Lessons in Mischief from the Eastern Mennonite High School Class of 1959

The Eastern Mennonite School centennial a few weeks back provided the opportunity to reflect on, as Donald Kraybill has put it, one hundred years of countercultural education. Hopefully, the reunions and reminiscences also provided the chance to reflect on a quintessential aspect of student life: mischief. But if you’re looking for more, read on. 

In March 2014 I sat down with five women from the EMHS class of 1959. They shared about many aspects of student life in the 1950s, perhaps most gleefully reminiscing about the little ways they pushed the boundaries of good behavior. What follows is a list of things I learned about how to get away with mischief from the self-described “good kids” of 1959. (The women are identified below by their initials. All quotes come from the transcript I prepared, titled “EMHS 1959 Transcript,” available at the Menno Simons Historical Library at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA).

#1. Spies are all around: know who to watch out for (and where to watch for them)

It’s not just teachers, staff, or parents who enforce good behavior. College students, too, could act as “spies.”

MH: You remember the spies? [they all laugh]. They were college kids. We didn’t know who they were. College kids were designated spies so when you were in the dorm [Northlawn] in the social room…You never knew who was watching you. So you tried to sit there with your hands down here [indicates under the table] so you could hold hands [with a boyfriend]. We did that a lot…. I never got caught but it’s not that we never held hands.

#2. Break one rule at a time and make the most of your image

In 1959 looking plain signaled that all was right within you. You could be trusted. And this meant you could get away with more.

MH: And one day, I lived in the dorm and [boyfriend] had a sister that lived down close to where the seminary is now. They wanted us to come for supper so Miss Barge and Esther Longacre were deans and I had to get permission to go walk from this dorm [Northlawn] to there with him and it was dark. And that was almost a no-no. They didn’t want to let us go but [boyfriend] at that time was very conservative. He wore a plain coat. And Miss Barge liked him. [laughing]. And I still remember her words: we’re going to let you go but you know we trust you.  [more laughter]. Little did they know! [laughter]

CB: If you looked conservative.

MH: Yeah.

CB: You could get by with just about anything.

#3. Mischief is best accomplished within the safety of a group — and in a way that uses modesty to your advantage

The women recalled a particularly conservative faculty member and what they did to irritate him:

CB: …one time just to be kind of ornery, some of us girls sewed little bells on our crinolines, under our skirts. And then when we walked it jingled a little bit. Wasn’t real loud but you could hear these little bells. And I know…one of the professors, it would agitate him so. Of course he couldn’t see them but he started quoting scripture about these tinkling cymbals or something. [Laughter.]…. he thought we were very sinful because we had bells on.

#4. If possible, be a boy

CB: And remember the boys found out that I was so afraid of mice…We had these desks which opened up. I opened it up and there’s a mouse!

UK: a live one?

CB: No, dead. And I screamed. [Laughter]. They had the biggest kick out of that. But I don’t think they got in trouble. [More laughter].

UK: You probably got in trouble for screaming.

#5. Sometimes you need a little help from worldly items (like an eyebrow pencil)

WR: You were supposed to wear hose all the time.

Shen61 02

Girls playing volleyball, c. 1961. Is that truly a stocking seam on the back of the girl’s leg? Or a cleverly drawn line, courtesy of an eyebrow pencil? (Girls playing volleyball, 1961 Shenandoah (Eastern Mennonite School yearbook), courtesy of the Menno Simons Historical Library, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA.)

WR: And they had to be dark.

ED: And they had to have seams.

HS: What was it about seams? [the younger interviewer is confused, having only known a world where hose don’t have seams]

ED: So they knew you had hose on.

CB: Eyebrow pencil worked.

UK: You just took eyebrow pencil and —

UK: There’s always a way to get around everything! [Laughter]

CB: You could use an eyebrow pencil and put the mark up your leg and you’d look like you had stockings on.

HS: And that worked? [wondering how they all had eyebrow pencil; wouldn’t make-up have been forbidden?]

WR: For a while! [Laughter]

#6. Enjoy the ironies that will come when your elders don’t think through the logical results of certain rules

The women remembered rules about wearing skirts even during gym class. Bad news for the girls; potentially appreciated by the boys. 

MH: And the boys really enjoyed going to the basketball games. Because they couldn’t wait until we’d fall over and then they’d see our skirts would fly up. I remember them talking about it. [laughter.]

57Shen010

Girls playing basketball in the old gym at EMS, c. 1957. Their skirts appear well in order. (Girls playing basketball, 1957 Shenandoah (Eastern Mennonite School yearbook), courtesy of the Menno Simons Historical Library, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA)

#7. Sometimes you just have to risk it

CB: The most sneaky thing we did was we snuck out in front of the chapel, got on motorcycles with two of our male classmates and they took us for a ride through Park View and back and then we worried for weeks; we were afraid that somebody would find out. That would have been terrible.

UK: We’d have been sent home.

#8. When you get older and are looking back, have some grace for your elders

CB: You know I have done a lot of fussing about the way things were but I really appreciate the bottom line was a good religious base and some of these far out things that they demanded, they were just carrying out what they needed to, I suppose. But I am thankful for what the church stands for, the Mennonite church.

#9 But also acknowledge that amid the fun was real hurt—and real mistakes

It may be funny sixty years later to think of boys hoping the girls’ skirts would fly up in gym class; it could very well have been deeply embarrassing for the girls then. But embarrassment is the least of the problem—sexism, double standards, and all the problems inherent in the male gaze also come to mind.

And while pushing the limits in small ways was one thing, the costs were real for those who didn’t quite fit in. The women remembered one classmate who left school because she would not confess to the error of having a boy student put his arm around her shoulder on the couch. They remembered this student had “looked a little wordly” and always been under suspicion. Speaking of another issue, one woman recalled that her sister had red, curly hair. Just having this bright, unruly hair meant “she looked like a wordly student…And everything that went wrong, she got blamed for because she just looked like somebody that would be mischievous or break the rules or whatever. And she carries that stigma with her today.” Whether kicked out of school, or just being under suspicion for how you naturally look, inequality and injustice lurks in many of these memories.

What lessons in mischief do you have from your school days? What gems could be recorded at your family dinners? Thanksgiving is coming. In the centennial spirit, think about purchasing a small digital recorder (I use an RCA VR5320 R digital voice recorder which costs around $30) and sitting down to record some stories. If you interview a Mennonite women, consider donating the recording to the collection where the interview I quote from here is housed: Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, in the Eastern Mennonite University archives. I am happy to answer any questions about the logistics of recording interviews or about how to donate recordings to an archive.

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.