unique strength as an “unwomanly woman.”9 Through her writings, we can decipher ways that she dealt with the conflict of the external and internal pressures pressing her to take on spiritual leadership normally reserved for men.

In my quest to explore the writings of H. Frances Davidson, I anticipate becoming better acquainted with this “spiritual mother” of Brethren in Christ women. Expressing her spiritual struggles in language familiar to the piety of her evangelical tradition, her desire to surrender self, and to know God’s will echo the Sophia mysticism of Jacob Boehme and medieval mystics.10 What do the mystical moments, which she articulated in ways reminiscent of the deeper conversion and transformation of gelassenheit or surrender to God’s will familiar in Anabaptist piety as well as colonial pietism, reveal about the faith, and the strong leadership of this spiritual mother who remains to this day an iconic figure for her denomination the Brethren in Christ in Zimbabwe, Zambia, the United States and Canada?

  1. Conversation with Barbara Nkala, 23 June 2017, at “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries,” a conference held at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia. She has authored and co-authored several books on the denomination’s history including Celebrating the Vision: A Century of Sowing and Reaping (Bulawayo: Brethren in Christ Church, 1998); see also Nkala and Doris Dube, Growing and Branching Out: Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa (Harare, Zimbabwe: Radiant Press, 2014) and Bekithemba Dube, Doris Dube and Barbra Nkala. “Brethren in Christ Churches in Southern Africa,” edited by John A. Lapp and C. Arnold Snyder, 97-191, in Anabaptist Songs in African Hearts: a Global Mennonite History, vol. I, Africa, (Intercourse, PA: Good Books and Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2003). Nkala is a member of the Zimbabwean Brethren in Christ Church.
  2. The photo is of Davidson and Adda Engel, that appears as the frontispiece in H. Frances Davidson, South and South Central Africa: A Record of Fifteen Years’ Missionary Labors among Primitive Peoples (Elgin, ILL: Brethren Publishing House, 1915).
  3. Dube, Dube and Nkala, Anabaptist Songs, 150-55; Wendy Urban Mead, The Gender of Piety: Family, Faith, and Colonial Rule in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2015), 38, 42, 49-50, 60, 76.
  4. “Conflict, Confession, and Conversion: H. Frances Davidson’s Call to Brethren in Christ Missions,” Brethren in Christ History & Life Vol. XI no. 3 (December 2017), 335-52; “History as Relationship,”
  5. Immaculate Conception of El Escorial (Bartolome Estaban Murillo, 1650), Wikipedia Accessed 16 December 2019.
  6. Queen Elizabeth I: The Rainbow Portrait c. 1600–02 attrib. Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, Portraiture of Elizabeth I of England, Wikipedia Accessed December 16, 2019; “for a contemporary convert to The Faery Queen, see Brenton Dickieson, “On Reading the Faerie Queene for the First Time,” A Pilgrim in Narnia, June 3, 2015,
  7. Earl D. Brechbill, “The Ancestry of John and Henrietta Davidson Brechbill: A Historical Narrative” (Greencastle, PA: printed by author, 1972), 56-57.
  8. Hannah Frances Davidson, Diaries, 13 March 1895; her journals have been edited by E. Morris Sider and published in Brethren in Christ History and Life. See “The Journal of Frances Davidson.” “Part 1: The Early Years (1861-1895)” 8, no. 2 (August 1985): 103-23; “Part II: The Call to Africa (1895-1898)” 8, no. 3 (December 1985): 181-204; “Part III: The First Years in Africa (1898-1904)” 9, no. 1 (April 1986): 23-64; “Part IV: The Founding and Early Years of Macha Mission (1904-1908)” 9, no. 2 (August 1986):125-49; “Part V: The Later Years (1908-1931)” 9, no. 3 (December 1986): 284-309.
  9. See, for instance, E. Morris Sider, “Hannah Frances Davidson,” in Nine Portraits: Brethren in Christ Biographical Sketches (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1978), 159-214; Wendy Urban-Mead, “Religion, Women and Gender in the Brethren in Christ Church, Matabeleland, Zimbabwe, 1898-1978,” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2004); and “An Unwomanly Woman and Her Sons in Christ: Faith, Empire, and Gender in Colonial Rhodesia, 1899/1906,” in Competing Kingdoms: Women, Mission, Nation, and the American Protestant Empire, 1812–1960, ed.Barbara Reeves-Ellington, Kathryn Kish Sklar, and Connie Shemo (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 94-116.
  10. Ruether, Goddesses, 230-31. Beulah Hostettler links Jacob Boehme with Martin Boehme who influenced colonial Pietism. American Mennonites and Protestant Movements: A Community Paradigm (Wipf & Stock, 2002). Accessed December 16, 2019.

A Radical Love in Harlem: Resolve, Resilience and Restoration (Part 1: 1952 – 1975)

This is a portion of a current autobiographical project documenting the historical account of Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church in Harlem, New York City from its birth in 1954 leading to the 65 Church’s Anniversary in 2019. (Part I Resolve: 1954 – 1975) Part II Resilience: 1976 – 1996) (Part III Restoration: 1997 – 2017) 


Richard W. Pannell

It was in the heat of the civil rights movement on June 2, 1961, when my father, Richard W. Pannell, a twenty-one year old African-American man first arrived from Coatesville, Pennsylvania, to the historic village of Harlem, New York City. Harlem was known as a predominately African-American community that had a “southern presence” due to the “Great Migration” that fueled Harlem’s population in the 1920’s. Harlem was often called “the spiritual home of the Negro protest movement,” as noted activists Marcus Garvey, A. Philip Randolph and W. E. B. Du Bois led several protests and organized ideas around social justice movements.  The growth of organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the radical writings of The Messenger magazine empowered Harlem residents to speak up and advocate on behalf of their community. 1

Harlem was also an oasis of cultural, social and intellectual enlightenment that gave birth to the “Harlem Renaissance” (1918 – 1930s). Literary figures spoke to the social disparities and suffering of the people of Harlem as mirrored in the famous poem entitled “Harlem” by Langston Hughes:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?2

Theologically speaking, Harlem was a community of vibrant yet contradictory ideologies and beliefs in the early 1960s. Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X was deemed the “Prince of Harlem” and regularly held protests on the corner of the infamous 125th Street and Seventh Avenue to mass supporters. Televised speeches of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could be heard echoing throughout tenement house hallways on Lenox Avenue, and were emulated by black preachers like the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in the pulpit on Sunday mornings. Yet on almost every dining room wall of black families living in the projects, there hung a picture of a blond haired, blue-eyed “White Jesus.” This was Harlem; a radical, renowned and resiliently beautiful community.

It was here in the place known as the “Black Mecca” of the world that John H. Kraybill, a young white Mennonite pastor, greeted my father in front of 2526 Seventh Avenue and welcomed him to Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church.  It would be a moment in time that would change the trajectory of the relationship between the Harlem community and the broader Lancaster Mennonite Church Conference throughout the civil rights and black power movements. 3

5.Kraybill family at brickfront church (1)

Kraybill family at brickfront church

John H. Kraybill was the founder and first pastor of Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church (originally named Harlem Mennonite Church). Kraybill had arrived in New York City from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in May of 1953. Kraybill, once a student at Ontario Mennonite Bible Institute from 1951 – 1953, was drafted during the Korean War (Jun 25, 1950 – Jul 27, 1953 ) and was given classification as a “conscientious objector,”  “a person who refuses military service on the grounds that he or she cannot in good conscience participate in the machinery of war due to personal beliefs.”4 Kraybill was ordered to work two years at a nonprofit institution that addressed national health and safety. It also had to be at least 150 miles from his home town in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Bellevue Hospital in New York City was the ideal place for Kraybill to serve his two years. However, unbeknownst to him at that time, Kraybill would spend thirteen years building the mission church plant of Seventh Avenue and ushering in a shift that would serve to save, strengthen and call a generation of radical and diverse young leaders to serve this Harlem Church for the next fifty years.

Kraybill arrived in New York City in the spring of 1953 and became a member of one of the mission churches planted by Lancaster Mennonite Conference in partnership with Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities. St. Ann’s Mennonite Church, located in the South Bronx, was founded in 1951. Harold Thomas served as the pastor. Prior to then, the Fox Street Mennonite Church was founded in 1949 under the pastoral leadership of Aquila Riehl. Shortly after Kraybill arrived at St. Ann’s Mennonite Church, he learned that the congregation had a vision to plant another church across the bridge in Harlem. Kraybill recalled a dear elderly sister in the congregation named Olive Lucas, who felt passionate about supporting this new vision and gave a few dollars as she could to help it come to pass. The congregational leadership also believed that they had found the perfect person to serve as the pastor of this new endeavor: John H. Kraybill.

With a leader now selected, a group from St. Ann’s Mennonite Church located a vacant lot in Harlem on 147th street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues to start their mission. There they established the Open Air Bible School for two weeks in the summer of 1953. Over fifty children attended this outreach and it continued throughout the fall. Kraybill began getting to know the families in the community and informed them of his search for a vacant building to establish the new church. Soon Kraybill came across a building for sale on Seventh Avenue between 146th and 147th street. It was a five story building with thirteen apartments and two store fronts. Kraybill rented the building and made plans for the first service.

3.Minese and Olive

Olive Lucas, Minese Hamilton, and unknown friend

On January 17 1954, the opening service was held for Harlem Mennonite Church at 2526 Seventh Avenue, later to be renamed Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church. That same year, John Kraybill married Thelma Synder and was credentialed for the ministry through Lancaster Mennonite Conference. The first members included  Willis Johnson, Minese Hamilton and Glen and Florence Good Zeager, urban blacks and rural whites coming together as one. This was the beginning of a quiet resolve to build a cross-cultural church intertwining two very separate communities for the greater purpose of the radical love of Jesus Christ.

In the spring of 1954, Glen Zeager encouraged Kraybill to consider purchasing the building to expand the ministry that included Sunday School, Bible Classes and Sunday Morning Worship. In June 1954, John Kraybill and Glen Zeager gathered together a down payment of $3,000 and was able to miraculously purchase 2526 Seventh Avenue for $26,000. Later, in order to increase sustainability for the property, Kraybill and Zeager sold the building to Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities in 1959.


Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church

The ministry of Seventh Avenue continued to flourish with the help of many Mennonites that came from Pennsylvania through Volunteer Service or 1-W service assignments (conscientious objectors). It was a 1-W service assignment that brought Richard W. Pannell to Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church on that summer day in 1961. My father was introduced to the Mennonite church in 1952 as a twelve year old living in Newlinville, Pennsylvania. In 1946, the Newlinville Mennonite Church emerged from a summer Bible school program held by the Coatesville Mennonite Church among African Americans in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. There my father attended Sunday School and was later baptized at the age of fourteen. Under the pastoral leadership of Elmer D. Leaman, Pannell developed a deeper understanding of Anabaptist values, community and practices. Once stating that he felt “a part of the family,” Pannell was accepted, valued and loved by his new church community. As a teenager, Pannell shared fond memories of  participating in summer camps such as Camp Tel Hai, Camp Men-O-Lan and Camp Hebron. Pannell also had the opportunity to meet  and socialize with other black Mennonite youth from different urban outreach churches such as Diamond Street Mennonite Church in Philadelphia through the many mission station gatherings that were held in the area. Some of these other young black Mennonites from Harrisburg and Philadelphia such as Harold Davenport, Margie Middleton and Doris Allen Perkins also came up to New York and joined in this counter-cultural idea of building a Mennonite church in the heart of Harlem.  A new radical Anabaptist community of young, diverse and energetic modern day missionaries would live in the apartments above the church that was developing.

  1. Richard W. Pannell, phone interview by author, November, 17 2017. All following comments about Richard W. Pannell’s life are taken from this interview. 
  2. Langston Hughes, “Harlem [2]” in Collected Poems, ed. Arnold Rempersad (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 426. 
  3. John H. Kraybill presentation and personal notes from April 30, 2017 at Infinity (Seventh Avenue)Mennonite Church Building Celebration; John H. Kraybill, email interview by author, on November 15, 2017. All following comments about John H. Kraybill’s  life are taken from this documentation and interview. 
  4. Hanspeter Jecker, “Conscientious Objection,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, accessed August 15, 2014, 

Argentine Relics



Relics from the early years of Mennonite mission work in Argentina: Catholic religious medals and symbols “given up” by converts. T.K. Hershey carried this little collection with him when he returned to tour North American churches. Sewed on to green sateen cloth and rolled up with a black velvet tie, he could unfurl this object lesson of mission success in individual or group presentations. From the museum collection, Mennonite Historical Library, Goshen (Ind.) College.

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of the arrival of Mennonite missions in Argentina. On September 11, 1917, the families of T.K. and Mae (Hertzler) Hershey and J.W. and Emma (Hershey) Shank stepped off the S.S. Vauban in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Shank had pursued a vision for mission outreach to Spanish-speaking people for over a decade. The Hersheys, inspired by the example of earlier missionaries to India, had first worked in a city mission in Youngstown.  The call to Argentina reached them in La Junta, Colorado where they had gone due to T.K.’s health.  In January 1919, after language study and scouting trips, the two families settled in Pehuajó, about 230 miles southwest of Buenos Aires.  Hershey later recalled that they were viewed as “foreigners, heretics, Protestants—despised, hated folks.”[^1] (Hershey. I’d Do It Again, 1961) In those early years, most of the Mennonite mission work in Argentina focused on evangelizing Catholics.  (See Hershey’s translation of the tract they distributed in Pehaujó during that first year).  In the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen, we have many published and other resources to explore some of the many results of those first Mennonite steps on Argentinian soil: evolving approaches to mission, influence on outreach to Spanish-speaking people in Chicago, examples of collaboration and alienation, and much more.

Joe Springer, Curator, Mennonite Historical Library

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.