The Mennonite Library and Archives recently received a box of papers of Heinrich H. Epp (1857-1933), who was a minister in the Bethesda Mennonite Church in Henderson, Nebraska, for many decades and elder of the congregation 1910-1924. As I unpacked the box, a folded-up document caught my attention when I noticed the signature “Maggie Leonard, Mennonite Mission, Darlington, Ind. Terr.”
Maggie Leonard was the first person baptized in the mission work conducted by the General Conference Mennonite Church among Cheyenne and Arapaho at Darlington and Cantonment in what is today Oklahoma. She was baptized in 1888, but did not come from the two groups among whom the Mennonites were working. Her father Joseph Leonard was white (likely an Indian agency employee) and her mother was Caddo. (Maggie Leonard is listed as Caddo in the 1900 census). She also attended the Indian Industrial School at Halstead, Kansas, run by Christian Krehbiel, and also the Mennonite Seminary (teacher training school) at Halstead (during 1890-1892).
This is the text of the document:
What I learned on my trip to Kansas.
When we went to Kansas I was very glad. And I learned some things that I did not know before.
I learned how to milk a little but not quite good enough yet. And that we must clean the yard every Saturday or at any time when it is dirty around the house. And I learnt how to play some games that I did not know before, and how they dry apples, cherries, peaches etc. And I learned how they put they prepare <sic> pickles for Winter. I learned something about the railroad I did not know it could run so fast, and that so many people could be in it at the same time. And I even saw a great many cattle in the train. I saw how the people thrash grain. I think it is nice to look at the thrashing machine when it is working. And I know how the people spend their Sundays. They always go to church. I wonder how many of you likes to go to church. I think it is nice to go to church or to Sunday Schools. I learned how they can make milk into clabber in a short while by putting rennet in it and then from the clabber they make cheese. I learned how they prepare can fruits. And I know how they water the flowers with a pump and it has a long rubber pipe fastened to it. And the person who waters the flowers and the grass, takes it and waters whatever he wants to water. And I know now how the large cities look and the hotels & stores, and the large streets. And I know many more German people than I would if I stayed here. I saw how they work on their farms & orchards. I think it is nicer to live on farm than to live in a large city. Because there is so much noise in the large cities and it may happen sometime that the city might catch fire and then may be the inhabitants that live in the city might have to burn up. And I also saw some large bridges, some are for the wagons to go over, and some are for the train. When the train goes over the bridge, it makes very much noise. Now I am very glad that I went to Kansas. I would not know so much now if I did not go there.
It is unclear if she is describing her time in the Halstead schools or whether she had made a trip to Kansas before that already.
Maggie Leonard did not retain formal ties to the Mennonites after her baptism. Sometime in the early 1890s she married someone named Garen and had a son. In 1898 she married a widower, John David Downing, and they had 7 more children. Downing was apparently a prominent rancher and Freemason in Grady County, Oklahoma. He is listed as Cherokee in the 1900 census. He died in 1923. (see https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/53563566/john-david-downing).
Margaret Downing did keep some personal contacts with Mennonites over the years. In March 1936, Missionary News and Notes, the publication of the Women’s Missionary Association of the General Conference Mennonite Church, included this note:
Last week Mrs. Goerz received a letter from Mrs. Margaret Downing–nee Maggie Leonard. Some of the older readers will remember that she, then 17 years old was the first Indian who accepted Christ and was baptized in our Mission at Darlington on June 3rd, 1888. Rev. H. R. Voth was the missionary stationed there then. Later Maggie came to Krehbieltown, at Halstead, Kansas and during that time she attended the Mennonite Seminary at Halstead. She has been married twice, is mother of eight children–three girls and five boys–all living. At present she is keeping house for her youngest son who is in the government service as clerk in the Jicarilla Indian Agency at Dulce, New Mexico.
Mrs. Goerz was Martha Krehbiel Goerz, Mrs. Rudolph A. Goerz, a daughter of Christian Krehbiel. She was an editor of the Missionary News and Notes. Martha Goerz may well have been acquainted with Maggie Leonard already from her Halstead school days.
Funeral services were held Thursday in Arcadia for Mrs. Margaret Downing, 97, who died Aug. 2 in Oklahoma City. Mr. and Mrs. Downing were early ranchers north of Verden. Surviving children are: Mrs. Thelma Moring, Mrs. Pearl Dennero, Mrs. Rena Topatche, Ernest and John Downing, all of Oklahoma City; and Eden Downing, of California.
A major unanswered question is, how did Maggie Leonard’s early handwritten account of a visit to Kansas end up in the possession of Heinrich H. Epp in Henderson, Nebraska? He was not a member of the General Conference mission board; there is no indication he ever visited Darlington, nor that Maggie Leonard ever visited Henderson. The link between the two persons remains a mystery.
Recently a post on the Brethren in Christ historical website caught my attention: “’I am about to go abroad as a Missionary’: H. Frances Davidson’s Passport Application and what it tells us about Brethren in Christ Life.”1 I was captured by the fine pensmanship of the witness: Mrs. Mary M. Yoder. Denominational historian Morris Sider has characterized Davidson as “one of the most extraordinary and striking persons to have held membership in the denomination.”2 Who was the witness that attested Davidson’s bold declaration of life-long commitment to mission, underscored by the striking of the “entire section of the form dealing with returning to the States!”3 Are there clues that suggest why Frances chose Mary to accompany her to the notary’s office on that October day in 1897? In the bigger picture, will discovering more about Mary provide further insights into the Brethren in Christ of the time?
I knew Mary Yoder to be Frances’s half sister, the eldest of their father Henry Davidson’s thirteen children. Geneological research has revealed that she was among his numerous offspring who exited the Brethren in Christ denomination.4 It also suggests that she was the namesake of her paternal grandmother Mary (Young) Davidson. Mary Mathilda Davidson was fifteen when Frances was born; by the end of her step-mother Fannie (Rice) Davidson’s child-bearing years, Mary had become the eldest of thirteen. Married at age twenty-two to Christian B. Yoder, she gave birth to Effa when Frances was eight years old; by the time Fannie birthed her last child, Ida, Mary was mother to three.5 The birth of LeRoy Isaiah would complete the family. Edwin’s death as a small child must have torn at Mary’s heart; her decision to name her two younger sons for her full brothers William and Isaiah, likely brought her comfort and suggests the closeness of the larger family circle which had been wrenched with the death of their biological mother Hannah (Craft) Davidson when Mary and her siblings were still children.6
Mary would continue to suffer and navigate significant losses. In 1893, four years before she signed her sister’s passport, she had been widowed; she was not yet fifty. Mary’s married name suggests that her husband Christian B. Yoder had Amish roots. They were both raised on farms close to Smithville, Ohio, where they had met and married. Christian had practiced a variety of trades including building, contracting, and grocering, ultimately becoming a hotel manager. The purchase of Eastern House in the nearby city of Wooster brought him to the pinnacle of his career. Only a year before his death he had become “proprietor of the hotel bearing his name,” Hotel Yoder, described in Caldwell’s Atlas in 1897 as “the Oldest Reliable Hotel in the city.”7
Although it remains unclear what role Mary played in Christian’s business enterprise, her identity as entrepreneur is underscored by her decision to hold Christian’s funeral at Yoder House, rather than the Methodist Episcopal Church where they were members. Shortly, Mary M. Yoder herself became the proprietor of Yoder House where,,with the assistance of her sons William and Roy, she continued to run the hotel renovated and branded by her husband Christian only a year before his untimely death.8
Eighteen months later tragedy again devastated Mary and her family. Twenty year old Roy succumbed to typhoid; Mary lost her son to the same disease that had taken her mother Hannah forty years earlier. Demonstrating a strength of character reminiscent of that for which her sister Frances is known, Mary continued to run Yoder Hotel with her remaining son William as manager.9 Census records reveal that Mary employed eleven live-in servants and employees – a laundress, cooks, chambermaids, waitresses, a porter and a solicitor – to keep the establishment running.10
Why did Frances Davidson, the renowned Brethren in Christ pioneer missionary, have her sister, the Methodist Episcopal owner of a prestigious downtown hotel, witness her first passport? Why did Frances choose Mary to attest to subsequent passports? A brief exploration of the Methodist Episcopal Church where Mary and Christian Yoder held their membership gives a clue. The denomination was a strong proponant of missions overseas and at home, working in “some of the most deprived urban areas of the nation.”11 Was Mary an active supporter of the local missionary societies in the Wooster Methodist Episcopal Church? Confirmation would require further research.
What is becoming clear is Mary’s unflagging support of her younger sister’s mission. Not only was Mary Davidson Yoder recorded as witness on each one of Frances’s passports through the latter’s twenty-four years in the Rhodesias (now Zambia and Zimbabwe), it is quite likely that we have Mary to thank for Frances’s travelogue.12 As Frances noted in her journal on 26 December 1908, “Sister Mary writes that she wants me to be sure and keep up my diary. Well, I have never kept a diary only these few jottings in a journal which are so few that they give only a general outline of our life and scarcely that.”13 A few months later, she confided to her journal: “I have not told any one of my resignation except I wrote it to Sister Mary, as also some of the particulars. She is away from the rest.”14
Does this sideline into family history have anything to tell us about the history of the Brethren in Christ? Brethren in Christ history has been assessed and written, for the most part, by insiders, to build a denominational identity.15 The excerpts from Frances Davidson’s journal published in Brethren in Christ History & Life some decades back were edited for just this purpose. Missing excerpts, which can now be found on the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives website, if read closely, reveal just how important Frances Davidson’s family relationships were, including the many siblings and nieces and nephews outside of the denomination.16
Elsewhere I have argued that Mary’s and Frances’s father Henry Davidson used his influence as editor of The Evangelical Visitor to bring the denomination into the burgeoning nineteenth-century mainstream evangelical movement with its promotion of education and mission.17 While family history suggests that their father was disappointed that so few of his children remained in the Brethren in Christ denomination, Mary M. Yoder’s signature on Hannah Frances Davidson’s passport confirms a closeness and common vision for mission between the two sisters.18
This brief glimpse into the life of the witness to a late nineteeth-century passport that symbolizes dramatic changes in the Brethren in Christ, leaves significant questions. What influence did Mary Mathilda (Davidson) Yoder have on her father Henry Davidson? Did her immersion in mainstream culture by virtue of membership in a prominent evangelical church ultimately influence the direction of the Brethren in Christ? Although history is still silent on this count, the Davidson family’s decision to lay their father to rest next to his first wife and Mary’s mother Hannah (Craft) Davidson, in the circle that included her husband Christian and sons LeRoy and Edwin Yoder hints at the relationship of father and daughter. Mary’s unflagging support of her sister Frances Davidson during the latter’s twenty-four years in the Rhodesias suggests a heretofore undiscovered cheerleader and supporter for her sister held up by the Brethren in Christ for her role as pioneer missionary.
1. Devin C. Thomas, “’I am about to go abroad as a Missionary’: H. Frances Davidson’s Passport Application and what it tells ua about Brethren in Christ Life.” Brethren in Christ Historical Society https://bic-history.org/i-am-about-to-go-abroad-as-a-missionary-h-frances-davidsons-passport-application-and-what-it-tells-us-about-brethren-in-christ-life-2/ ; National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; Roll #.496 – 01 October 1897-31 October 1897, Ancestry.com ,U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2007; Accessed 14 May 2020. Thomas has made several insightful observations about what the passport can tell us about the mindset of the Brethren in Christ of the late nineteenth century, especially as he put it, Davidson’s “unwavering commitment to her church’s foreign mission endeavor.”
2. Nine Portraits: Brethren in Christ Biographical Sketches (Nappanee, Indiana: Evangel Press, 1978), 159.
3. Thomas declares this to be his favourite part of the document.
4. Earl Brechbill, “The Ancestry of John and Henrietta Davidson Brechbill: A Historical Narrative” (Greencastle, PA: printed by author, 1972), 26, 34.
5. “Henry R. and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson: Life and Vision, Brethren in Christ History & Life XLI, no. 2 (August 2018), 115-117, n. 2, 3 4, 10, 11; Brechbill, “Ancestry,” 52, 55-57.
6. “Our Dead, Christian B. Yoder,” Evangelical Visitor, Vol. II, no. 6 (1 March 1893), 80; reprinted from The Wayne County (Wooster, Ohio) Herald (9 February 1893); Year: 1870, Census Place: Orrville, Wayne, Ohio; Roll 14593_1280; page 242B, 1870 U.S. Federal Census [data base-on-line], Provost, USA, Ancestry.com operations, Inc. Accessed 13 June 2020.
8. Although “Peace to his Ashes,” ibid., gives no inkling of church affiliation, it does tell us that “’Christ’ Yoder was a quiet, unassuming Christian gentleman who enjoyed the confidence of all with whom he did business, a father who loved his family and lived for them.” The obituary in the Wayne County Herald gives a brief nod to his membership in “the M.E. Church;” reprinted in “Our Dead, Christian B. Yoder,” Evangelical Visitor (1 March 1893), 80; “Our Dead,” LeRoy Yoder, Evangelical Visitor (1 November 1894), reprinted from Wayne County Herald.
9. Brechbill, “Ancestry,” 56; LeRoy Yoder obituary, Wayne County Herald, cited in “Our Dead,” Evangelical Visitor (1 November 1894).
10. “Our Dead, Christian B. Yoder,” Evangelical Visitor, Vol. II, no. 6 (1 March 1893), 80; Wm. W. Yoder, 1900 US Federal Census, Census Place: Mansfield Ward 6, Richland, Ohio, 13, Ancestry.com, 1900 US Federal Census database on line], Provo, UT, USA, Ancestry.com Operations, Inc. 2014, Accessed 18 May 2020.
12. The photo, labeled Brechbill Reunion 1914, took place in Garrett, Indiana, while Frances was on furlough writing South and South Central Africa (Elgin, Ill: Brethren Publishing House, 1915). The photo is scanned from “The Journal of Frances Davidson. Part V: The Later Years (1908-1931), Brethren in Christ History and Life IX, no. 3 (December 1986), 286. Images of Davidson’s passports appear in Ancestry.com. U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925 [database on-line] (Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2007); Original data: Selected Passports, National Archives, Washington, D.C. Accessed 15 May 2020.
14. Ibid. HFD Diaries 6 (April 21, 1909). Their father Henry Davidson’s obituary reveals that the Brethren in Christ contingent of the family lived in Abilene, Kansas and Garrett, Indiana. Mary had remained in Ohio. Wooster Weekly Republican, (25 March 1903), p. 4, col. 3, p. 5, col. 1.
15. Wendy Urban-Meade’s perspective on the Brethren in Christ mission in the Rhodesias (Zimbabwe and Zambia) as an outsider to the denomination has illustrated the inward focus of most history of the Brethren in Christ. Please see “An Unwomanly Woman and Her Sons in Christ: Faith, Empire, and Gender in Colonial Rhodesia, 1899-1906,” 94-116, in Competing Kingdoms: Women, Mission, Nation, and the American Protestant Empire, 1812-1960, edited by Barbara Reeves-Ellington, Kathryn Kish Sklar, and Connie A. Shemo (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2010); and The Gender of Piety: Family, Faith, and Colonial Rule in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2015); Morris Sider’s recently published retrospective “Finding Vocation and Mission: Reflections on Writing Brethren in Christ History,” Brethren in Christ History & Life Vol. XLIII, no. 1 (April 2020) gives helpful insight into his motivation for dedicating his professional career to advancing the history of the Brethren in Christ.
17. “Henry R. And Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson,” 148; Mark A. Noll, David W. Bebbington and George A. Rawlyk, Evangelicalism:ComparativeStudiesofPopularProtestantisminNorthAmerica,TheBritishIsles,andBeyond,1700-1990 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 6, 9.
18. Brechbill, “Ancestry,” 142; I have told of my search for Henry Davidson’s burial site in “Life and Vision,” 117, n. 9.
Talking about history in the Javanese Mennonite Church (Gereja Injili di Tanah Jawa) is always difficult and challenging due to several factors. First, as the oldest Mennonite community outside of Europe and North America, dating back to 1854, the Javanese Mennonite Church has such a long history and has existed through many dynamic events, including Dutch colonization, Japanese occupation, the Indonesian revolution and struggle for independence, and the anti-Communist massacres of 1965-66. All of these events, and others, have had significant impacts on the survival of the archives and historical documents as well as the kinds of memories that have been handed down. Second, most Javanese Mennonite congregations live in rural and coastal areas in Northern Java and some parts of Sumatra. In the past, many rural people were uneducated and told their stories with an oral rather than written tradition. Third, many local churches show a lack of concern for history and administrative issues, including documenting and writing their experiences.
History, Constructing Identity: Hegemony of written tradition in an
It is commonly understood that the most important resources for constructing and writing history are archival and documentary records. This inevitably means that history will be written from the perspective of the elites and educated people who had access and the ability to write. To know about early Javanese Mennonites, the written primary documents records are found in the writings of Pieter Janzs, the Dutch Mennonite Mission reports, and the colonial government documents, all of which are in Dutch. The most complete source is the Dutch-language diary of Pieter Janzs which has been edited by Alle Hoekema and published 1997 with title “Tot Heil van Java’s Arme Bevolking. Een Keuze uit het Dagboek (1851-1860) van Pieter Jansz, Doopsgezind Zendeling in Jepara, Midden-Java”. The mission report is preserved in Amsterdam. Additionally, there is a book by T. H. E. Jensma, Doopsgezinde Zending in Indonesie, written in 1968, about history of Mennonite mission in Indonesia based on Mennonite mission archives in Amsterdam. Therefore, our historical construction of Mennonites in Java starts from the Dutch Mission perspective. The lives, theology, and teaching of Javanese evangelists and believers are hidden because they did not leave written materials. Even though Kyai Ibrahim Tunggul Wulung had far more followers than Jansz, information about him is very limited. In mission documents, Jansz’s diary and reports, Wulung was pictured negatively, as not “really Christian” because of his many Javanese ways and ideas.
Writing history is also constructing identity and those who have power will make their story the dominant identity. In oral cultures, it’s very important to give attention to the oral story as well as written records. Both written and oral resources contain the same probability of truth and\or bias. Written documents were written in paper and preserved in archives. But oral tradition was also written in the hearts of the people and passed down between generations. For oral societies, validity does not become the main concern, but the question instead is how the story touch experiential meaning and values that they live.
Churches and their Unrevealed Histories
Of the 110 local churches which are members of the Javanese Mennonite Conference/Synod, only few churches have written histories. Many more churches haven’t written their history yet, even though they have existed more than forty years. These churches face similar problems when they start to write their local church histories:
The absence of documents and archives. Many churches are located in rural and coastal area and they lack concern to write church administrative records and documentation, even membership and baptismal records. So oral history approach will be useful for writing their history.
Many of those who know most about their church history have already passed away. Later generations often don’t understand their history because the history was not passed down to them.
There is a tendency in writing history in Indonesia to focus on leaders and church buildings. Many churches are mad about history which regards of whom, how, what, and where was the first of something. Sometimes the church history becomes the list of buildings.
Difficulty to decide on the start or the beginning of a new church in history. Is the beginning of the church counted from the first worship? Or is it the first baptism of local? Or is it the first church building? Or is it the first local church organization?
This short reflection shows our struggles with archiving and maintaining history in the Javanese Mennonite Church. Talked about writing history is related to cultural tradition of society. It is important to think about archiving oral tradition by collecting story, legend, and myth which is connected to church and consider it as resource for writing history. Finally, I would encourage Anabaptist/Mennonite churches to more aware about their history, which is very important. Local churches should be more aware about documents, archives, local stories before all documents are lost, memories fade, and all witnesses die.
“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?
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.↩
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).↩
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.↩
Earl D. Brechbill, “The Ancestry of John and Henrietta Davidson Brechbill: A Historical Narrative” (Greencastle, PA: printed by author, 1972), 56-57. ↩
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.↩
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.↩
As young students in their early 20s, J.D. Graber and Minnie Swartzendruber thought they were headed toward careers as educators. A new set of correspondence at the Mennonite Church USA Archives sheds light on their early lives, their courtship, and their decision to serve as missionaries in India. The mostly handwritten letters between the two span a period of four years (1921-1925) and contain rich details about their family life, social networks, educational pursuits, and Mennonite faith.
About the decision to serve in India, J. D. wrote, “I’m absolutely sure if we make this a matter of earnest prayer God will take care of all difficulties and will open the door for us to go if He wants our lives in India.” In her letter of response, Minnie wrote that God’s strength gave her courage “and makes me willing that our comfortable little home in some college town should fade away. Such is alluring to a young lover’s eye but God forbid it should blind our eyes from the realities of life, the responsibility to be met, and the joy of doing it.”
After seventeen years in India, J. D. later served as the first full-time general secretary of the Mennonite Board of Missions from 1944 to 1967. Minnie was the president of the Women’s Missionary and Service Commission from 1950 to 1959 and spoke widely throughout the church. The collection also includes diaries and journals, sermon notes, and a series of published and unpublished manuscripts that J. D. authored over the course of his career.
Every Mennonite in the small town of Goessel, Kansas knows the date 1874. It is emblazoned on the “Turkey Red Wheat Palace,” erected on the centennial of Mennonites’ migration to the Great Plains from Imperial Russia. Having spent the first years of my life in Goessel, I happen to take 1874 as a historical benchmark. When I recently was back in the area to give a talk on religion and race, I did some reading on the Kaw (or Kanza) people, for whom my home state is named. White settlement pushed the Kaws south into Oklahoma, where their Nation is located today. The story of the Kaws’ removal from Kansas seemed a bit darker for having occurred in 1873.1
“Turkey Red Wheat Palace 1874-1974,” Goessel, Kansas.
There a common belief among the Mennonites with whom I grew up that our faith has a particular affinity with liberal democracy. This idea owes much to a still-influential 1942 essay, The Anabaptist Vision, by the churchman Harold Bender. “There can be no question,” Bender claimed, “but that the great principles of freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, and voluntarism in religion, so basic in American Protestantism and so essential to democracy, ultimately are derived from the Anabaptists of the Reformation period.”2
It would be hard to write a more misleading sentence about Mennonites. In the centuries prior to the Second World War, which was raging when The Anabaptist Vision appeared, the global Mennonite Church was by far a greater beneficiary and product of empire than of democracy. Bender wrote his landmark essay at a time when he and other peace church leaders were seeking to maintain alternative service options for conscientious objectors.3 Aligning Anabaptism with democracy made strategic sense at a time when the United States was at war with fascism.
But part of the context driving The Anabaptist Vision—Bender’s desire to ensure Mennonites’ exemption from military service—was itself a legacy of the Church’s long entanglement with imperial states.Beginning in the late sixteenth century, Mennonite communities found tolerance in European empires, often guaranteed in formal documents known as Privilegia.These enumerated special rights and duties available to Mennonites, including certain financial and judicial freedoms as well as non-participation in armed conflict.
Mennonites immigrants from Imperial Russia in Goessel, Kansas, 1896. Source: Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas.
In the 1870s, when 18,000 Mennonites emigrated from the Russian Empire to Canada and the United States, they were largely responding to the institution—contrary to their Privilegium—of universal military conscription. While this has been remembered in places like Kansas as the dictate of an autocratic regime, nineteenth-century drafts were often democratizing events, intended to remove social inequalities by consistently mandating national service. Many Mennonites grasped this dynamic. In Germany, some offered to renounce voting rights to keep the old system.
What drew Mennonite migrants from European empires to North America in the 1870s was not an affinity for democracy, but a desire to settle in new, expanding imperial states. Indeed, some settlers explicitly identified democracy as a draw-back of coming to the United States. What they sought was cheap land, relative freedom from legal strictures, and state protection from indigenous Americans. Records show that some migrants fleeing military conscription were willing to use weapons against natives.4 Today, narratives of dangerous Indians still suffuse white Mennonite memory.
Scholars have recently engaged in ambitious efforts to retell Anabaptist history from beyond single nations. These accounts have made impressive use of “global” and “transnational” analysis. Indicative of the former is the wonderful Global Mennonite History Series, which outlines the story of the Church in five volumes: Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America. This series has shed key light on the world-wide reach of Anabaptism. But with the subject divided by continent, readers miss specificity regarding exactly how Mennonites globalized.5
The outstanding new history of Mennonites from a transnational perspective is Roy Loewen’s Village among Nations, about the hundreds of thousands of conservative Low German-speaking Mennonites scattered from Argentina to Canada.Loewen’s book stresses the separatism of these groups, explaining how they live in states “without pursuing either social or cultural citizenship in them.” For Loewen, “They were thus not Mexican Mennonites or Paraguayan Mennonites as much as Mexico Mennonites and Paraguay Mennonites, a subtle, but significant, difference.”6
But here, too, a transnational approach can elide exactly how these Mennonites have moved through the world—or what citizenship they did hold. The answer in many cases: British. This may seem surprising unless one considers Anabaptist history from an imperial standpoint. It was to the British Empire that most “Swiss” Mennonites moved when they came to colonial America. The founding of the United States led some to relocate to British Canada as “liberty’s exiles.”7 And across the twentieth century, British bureaucrats kept tabs on their Majesties’ Mennonite subjects.8
Part of a letter to Australia from G.D. Klassen of Mexico, 1927. Source: National Archives of Australia, Canberra.
Why did migrants arrive at certain destinations? The archives of empire are revealing. In 1916, Mennonites in Imperial Russia, unhappy with restrictions imposed during the First World War, considered moving to the British dominion of South Africa. Holding affinity for the Afrikaans-speaking Boer settlers, some Mennonites described themselves as “Russian Boers.”9 Although South African officials ruled that “no obstacle will be placed in the way of these people,” war hindered migration.10 When it finally commenced in 1923, settlers went to the British dominion of Canada.
Australia, another dominion, was less accepting. Mennonites in North America approached Australia in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1960s, often responding to calls for white settlers. In 1927, G.D. Klassen of Mexico wrote to Australian officials after reading a propaganda pamphlet entitled “Australia: The Land of the Better Chance.” He inquired about the quality of available land, and whether Mennonites would be given military exemption and educational freedom. Klassen also wanted to know “if there are many niggers living in your Country.”11 Australian officials, however, consistently opposed group settlement.
Empire mattered. It seized land for settlement. It provided a global set of destinations. It enabled communication and transportation. It said yes, sometimes no. And it persisted. In the late 1950s, British Honduras (later renamed Belize) offered Mennonites a Privilegium and moved 1,700 individuals from Mexico.12 Empire also changed the ethnic and cultural composition of the Church. The first Mennonite mission fields were all located in colonies or territories opened by imperialism: the Dutch East Indies, Indian reservations in the American West, British India, China, and the Belgian Congo.13
Mennonite missionaries—including my great-great-great uncle Peter Penner (center)—at a leper station in British India, ca. 1903. Source: Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas.
From the Reformation to today, Anabaptist history is inconceivable without robust consideration of empires and imperialism. Even those of us, like Harold Bender, who prefer to think of the Church as a bastion of democratic principles must come to terms with the deep imbrication of Anabaptism and imperialism. You, too, are shaped by empire. This may take on innumerable different forms—whether as someone who inhabits stolen land, or as someone whose own land was taken, or perhaps both. Acknowledging and reckoning with these histories is a task for us all.
Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University and the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.
On the history of the Kaw Nation until 1873, see William Unrau, The Kansa Indians: A History of the Wind People, 1673-1873 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971). A brief history of Mennonite-Indian relations is available here. ↩
On Bender and the Anabaptist Vision, see Albert N. Keim, Harold S. Bender, 1897-1962 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1998), 306-331. ↩
On Mennonites’ navigation of the tensions between Christian pacifism and US nationalism in the mid-twentieth century, see Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998). ↩
For example, John Gering, After Fifty Years: A Brief Discussion of the History and Activities of the Swiss-German Mennonites from Russia who Settled in South Dakota in 1874 (Freeman, SD: Pine Hill Printery), 1924, 42-43. ↩
Consider the critique of “globalization” as a historical analytic in Frederick Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 91-112. For a full-length study of world history through an imperial lens, see Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010). ↩
Royden Loewen, Village among Nations: “Canadian” Mennonites in a Transnational World, 1916-2006 (Buffalo, NY: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 5. ↩
This was part of a much larger exodus of British loyalists in the wake of the American Revolution. See Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York: Vintage Books, 2011). ↩
For example, see correspondence from the 1930s regarding Mennonites in Mexico who were British subjects: FO 723/271, The National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom, hereafter TNA. ↩
See James Urry, “Russian Mennonites and the Boers of South Africa: A Forgotten Connection,” Mennonite Historian 20, no. 3 (1994): 1-2, 9. ↩
Acting Under Secretary for the Interior to Principle Immigration Officer, June 2, 1916, BNS 1/2/19 A629, National Archives and Records Service of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa. ↩
G.D. Klassen to Development and Migration Commission, August 26, 1927, CP211/2 53/61, National Archives of Australia, Canberra, Australia. For an earlier discussion of possible Mennonite migration to Australia, see James Urry, “Bishop Bugnion, the Mennonites and Australia: The Immigration-That-Never-Was, 1873-1880,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 32 (2014): 175-209. ↩
“Note on Mennonite Communities in British Honduras,” July 30, 1959, CO 1031/2769, TNA. ↩
Here, too, colonial-era archives provide insight into the mechanics of missionary expansion. For example: “Grant of land to Revd. J.A. Ressler of the American Mennonite Mission at Dhamtari in the Raipur District, Central Provinces,” 1902, Revenue & Agriculture, Land Revenue, 39-40, National Archives of India, New Delhi, India. ↩
Samuel S. Haury (1847-1929) was the first missionary sent out by a North American Mennonite denomination, working among Arapaho and Cheyenne people in what is now Oklahoma starting in 1880. His mission career lasted only seven years, however, ending in scandal in 1887. The end of Haury’s career has only been publicly known in vague generalities. The most specific explanation is found in Lois Barrett’s 1983 history of General Conference home missions, where she says Haury resigned because of “his sexual indiscretion with another missionary at Cantonment.”1
Darlington school children and teachers; left to right at top, Dian Luginbuel (m. Jacob Meschberger), Maria Lehrman (m. Jacob Warkentin), Susie Richert (m. C. H. Wedel), S. S. Haury, Barbara Baer Voth and baby Frieda, H. R. Voth (top of head cut off). Mennonite Library and Archives Photo Collection 2003-0081
The archival record does actually allow for a bit fuller explanation. Haury was located at Cantonment, Indian Territory, where the General Conference had a school for Cheyenne and Arapaho children. Haury was in charge of all of the Cheyenne-Arapaho mission activities. Another missionary, Heinrich R. Voth, was located at Darlington, where Haury had started the first Mennonite mission school several years earlier. In a letter on May 14, 1887, from Haury to Voth, Haury says, “C. Krehbiel [chair of the mission board] has already informed you of my approaching departure from the mission, and of the sad cause, brought about by my own conduct and fault. The consequences are terrible. My heart is shattered. Pray for a deeply fallen one.”2
A week later, May 21, there is another letter to Voth: “Our departure is not yet specified. I expected to get my dismissal in today’s mail but it did not come. I hope that it will come soon. It would be best under these circumstances to leave tomorrow. But we will hardly be able to get away by the first of June.”3
The timeline of events seems a little muddied, however, since a letter also dated May 21, 1887, from Haury to the mission board, says: “I write these lines in deep shame and humiliation. I have already given the president of the board verbally and the secretary in written form my confession of my deep fall. . . . My deep fall consists of marital infidelity with Christina Hirschler, sister of my dear wife, so that she is already about 6 months pregnant.”4 This letter circulated among the members of the mission board, scattered from Kansas to Pennsylvania, through at least June 10.
A week later we find the sole surviving voice from one of the women concerned, Susie Hirschler Haury writing to H. R. Voth on May 28, in English (most of the other correspondence is in German): “We will go away soon, & it will be no more than natural that everybody at the Agency & at the schools will want to know why we have. Please tell them that we felt we could not remain or something to that effect. I would not ask you to tell an untruth, Never, but there is no need of having it spread among outsiders. It is not on my or our account I ask this, but on account of the Mission work & Christianity’s sake. For such people as live in the Agency & in this country generally, hearing anything of that kind, would call ‘the whole thing a fraud.’ Having had no Christian experience, they cannot know of the hearts-anguish such a person that has fallen, has in his own chamber & in the silent nightwatches.”5 Voth reassured her the next day that he would comply with her wishes.6
Samuel Schmidt Haury (1847-1929) and Susanna Hirschler Haury (1861-1944). Mennonite Library and Archives Photo Collection 2006-0096
Susie Hirschler Haury gave birth to a son Paul on Jan. 28, 1887.7 This means that if her sister Christina was 6 months pregnant in mid-May, then that event must have occurred in mid- December 1886 when Susie was about 8 months pregnant. Presumably her sister Christina had come out to help with household tasks before and after the birth. Paul died on June 14, 1887. “This morning at about 5:00 the Lord took our little son Paul to himself, after several days of severe suffering and a 2 hour hard death struggle. The burial will be tomorrow afternoon about 2:00, Lord willing, and would like to ask you sincerely and urgently to lead this service. The service should be in English.”8
The Haurys must have finally left Indian Territory sometime around the end of June. A letter from G. D. Williams, the Indian agent for the Cheyenne and Arapaho, to J. D. C. Atkins, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, DC, on Aug. 12, 1887, gives a perspective from outside of Mennonite circles:
In accordance with instructions of Office letter of the 9th ult. [July 9] I have the honor to report that in the latter part of May last there were rumors about Cantonment, involving the moral character of Mr. Haury. As he had the entire confidence of this community as well as my own, and standing so high in his Church I gave them no credence. June 4th Mr. Haury advised me, by letter, of his resignation as Missionary among these Indians, without alleging any cause. On the 22nd day of June last, in company with Inspector Gardner, I visited Cantonment and learned beyond question that the charges were true.
During the second day of inspection of Indian houses, a number of the head men of the Cheyenne talked with Inspector Gardner about the matter, saying that they did not wish any more such men sent among then and that they desired Mr. Haury sent away. They were assured that he was about to depart, which he did in a few days thereafter.
These Indians do not entertain the highest sentiment regarding chastity, and while I do not believe the unfortunate act within itself would deter them from sending their children to the school, they will use it as an incontrovertible argument against a mission school under the same patronage and decline to support it. This applies more particularly to the Cheyennes who are largely in the majority at Cantonment and who have no earnest desire for the education of their children.
They grasp any excuse for withholding their children; for two years past they have given as a reason that the buildings were old, damp and unhealthful, but as soon as a new building was erected they would fill it.
In view of this I submit that they will use the late unfortunate occurrence with great effect among their people. I do not believe the scandal will in the least injure the mission school located at the Agency and in charge of the Rev. Mr. Voth, as for several years past Mr. Haury has not, in the Indian mind, been identified with it, and I am constrained to believe that the Cantonment Mission will not soon recover from the recent blow and that its success for the next year or two is in the gravest doubt.
The present “picket” structures at Cantonment will serve another year with some few repairs – but a new building is needed and I believe it should be conducted solely by the Government to insure [sic] its success.9
The leading historian of the Arapaho, Loretta Fowler, offers some further explanation of Williams’ comments.
When Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs directly challenged officials, they often did so by appropriating elements of the dominant ideology. For example, in the delegates’ attempt to counter Agent Woodson’s disparaging description of Cheyennes and Arapahos, they turned his own discourse against him: Woodson was lazy, neglected his work, was fiscally imprudent, and fell short of the ideals of monogamy and sobriety. He spent idle hours dancing while trying to prevent the Cheyennes and Arapahos from having dances. This same tactic was used in regard to local boarding school superintendents and even to missionary Haury, who was caught in an adulterous relationship.10
Fowler gives no sources for her comment about Haury’s “adulterous relationship.”
On Aug. 16, 1887, H. R. Voth wrote to a Captain J. M. Lee, who had apparently had some previous role in the Cheyenne-Arapaho area and remained friends with Voth.
Mr. H. has fallen very deeply. He had had unlawful intercourse with his sister in law, the sinful deed bearing bitter fruit. Mr. H. acknowledged his guilt voluntarily to the Mission Board, was of course promptly discharged, & had to leave. Although covered with shame & disgrace, yet accompanied by the deep sympathy & genuine regret of thousands of friends, his field of faithful labor and is now living in obscurity. The child was born a few weeks ago, but did not live long. That is, in a few words, the deplorable history which ended in such an extremely tragical manner, Mr. Haury’s evidently successful career as an Indian Educator and missionary.11
Haury moved to St. Louis to attend medical school.12 There is one major postscript to the 1887 scandal. At a meeting of the Kansas Conference (predecessor to today’s Western District area conference) at First Mennonite Church in Newton, Kansas, Nov. 5-6, 1889, there is this resolution:
At the request of the brother, S. S. Haury, that the Conference use its influence in favor of his admission into the Mennonite denomination, the Conference resolves that as such it is ready to offer him the hand gladly and to let his reception take place in a public meeting to which all of the conference churches are herewith invited, on the 13t h inst. in the Alexanderwohl Church by Elder Chr. Krehbiel with the assistance of Elder Jak. Buller, as commissioners of the Conference.13
Two persons recorded the actual event at Alexanderwohl. Johann Jantzen, a Mennonite minister from Beatrice, Nebraska, who was attending a ministers’ meeting, noted the event in his diary:
In the Alexanderwohl church, the former missionary Haury, who had been separated from the church, was re-accepted. He seemed very repentant. Elder Balzer read Psalm 51 and had the opening prayer. Elder Gaeddert preached on John 10:12, a very nice exposition. Elder Christian Krehbiel carried out the acceptance and Elder Stucky closed with prayer. It was a large gathering and a very large church, recently built. On the way back [to Newton] we had very nice weather and better roads; we stopped at the Bethel College foundation [construction site], it is around 15 feet high now, with 3 feet in the ground.14
Then, H. R. Voth’s father Cornelius described the event in a letter to his son, mixed in with news about the farm and crops, in a Nov. 17, 1889, letter:
We still have 20 acres of corn to [cut?] and also so much work to prepare the cattle for winter. Now dear son, I must write to you a little about the acceptance of S. S. Haury into the community [Gemeinschaft] on the 13th last Wednesday in our church (it was a nice day), there were quite many people present, especially many elders and preachers because the day before in our school was the preachers’ conference, it was really a sad sight how deeply humiliated Haury was, an evil picture of how sin can bring a person down, it was too bad that you could not be present and also at the conference, since there is always something to learn for our life, I certainly believe Haury has genuine repentance, he cried many tears and was very broken down, there were also many tears from the assembly with him, it was a moving performance, to begin Elder Buller read Psalm 51, how we are kept, then Elder Gaeddert preached very seriously and Christian Krehbiel did the actual acceptance, Elders Buller, Gaeddert and Newton elder Toews stood around him and greeted him with hand and mouth [holy kiss?] and with moving words of encouragement, may the dear Lord protect everyone from such a heavy burden since one sees what serious sins bring about. They are again gathering potatoes which will be brought to Newton on Tuesday and sent to you.15
It is completely unclear what kind of reconciliation service took place on Nov. 13, 1889. It was not an Alexanderwohl congregational matter but something more general, Kansas/Western District conference or General Conference. There is no evidence that Haury was ever a member of Alexanderwohl church. He joined First Mennonite in Halstead on Mar. 30, 189016 and then transferred to First Mennonite in Newton on Nov. 21, 1897.17 These record books do not indicate where he was a member before 1890, but it was probably Summerfield, Illinois. The Summerfield membership records have been lost.
The Hirschler family was fairly prominent in General Conference Mennonite circles. The father of Christina and Susanna, Daniel A. Hirschler (1821-1888), was a minister at Summerfield, Illinois. Their brother John S. Hirschler (1847-1915) was also a widely-known minister. A brother, Daniel B. Hirschler was an Oklahoma missionary. A niece (daughter of John S. Hirschler), Anna, married Gustav A. Linscheid and they were later Cheyenne missionaries. Another sister, Anna (1854-1896), was married to Peter S. Haury, brother of Samuel S.18
Two additional pieces of misinformation about the Haury incident deserve to be clarified. One rumor that apparently circulated in the Berne, Indiana, Mennonite community tied Haury to another sister-in-law, Elisabeth Welty Hirschler, wife of Daniel B. Hirschler. The rumor claims that Haury fathered the child Dorothea Hirschler born Nov. 20, 1885. Daniel and Elisabeth Hirschler were mission workers in Cantonment.19 But obviously this does not fit the chronology of Haury’s departure almost two years later nor the contents of the Haury and Voth correspondence. Presumably someone in the community knew, well after the event, that Haury had had a sexual relationship with his “sister-in-law” and extrapolated to the wrong sister-in-law.
The second piece of misinformation appears in Donald Berthrong’s 1976 The Cheyenne and Arapaho Ordeal. Berthrong stated that Haury “had been involved with school-girls at Cantonment.” But the only source he cites for this is the letter from Williams to Atkins of August 12, 1887, quoted above, which makes no mention of school girls.20 Obviously Berthrong had not seen Haury’s letter of resignation or the other mission-related correspondence, so he was reading into the Williams letter assumptions that were unsupported by his evidence.
Jim Juhnke also references this student-involvement rumor but footnotes Berthrong so apparently he did not have an independent source for it.21
Christina Hirschler (1865-1941) married Louis M. Ledig in 1891, and they moved from Summerfield to Upland, California, in 1895. They had one son. Samuel and Susie Haury also moved to Upland when he retired in 1913. 22
Lois Barrett, The Vision and the Reality: The Story of Home Missions in the General Conference Mennonite Church (Newton, Kans.: Faith and Life Press, 1983), 22. ↩
H. R. Voth papers, MS.21, folder 63, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kans. ↩
Halstead Kirchenbuch, 90 (Mennonite Library and Archives). ↩
First Mennonite Stammbuch (Mennonite Library and Archives). ↩
See Melvin J. Voigt, From Whence We Came ([Del Mar, California: Voigt, 1989), esp. p. 12. Voigt is aware of the Samuel S. Haury scandal but seems to have no indication that it involved anyone else in the Hirschler family. ↩
Email from David Habegger to John D. Thiesen, 15 Sep 2006. Printed copy in S. S. Haury papers, MS.76, folder 1. ↩
Donald J. Berthrong, The Cheyenne and Arapaho Ordeal: Reservation and Agency Life in the Indian Territory, 1875-1907 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976), 144. ↩
James C. Juhnke, “General Conference Mennonite Missions to the American Indians in the Late Nineteenth Century,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 54 (April 1980): 126. ↩
Voigt, From Whence We Came. It seems like that would have been awkward situation. ↩
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
A collection recently donated to the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, included a diagram depicting “Goshen College and the Fruits Thereof.” It shows six main branches, with a plethora of fruit growing from them: worldliness, unsound literature, hypocrisies, disloyalty, unsound teachers, and modernism. In the bottom corner, a note—”Lest we Forget! JHM”1
(Bishop) John Heer Mosemann was heavily concerned with Modernism, which he saw as seducing the youth away from the Church and pointing to false spiritual answers elsewhere. In 1904 Mosemann was ordained a minister by Chestnut Street Mennonite Church, Lancaster Mennonite Conference, part of a new wave of leadership alongside Peter R. Nissley and John H. Shelly. In 1926 he became bishop of the Lancaster district, and was a well known as an evangelist and ardent conservative voice. He was strongly influenced by George R. Brunk and Brunk’s Mennonite Fundamentalism. Mosemann was involved in missions, education, publishing, and conference work.2
In a letter addressed “To my dear fellowbishops” dated March 2, 1929, Bishop John H. Mosemann justified his suspicions about “the brother working in our midst,” either Ernest E. Miller or George J. Lapp, both missionaries to India. After listing the suspicious involvements he states,3
Naturally the question arises how can he do these things? There are reasons for this which may find their explanation in the following items.
He received his education in the former Modernistically corrupt Goshen College. He does not seem to have shaken much of this teaching off. [Formatting in original document]
This Modernistic College intended to Liberalize and Modernize the entire Mennonite Church. For years they were wishing to have a faithful lieutenant in this County. They are seeking to Liberalize the Church every where and are succeeding rapidly as one faithful old pillar after another is passing away in the Church.
They taught Modernistic doctrines. evolutionary ideas. World Betterment views. Against the “Faith of the Fathers.” They opposed the doctrine of the Plenary Verbal Inspiration of the Scriptures. They disbelieved in the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. They denied the efficacy of the blood of Christ and believed the self righteous doctrine of Salvation by Works – good character. In other words the delusive doctrine of Unitarianism.
They were taught to al[m]ost worship Harry Emerson Fosdick the noted Modernist – veneered and polished Infidel as well as other present day Modernist’s. [sic.]
They were taught to be rebellious to their Church leaders and to their Conferences.
They were encouraged to return to their homes and revolutionize their Church and Community. A vivid example we have seen in the workings of Pre. Amos Geigly.
Another aim they seem to have was to get their product in all manner of positions in the Church [. . . .] Some years ago it was easily seen that the Goshen element were seeking to control General Conference [. . .]
It was the purpose to compel every prospective missionary to complete their education at Goshen College, which accounts for the large number of liberal missionaries now on the field. Thus every missionary would eventually become of the liberal type.
[. . .]
The Liberalists in the Dunkard Church have pushed this matter to the limit so that the conservatives are powerless to do a thing unless they wish to leave the Church. We are heading in the same direction but may be able to do something if it is done quickly, firmly, courageously and uncompromisingly. [. . .] If I am in error on any point I wish to beg pardon. However I must clear my skirts and therefore speak in plain terms.
Faithfully your fellow watchman
It should be noted that while Mosemann and others made numerous and loud accusations suspecting the India Mission in particular of “un-Christian activities,” no doctrinal deviation was ever proven.4
Today, Mosemann’s exhortation, “lest we forget,” is still true, but for reasons he might not recognize. Suspicions about Goshen College have mellowed. In some ways, the conflict within Mennonite churches over Modernism feels settled, though the results can be seen across the strata of Anabaptist groups existing today (the conflict within MC USA today over sexuality has clear antecedents in the same fight, with the method in which scripture is used being a clear indicator). And it can be easy to dismiss Mosemann as misguided in the same way he would have thrown out the Modernists from the Church, or write him off as a cautionary tale about being on the wrong side of history.
But John H. Mosemann was doing his best to live a faithful Christian life. When doing history, it is important to remember that the subjects of inquiry were real and are deserving of respect on the basis of their humanity. Perhaps we differ from Mosemann on how to live our faith today, or perhaps not, but we should not forget that he was trying his best to produce “good fruit.”
John H. Mosemann, “Tree Diagram,” n.d.,Noah L. Landis Collection, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, Lancaster, Pa. ↩