Power, History, and the Future Church Summit

Shortly after we married, my wife turned to me and asked, “Why are all the influential men in the Mennonite church historians?”

Strictly speaking, this is not a true statement, with Orie O. Miller and George Brunk1 being examples of North American Mennonite leaders who did not work historically. But, working from my context with Mennonites in the United States, there is a strong line of Mennonite leaders using history as a tool towards power, specifically the power that comes with shaping the story of Mennonites.2  The story has played a role in the way Mennonites understand their identity, and  has contributed to power dynamics in Mennonite historiography that must be reckoned with. (For a parallel in how institutions have shaped history, see posts by Jason Kauffman and Simone Horst.)

The following is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but merely a demonstration of how intimately enmeshed history is with influencing Mennonite identity and faith, a project many of these embraced as “creating a useable past.”

  • The immigrant Bishop Heinrich Funk (d. 1760) worked alongside Dielman Kolb and others to have the Ephrata Martyrs’ Mirror translated and printed as a way to remember the mythic origin of Anabaptism in the face of the Seven Years’ War.3

  • His grandson, John F. Funk (1835-1930), worked to create a unified Mennonite community, as best exemplified by Herald of Truth.  His publishing house worked to create a usable past for this newly “unified” community, reprinting texts such as The Martyrs’ Mirror  and the 1632 Dortrecht Confession of Faith.4

  • C. Henry Smith (1875-1948) wrote “Christian Peace: Four Hundred Years of Mennonite Peace Principles and Practice” as a brief overview of how Anabaptists have practiced nonresistance, written for workers in CO camps. The pamphlet ends with a doctrinal and ecclesiological discussion on the future of the peace testimony. Threats include “the subtle influence creeping into the church from certain short cut Bible schools which are committed to an unwholesome overemphasis on a militant millenarianism . . .”5

  • Harold S. Bender (1897-1962) perhaps most clearly illustrates this trend with the Anabaptist vision he and his students promoted. Because of some doctrinal disagreements, his position at Goshen was in history rather than Bible or theology, the fields of his formal training. Fred Kniss notes in Disquiet in the Land that this meant “he was thus able to avoid most of the divisive disputes over doctrine. By concentrating on Anabaptist-Mennonite history, he was able to concentrate on questions that drew communalism back into the center of Mennonite discussion.”6

  • John Howard Yoder (1927-1997), while a theologian, rooted his work in a historical methodology. The Politics of Jesus works towards systematic ethics and theology with biblical and historical scholarship. In his “Anabaptist Vision with Mennonite Reality,” John D. Roth notes that one of the innate tensions in Politics is a confusing use of history, where Anabaptism is claimed as a hermeneutic but used as a historical possibility.7

  • Moving towards the contemporary era, John D. Roth continues the tradition of historians playing leading roles in the Mennonite church with the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and its initiative, the Bearing Witness Stories Project, both of which work to create a useable past from the experience of Anabaptists around the globe.8

  • Ervin R. Stutzman, current executive director of Mennonite Church USA, also has historical inclinations. He has published a series of historical fiction novels, including the Return to Northkill series, looking at the encounters between the Hochstetler family and Native Americans, as well as From Nonresistance to Justice: The Transformation of Mennonite Church Peace Rhetoric 1908-2008, which is a rhetorical and historical look at how Mennonites articulate what they believe about peace.

All these have given valuable contributions to the Mennonite understanding of who they are, as well as helped conversations with how the faith community has related and interacted with broader culture. But it is important to recognize the power, albeit soft power, therein. One demonstration of this is, as Felipe Hinojosa notes, how “historian after historian has ignored the calls by Black and Brown Mennonites—and marginal white Mennonites— that offer us alternative visions of the future church.

The power of history as a tool for understanding and controlling identity came to the forefront during Mennonite Church USA’s Future Church Summit (FCS), part of MC USA’s biennial convention. The FCS was billed as an opportunity for the denomination to imagine what it means to “follow Jesus as Anabaptists in the 21st century.” After building community with the table groups on the first day, the process turned to the question, “How our past has shaped us and what this may mean for us going forward?”9 To provide context, there was a plenary presentation that featured John D. Roth, Erica Littlewolf (Northern Cheyenne), Jason B. Kauffman, Bishop Leslie Francisco III, and Regina Shands Stoltzfus presenting a timeline of Mennonite history, graphically presented as a tangled vine growing from sixteenth century roots and stretching into the future.

An effort was made to be as broad and inclusive as possible in the process. There was diversity represented among the presenters, with representation from African Americans and Native Americans, and participants were reassured that they would have the opportunity, indeed, were encouraged, to come up afterwards and expand the timeline. Some interesting dynamics were explored, especially as Erica Littlewolf teased out how Mennonite narratives of coming into the land and finding freedom and prosperity directly contradicted her people’s experience of suffering.

There were problems in the presentation’s content, however, with significant gaps in the material presented. There was no mention of the rich Hispanic Mennonite tradition (though this was partly because a representative could not make it at the last moment), no past for the LGBTQ Mennonites (perhaps not surprising given the politics of MC USA), and no mention of the old General Conference Mennonites (an omission, I am told, that left some people so angry they could barely speak). The history as it was told did not contain all people present.

However, the content gaps were not the most striking disconnect in the presentation. Most striking was that the lack of recognition of the power dynamics inherent in history, especially in the Mennonite church context, since church history has been equated with stories of belonging that are told in our faith tradition. The opening remark, “We all know that is history is an argument” was an example of this. It may be a true statement in the academy, but it is at odds with how history has been embodied publicly in Mennonite congregations and schools.10

History in the Mennonite church has been a tool of authority, giving an absolute view of what happened in the past. History has been a firm foundation for the purpose of maintaining Mennonite identity, not a malleable past that can be argued. There was a fundamental disconnect between the useable past given to summit participants and the history many attendees had been primed to receive by experience in church and school. This is in part why the reaction to the historical gaps was so strong: people were looking for a useable past that told them who they were, but instead were told that they needed to find history for themselves.11

As historians choosing to practice history within the church, we need to be aware of the weight of interpreting the past. The place to start is to give careful attention to the contours of power surrounding Mennonite historiography, an investigation that deserves further attention. It is from this place that we can work with individuals, congregations and broader church institutions to create history that is in the service of living traditions.12

 

 


  1.  I have not made an extensive study of George Brunk and his thought, but am basing this claim on a conversation with Javan Lapp, who has studied revivalism among Old Order and conservative Mennonites. 
  2.  There is also an interesting phenomena where non-historians writers have felt they need to translate their work into history in order to speak into the Church, but that is outside the scope of this post. 
  3.  Zijpp, Nanne van der, Harold S. Bender and Richard D. Thiessen, “Martyrs’ Mirror.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, November 2014 (accessed July 19, 2017). 
  4.  Ted Maust, “”Union with such as we might perhaps otherwise never know”: John F. Funk and the Herald of Truth, 1854-1864,” Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage 38 no. 2 (April 2015): 40-54. 
  5.  C. Henry Smith, “Christian Peace: Four Hundred Years of Mennonite Peace Principles and Practice” (Peace Committee of the General Conference of the Mennonite Church in North America, 1938), 31. 
  6.  Fred Kniss, Disquiet in the Land: Cultural Conflict in American Mennonite Communities (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 65; James C. Juhnke Vision, Doctrine, War: Mennonite Identity and Organization in America, 1890-1930 Mennonite Experience in America Vol. 3 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1985), 277-282. 
  7.  John D. Roth, “Living Between the Times: ‘The Anabaptist Vision and Mennonite Reality’ Revisited” in Refocusing a Vision, ed. John D. Roth (Goshen, Ind.: Mennonite Historical Society, 1995); John Howard Yoder, “Anabaptist Vision and Mennonite Reality,” in A. J. Klassen, ed., Consultation on Anabaptist-Mennonite Theology (Fresno, Cal.: Council of Mennonite Seminaries, 1970). 
  8. Goshen College, “Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism” goshen.edu, https://www.goshen.edu/isga/ (Accessed July 19,2017). 
  9.  Mennonite Church USA, “Future Church Summit,” http://convention.mennoniteusa.org/future-church-summit/ (accessed July 19, 2017). I attended as the delegate for Pilgrims Mennonite Church, Akron, Pennsylvania. Most of the material going forward is based on my personal notes. 
  10.  In his ethnographic study of Mennonite schools in Lancaster, Pa., Ken Sensenig notes, “Heritage [that is, history] awareness plays a significant role in Greenfield’s attempts to maintain its peace position. Remembering and interpreting the people and concepts which gave birth to the Anabaptist/Mennonites during the sixteenth century Reformation is one important method of teaching peace at this school. [. . .] More formal heritage training takes place in the classroom, with both schools devoting courses exclusively to the study of Mennonite and general church history. The commitment to peace and justice is an important focus of these studies. Kenneth L. Sensenig, “An Ethnographic Approach to the Study of Sociopolitical Views in Two Mennonite High Schools.” (Dissertation, Temple University, Philadelphia, 1991), 91-92. 
  11. This is not a bad way to do history in the church, but it is not how many are accustomed to it to being done. 
  12.  I borrow this phrase from William H. Katerberg, “Is there Such a Thing as ‘Christian’ History?” Fides et Historia 34:1 (winter/Spring 2002): 57-66.