Some Clarity on an Old Mystery

John D. Thiesen

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;

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)

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:

  1. 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


  1.  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. 
  2.  H. R. Voth papers, MS.21, folder 63, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kans. 
  3.  H. R. Voth papers, MS.21, folder 63. 
  4.  General Conference Mennonite Church, Board of Missions records, I.A.1.a, folder 29 “Correspondence 1887 Jan-June.” 
  5.  H. R. Voth papers, MS.21, folder 63. 
  6.  H. R. Voth papers, MS.21, copy book 2, p. 675. 
  7.  GRANDMA database 
  8.  Haury to Voth, June 16, 1887, H. R. Voth papers, MS.21, folder 24. 
  9.  Oklahoma Historical Society, Cheyenne Arapaho Agency microfilms, reel 17, vol. 20, 236-239. 
  10.  Loretta Fowler, Tribal Sovereignty and the Historical Imagination: Cheyenne-Arapaho Politics (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 46. 
  11.  H. R. Voth papers, MS.21, copy book 2, p. 763-764. 
  12.  Haury to Voth, Sept. 13, 1887, H. R. Voth papers, MS.21, folder 63. 
  13.  Minutes of the Kansas Conference, Nov. 5-6, 1889, English translation. 
  14.     Jantzen, Johann (1823-1903) Collection, MS.549 
  15.  H. R. Voth papers, MS.21, folder 2. 
  16.  Halstead Kirchenbuch, 90 (Mennonite Library and Archives). 
  17.  First Mennonite Stammbuch (Mennonite Library and Archives). 
  18.  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. 
  19.  Email from David Habegger to John D. Thiesen, 15 Sep 2006. Printed copy in S. S. Haury papers, MS.76, folder 1. 
  20.  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. 
  21.  James C. Juhnke, “General Conference Mennonite Missions to the American Indians in the Late Nineteenth Century,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 54 (April 1980): 126. 
  22.  Voigt, From Whence We Came. It seems like that would have been awkward situation. 

Argentine Relics

Image

ArgentinianRelics1

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

Faithfully Your Fellow Watchman

Joel Horst Nofziger

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

Tree Diagram Modernism.jpg

(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.

  1. 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]
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.]
  5. They were taught to be rebellious to their Church leaders and to their Conferences.
  6. 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.
  7. 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 [. . .]
  8. 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.”


  1. John H. Mosemann, “Tree Diagram,” n.d.,Noah L. Landis Collection, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, Lancaster, Pa. 
  2. John L. Ruth, The Earth Is the Lords (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2001), 770-71, 881, 907; Mosemann, John H., “Moseman, John Heer (1877-1938)” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Mosemann,John_Heer(1877-1938)
  3. John H. Mosemann  to “my dear fellowbishops,” March 2, 1929, Noah L. Landis Collection, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, Lancaster, Pa. 
  4. John Allen Lapp, The Mennonite Church in India 1897-1962 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1972), 61. 

Mennonites, Mission and Race: The Cleveland Experiment

My Mennonite identity was born of the convergence of post-World War II urban missions and African American migration to the city of Cleveland. The Lee Heights Community Church in Cleveland was one of the original 13 Black Mennonite congregations, and is perhaps one of the very few Mennonite churches in the U.S. that has had a racial consciousness to it since its very beginning. Established in 1958, this congregation emerged against a complicated background of race and politics.

lee-heights-groundbreaking

Groundbreaking at Lee Heights Community Church

Before World War I, about 10,000 Black people lived in Cleveland. By 1960, that number had swelled to a quarter million, with most Black families living on the east side of the city. The influx, especially between 1940 and 1960, greatly taxed the availability of housing and schools, and they were often inadequate and in poor condition. These conditions, replicated in cities across the country, erupted in the Hough riots in 1966. Tensions rose, as well as distrust of Cleveland’s old guard politicians, setting the stage for the election of the first Black mayor of a major U.S. City. Cleveland was attractive because jobs were available. Black men could find work, especially in the steel and auto industries. Other jobs possibilities were with the post office, and teaching and social work jobs were open for Black women, in addition to domestic positions.

lee-heights-community-church-early-days

Worship service during the early days of Lee Heights Community Church

As opportunities increased for Black people, so did white flight. Suburbanization and the completion of interstate highways facilitated the shift in housing patterns. As Blacks moved into previously all white neighborhoods, white families moved out. The neighborhood transitions were facilitated by the institutionalized racist policies of realtors, construction companies, banks, and mortgage and insurance companies. Riots along the east coast and throughout the Midwest accelerated the push of Black out of white neighborhoods and helped Black neighborhoods become firmly entrenched ghettos by World War II. 1

This was the climate when Mennonites began their urban missions projects in earnest.

The heightened racial unrest occurred at the same time white Mennonites were moving from isolated farming communities to major cities. As conscientious objectors to war, Mennonite men who otherwise would have been drafted into military service fulfilled their civic duties by entering into 1-W service, often in cities. Common assignments were located in hospitals and public service agencies. Denominational mission and relief agencies also helped coordinate voluntary service assignments in urban communities; through these avenues many young white Mennonites first encountered African Americans and had eyes opened to the reality of racism and Black discontent in America.

gladstone-mennonite-church

Gladstone Mennonite Church

The Mennonite church in Cleveland church began as a Bible school, run by volunteers from the nearby rural Plainview (later Aurora) Mennonite Church in the 1940s. This ministry was located in the Gladstone area near East 55th Street, and housed in an elementary school. By 1948, over 400 children had attended the summer Bible school, and that year, the program was extended into the fall. A house was purchased and renovated in 1951 for the Voluntary Service (VS) unit, which housed men who were doing 1-W service in Cleveland. In 1952, Vern Miller, a recent Goshen College graduate, and his wife Helen moved into the area.2

lee-heights-community-church-pastor-vern-miller-with-parishoners

Vern Miller, pastor of Lee heights Community Church, with parishioners

Gladstone’s first church council was organized in the spring of 1953 when the church had 35 members, most of whom lived in the neighborhood. The congregation quickly outgrew the original building, and the VS unit was eventually phased out. In 1955, plans for an urban renewal project signaled the end of the Mennonite ministry at Gladstone.3

The Housing Act of 1949, part of president Harry Truman’s Fair Deal [Thank you Linda Rosenblum for that correction], expanded the role of the federal government in housing, and chief element of the plan provided federal funds for “slum clearance” with the promise to build new public housing developments. Entire neighborhoods were razed in order to make room for non-residential public works, and in some cases rebuilt housing that was too expensive for the current inhabitants. Poor people, usually people of color, were pushed out of their neighborhoods, inspiring the pithy saying “urban renewal equals Negro removal.” 4

With the mission board’s backing, the Millers decided to move southeast of the first church into the Lee Heights area where there was only one other church. The area had recently been annexed by the city; the land was not desired by industry because it was partially wooded and had ravines running through it. When the congregation formally organized in 1957, they were first known as the Protestant Inter-Racial Parish. These dynamics were the DNA for the new church – a ministry of the Mennonite Church, but interdenominational and community based. The doctrinal statement of the church included a statement of the church’s stance against racial segregation and discrimination.

In 1959, the General Conference Mennonite Church issued a statement called “The Christian and Race Relations” that confessed Mennonites were complicit in “discrimination against racial and minority groups (Mexicans, Negroes, Jews, American Indians, Oriental peoples, and others),” weakening mission outreach. Because “in Christ all barriers of race and nation have been destroyed,” the statement urged congregations to “welcome all persons as brothers and members despite their color” and called on all church institutions to examine their policies and programs. 5

The 1963 General Conference Confession of Faith called the church to be a witness against racial discrimination, economic injustice, and all forms of human slavery and moral degradation. 6

At a conference on race relations in 1964, Vincent Harding challenged Mennonites, arguing they had come late to the issue even though their very theology and history compelled their response. 7

Mennonites in America were no longer as socially isolated, and the fruits of mission efforts meant that people of different racial and cultural backgrounds were now part of the Mennonite family; this diversity necessitated an expansion of Mennonite’s peace position.

Guy Hershberger’s 1941 (revised 1953) War, Peace and Nonresistance articulated the Mennonite stance on non-resistance for the 20th century church. Written in part to explain Mennonites to outsiders, but mostly to help that generation of American Mennonites understand their theology, the book outlined the biblical basis for Mennonite non-resistance, and went beyond military involvement to address issues like responses to labor union tactics as part of a peace witness. Hershberger was clear that a faithful biblical response to violence was to not resist; one did not pick up the sword, and tactics like demonstrations, boycotts and strikes were to be avoided because these were coercive; that is, not nonresistance. 8

For this reason, Hershberger could not support Gandhian (and subsequently Civil Rights Movement) tactics of boycotting and demonstrating. Yet he did call Mennonites to a response to racial injustice and racial unrest.

Challenges also came directly from the African American community. In 1945, the Mennonite Biblical Seminary moved to Chicago. While working on a doctorate in history at the University of Chicago, Vincent Harding was called to co-pastor the integrated Woodlawn Mennonite Church, where his spouse, Rosemarie Harding, also served as a lay counselor. The Hardings pressed Mennonites to use their peace and justice theology as a response to systemic racism. This call is certainly relevant for Mennonites today.


  1. Stephen Grant Meyer, As Long as they Don’t Move Next Door: Segregation and Racial Conflict in American Neighborhoods, (Lanham, MD, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1999), 31. 
  2. Willard Helmuth, “The History of the Lee Heights Community Church,” Unpublished paper, January 11, 1962, 2. 
  3. Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities, ed., 1956 Report of the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (Elkhart, Ind.: 1956): 79. 
  4. James Baldwin, interviewed by Kenneth Clark, “The Negro and The American Promise,” Boston Public Television, 1963. 
  5. “A Church of Many Peoples Confronts Racism (General Conference Mennonite Church, Mennonite Church, 1989).” Anabaptistwiki, Accessed February 13, 2016. 
  6. “Mennonite Confession of Faith, 1963.” – Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, gameo.org (Accessed February 13, 2016). 
  7. Felipe Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith and Evangelical Culture, (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 49. 
  8. Guy Hershberger, “Biblical Nonresistance and Modern Pacifism,” in War, Peace, and Nonresistance (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1944), 222-223. 

The Deepest Dichotomy: How A Sixty-Five-Year-Old Essay on Racism Helped Me Learn A Lesson From Before I Was Born

Tobin Miller Shearer

J. Lester Brubaker taught me a lesson. He did so back in 1950, fifteen years before I entered this world. That is the wonder of history.

Brubaker wrote an article beneath the headline “Colored Missions.” In it, he used his position as editor of Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Mennonite Conference’s Missionary Messenger to suggest ten ways to “win the Negro of America to Christ.”1 Starting from the assumption that it was easier to help the “dark-skinned American” than the “dark-skinned African” because it was less expensive and did not require learning a “difficult language,” Brubaker carefully enumerated his motivations and methods for reaching across the color line.2

j-brubaker

J.  Lester Brubaker, 1952 Lancaster Mennonite High School Laurel Wreath

His was a daunting task. Two years after he penned his essay, there were still only twelve African-American congregations listed in the Mennonite Yearbook, and they were lumped together with “Spanish speaking” missions and ministries focused on “Jewish People” under the category “Missions Among Different Peoples.”3 What was segregated in print was also segregated in practice. Many retirement and children’s homes run by Mennonites would not accept African Americans. Nearby Virginia Conference continued to enforce its 1940 bishop-approved segregation guidelines for all church sacraments from communion to the Holy Kiss.4 And the numbers were small: by 1953 mission worker Leroy Bechler reported only 282 black members of the Mennonite Church in the United States.5

To be certain, some African-American leaders pushed back against these walls of racial segregation. James and Rowena Lark had been actively ministering within the African-American community for several years, with James being ordained as a minister on October 6, 1946.6 Both Larks had gained notice of the church at large, and in 1951 James would come to serve on the church-wide Committee on Economic and Social Relations (CESR), a group that would, concurrent with Lark’s involvement and the leadership of Guy F. Hershberger, focus on race relations for many years.7 Over in Chicago, James and Rowena had started Bethel Mennonite church where they lead an integrated congregation and advocated for full inclusion of African Americans. In a 1950 article, Rowena noted that a “worker” in their congregation, originally from Virginia, became “the first Colored girl ever to attend E. M.C. as a registered student.”8

But despite these efforts, segregation in 1950 was, in the Mennonite community, the norm. Integration, however halting, was the anomaly.

In that historical context, Brubaker wrote his editorial. Having studied at Franklin and Marshall College and taught English at Lancaster Mennonite School, Brubaker knew how to wield a pen. He also knew his audience.

And this is where the lesson that I learned fifteen years from before I was born enters in.

Among the many suggestions that he had to offer [see sidebar/image], Brubaker focused brubaker-mm-1950on two themes: becoming involved in changing institutions and being nice to black people. As a thoughtful writer, Brubaker was of course more nuanced in his recommendations. He seems to have realized that the problem of racism was not just a matter of individual prejudice, so he called for changes in “church-administered institutions” and for more involvement in efforts to improve economic, labor, and social conditions for black Americans. He likewise recognized that white Mennonites were prone to patronizing behaviors and superiority and so enjoined his readers to “[n]ever show a patronizing or ‘better-than-thou’ attitude.”9

But the lesson that Brubaker taught me is just how long the Mennonite Church has been struggling to overcome this dichotomy between advocating for institutional change and fostering interpersonal relationship. When Brubaker encouraged parents to “not teach children to be color conscious” because “they likely will not notice the difference unless adults emphasize it,” he could not have been more distant from the African Americans who in 1950—and for decades previously—had been asking for more attention to the realities of racism, not less. Even for his relative sophistication and nuance, as a white Mennonite from Lancaster County, Brubaker and his co-believers stood at a far remove from African-American leaders like W. E. B. DuBois, Mary Mcleod Bethune, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett who had long been advocating for forthright, nuanced, and informed approaches to racism. Likewise, Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 An American Dilemma noted the deep-seated patterns of white racism and prejudice that could not be overcome by avoiding discussion about race.

Brubaker and his contemporaries knew how to encourage each other to be nice, to host black and brown children from the city, and to sponsor children of color at their summer camps. But those actions, regardless of how well meaning, lovingly offered, and challenging they were to implement, missed the mark of the standards set by African-American leaders of the day.

What is so striking is that this same dichotomy is present in the contemporary church. White Mennonites continue to find relationally based solutions far more attractive than the kind of activism promoted by groups affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement, for example. The problem now, as it was in 1950, is that the solutions white Mennonites are most familiar with have not been called for by the black community and have not proven effective over time. Addressing violence against black communities, paying reparations for slavery, and instituting community controlled policing have proven historically much more difficult for white Mennonites to support.

Our way forward as a church community will turn in part on how well we come to grips with the very dichotomy that J. Lester Brubaker helped me understand has been part of the Mennonite zeitgeist for sixty-five years and counting.

 

Works Cited

Bechler, Le Roy. The Black Mennonite Church in North America 1886-1986. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1986.

———. Facts, Considerations and Membership of Negroes in the Mennonite Church 1955. Negro Evangelism Committee, 1955.

Brubaker, J. Lester. “Colored Missions.” Missionary Messenger, May 1950, 11.

Lark, Rowena. “The History of Bethel Mennonite Church.” Our Journal, May 1950, 1-3.

“Policy Governing the Organization of a Mennonite Colored Organization.” 1. Harrisonburg, Va.: Virginia Mennonite Conference; Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions And Charities, 1940.

Shetler, Jan Bender. “A Prophetic Voice in Race Relations?: The Mennonite Church – Missions to Minority Ministries.” Paper, Goshen College, 1977.

Zook, Ellrose D., ed. Mennonite Yearbook and Directory. Vol. 43. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1952.


  1.  J. Lester Brubaker, “Colored Missions,” Missionary Messenger, May 1950, 11. 
  2.  Ibid. 
  3.  Ellrose D. Zook, ed. Mennonite Yearbook and Directory, vol. 43 (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1952), 42. 
  4.  “Policy Governing the Organization of a Mennonite Colored Organization,”  (Harrisonburg, Va.: Virginia Mennonite Conference; Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions And Charities, 1940). 
  5. Le Roy Bechler, Facts, Considerations and Membership of Negroes in the Mennonite Church 1955 (Negro Evangelism Committee, 1955), 1. 
  6.  Le Roy Bechler, The Black Mennonite Church in North America 1886-1986 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1986), 49-54. 
  7.  Jan Bender Shetler, “A Prophetic Voice in Race Relations?: The Mennonite Church – Missions to Minority Ministries” (Paper, Goshen College, 1977), 18. 
  8.  Rowena Lark, “The History of Bethel Mennonite Church,” Our Journal, May 1950, 3. 
  9.  Brubaker, “Colored Missions,” 11.