Anabaptist Monuments?

The last year has been full of discussion about collective memory and ownership of historical truth. Last summer I had to explain what “public history” meant to many people as I prepared to start a master’s program in the discipline. These days I’m just as likely to hear, “We need that now.”

Societal and political debates about history have coalesced in the last few months around the concept of commemoration through monuments. Statues of Confederate generals have been torn down or shrouded, and a statue of Christopher Columbus in Baltimore was just defaced. Here in Philadelphia, a months-long “Monument Lab” has kicked off with—among other pieces—a statue of an Afro pick incorporating a fist in the same plaza as a controversial monument to former mayor Frank Rizzo.

I’ve watched the unfolding conversation with interest but with critical distance. Others are saying things far smarter and more meaningful than I could. The National Council on Public History made a valuable contribution, for instance, with a special virtual edition of The Public Historian, re-running essays on monumentalism and memory around the world and across time. To date, one of the best proposals I’ve heard for Confederate monuments is that they all be piled up in one place to convey the volume of metal and concrete and stone that supported white supremacy.

I’ve begun to try to think about which monuments I support. Many monuments lack nuance and do not invite conversation. A bronze man on a horse doesn’t ask any questions, but makes powerful statements about power. As a historian, these are problematic characteristics, even if it weren’t true that monuments in the United States are overwhelmingly dedicated to white men over all other types of people. When President Trump asked on Twitter if monuments to Washington and Jefferson were next on the agenda for debate, someone on my social media feed acknowledged that the president accidentally posed the most relevant public history question of the year.

Looking closer to (metaphorical) home, what have Anabaptists, my people, commemorated? I struggled, initially, to think of any. Then I remembered the many sculptures that decorated the campus of Goshen College, my alma mater. I remembered Esther and Michael Augsburger’s “Guns into Plowshares” in Washington, DC (which is moving again). A Google search alerted me to a variety of Mennonite monuments scattered throughout Canada and Europe. I came across Paul Epp’s monuments across Eastern Europe to Anabaptist persecution, including a particularly haunting piece in Zaporizhia, Ukraine, that depicts a family over a mantle, the human forms in negative space in the granite, the voids representing disappeared Mennonites throughout the former USSR.

In this field, too, I find others far ahead of me. James Urry explored the history of Mennonite monumentalism a decade ago in the Conrad Grebel Review.1 Urry traces the resistance of Anabaptist communities to statuary, a form they associated with nationalism, up until the nineteenth century. Early in that century, Menno Simons began to be included (along with Calvin and Luther) in several monuments to the Protestant Reformation, and around 1861, a marker was proposed (and rejected) to mark the three hundredth anniversary of Simons’ death.

Nearly two decades later, an obelisk was raised to Simons in Friesland, purportedly on the site of his first teaching after leaving the Catholic church. Similar obelisks were erected in Russian Mennonite colonies over the next generation before such commemorative forms seemingly lost wide approval. “Instead,” writes Urry, “the opening of new schools, hospitals, and other institutional structures seemed sufficient to mark the steady march of progress in the Mennonite world.”

The next phase of Mennonite monumentalism, Urry argues, took place in the United States and Canada as Mennonite settlers joined other North American settlers in commemorating westward expansion. Canadian Mennonites of Russian origin marked the centennial of the 1870s wave of immigration, just as in the United States polities big and small geared up for the bicentennial celebration. Interestingly, Urry notes that many of the most fervent supporters of the 1970s Canadian commemorations were immigrants from the 1920s.

Another generation passed before the next form of Mennonite monuments were erected. These include Paul Epp’s monuments, and were spurred by tours and conferences in the Ukraine that revealed the extent to which evidence of Mennonite colonies had largely been erased. The statues generally commemorated specific events such as massacres or persecution, but Urry seems to argue that the erasure of colony-built environments was also a motivating factor. He focuses his analysis on one particular monument—which resembles a gravestone and marks the site of a 1919 massacre at Eichenfeld-Dubowka, north of Khortitsa, Ukraine—and makes a compelling argument about monumentation in this vein:

[This monument] clearly indicates some of the problems in trying to mark a complex past event in a singular stone memorial. At one level its message might appear simple: it is a memorial to the victims of a savage massacre who have lain in mass, unmarked graves until the stone was erected and unveiled. But the memorial is also supposed to mark not just a single event and its victims…

The fact that a number of people were murdered in such a terrible manner, on the date stated on the stone and detailed in the book, is not in question. But why the deaths occurred in this particular village, to this group of people, and at this particular time is something that must be interpreted and explained. The explanation in press releases provided at the memorial’s unveiling, and the more detailed account given in the later booklet, are simple and inadequate. We are presented with simple dichotomies of good and evil, with innocent Mennonite victims and guilty perpetrators. Such stark oppositions have little explanatory power in understanding such complex events.

Urry completes his analysis with the recent trend of memorial trees, grown from the seeds of ancestors still planted in European soil. These living monuments seem more in line with early Anabaptist iconoclasm (and indeed, Urry argues, earlier pagan forms of commemoration) but I feel the monuments still lack context and nuance.

Rather I would suggest that Mennonite monumentalism has recently, like global monumentalism, embraced more polyvalent forms that offer space for debate and nuance. The Eichenfeld-Dubowka tablet that Urry analyzed was dedicated in 2001. Eight years later—and two years after Urry’s essay—another Paul Epp monument, the family in negative space described above, was unveiled. By embracing an evocative visual language rather than an engraved message, this latter monument represents the new monumentalism, perhaps best represented by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed by Maya Lin. These memorials reject the (literal and metaphorical) monolith form of many nineteenth- and twentieth-century monuments in favor of aesthetics more representative of current movements in public art and landscape architecture. Another example that comes to mind within the Anabaptist context is this monument at the center of a roundabout in Paraguay.

Paraguay Monument

Photo by Ben Goossen

The result of this aesthetic shift is an openness to interpretation. Monuments are still not neutral, yet these commemorations allow space for people to bring a variety of experiences to them and come away with a sense of reflection (in the case of the Vietnam wall, this reflection is literal).

The line between public art and public monument can be sticky. A memorable presentation by Frank G. Pérez at the National Council of Public History 2017 conference described how attempts to diversify the monumental landscape in El Paso with public artwork faced countless obstacles. Monuments to conquistadors were unquestioned, but new sculptures elicited complaints about aesthetics and logistics. I suspect one of the factors that separates “monument” from “public art installation” in most people’s minds is choice of material (e.g. stone, unpainted metal). I look forward to Philadelphia’s Monument Lab’s exploration of that liminal space.

Meanwhile, the monolith has not gone away. Each year is a new opportunity to mark an anniversary of something or other. For Anabaptists in North America, many of those mark first settlements in an area. Many of these will take the form of a plaque or stone marker. I encourage families seeking to mark their persistence in the land to think carefully and critically about the statements that these monuments make. What was this land before your ancestors came here? Whose land was it?

On the global scale, Mennonite World Conference is gearing up for the five-hundredth anniversary of the first rebaptisms in Zurich. In Mennonite Life, Ben Goossen has argued, persuasively, that Anabaptists should embrace a more polyvalent origin story that spans from apostolic times to the present and includes the global church. Like monuments, other kinds of commemoration can tend to reify established narratives rather than providing context or provoking dialogue.

I have learned in the last couple months that monuments can spark debate, but sometimes only after years of organized opposition. Historians are in a position to contextualize the origins of these obelisks and busts, to tell the stories of how and why they came to be there. I think, however, that some monuments are effective because they invite questions and emotions as well as marking an event or movement. Let’s have more questions, more reflection, and fewer white men on horses.


  1. James Urry, “Memory: Monuments and the Markings of the Past,” Conrad Grebel Review 25, no. 1 (Winter 2007), https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/publications/conrad-grebel-review/issues/winter-2007/memory-monuments-and-marking-pasts#12 

Mennonites and the Doctrine of Discovery: A Report from “Indiana Indian Day”

Indiana Indian Day event program 4-22-2017_Page_1Jason B. Kauffman

On September 5, 1838, members of the Potawatomi nation—859 men, women, and children—were marched at gunpoint through the main street of Rochester, Indiana. It was the beginning of a two-month forced march of over six hundred miles that ended in remote eastern Kansas along a tributary of the Osage River. Almost 180 years later, at an “Indiana Indian Day” event on April 22, 2017, Father Mike McKinney of St. Joseph Catholic Church walked to the middle of that same street in Rochester. With police cars stopping traffic and those in attendance looking on, Father McKinney blessed Main Street, “reclaiming it for peace.” It was a powerful and moving gesture of reconciliation between the descendants of the Potawatomi and those who benefited from their removal. After the blessing, Father McKinney left the road and the idling cars continued on their way.

Along with Denominational Minister Nancy Kauffmann, I represented Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) at the April 22 event at the invitation of co-organizers Shirley Willard, retired Fulton County historian and founding officer of the Potawatomi Trail of Death Association, and Adam Friesen Miller, a fourth grade teacher at Bethany Christian Schools in Goshen, Indiana. Over the past school year, Adam has been teaching his students about the history of the Potawatomi people and their forced removal from Indiana in 1838, using a curriculum developed by Char Mast, an Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary alumna.

DSC01880 Bethany 4th graders

Students from Bethany Christian Schools present on the erasure of Potawatomi experiences in Indiana history textbooks. Photo by Annette Brill Bergstresser, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary

I had little prior knowledge of Potawatomi history or the confluence of historical circumstances and events that led to their removal from Indiana, but I was excited to participate in support of Adam and his students. I certainly don’t remember learning as a fourth grader about the violence and injustice that Native Americans faced as colonists and settlers moved west in search of land. I was impressed that Adam exposed his students to these tough questions and that they, in turn, wanted to do something to make a difference.

Shirley and Adam requested MC USA participation in the event because many early Mennonite settlers to northern Indiana gained title to land previously occupied by the Potawatomi, thus benefiting at their expense. Nancy and I agreed to offer a formal statement of apology to the Potawatomi and Miami people on behalf of Mennonite Church USA. As the date approached, however, we modified our statement at the request of the event organizers to include more information about the Doctrine of Discovery1 and the work that Mennonites are doing to address the legacies of injustice that Native American communities continue to face. After some last minute changes, we finalized our Statement of Confession and Commitment and read it publicly on April 22.2

DSC01911 Bob Pearl

Bob Pearl, a Potawatomi descendant, speaking during Indiana Indian Day. Photo by Annette Brill Bergstresser, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary

The event itself went well and was a meaningful time to publicly confess the ways that Mennonites—and the rest of North American society—have profited from the marginalization of the Potawatomi and other Native American communities. It was also a great opportunity to meet and begin building relationships with members of the Potawatomi and Miami nations and to stand with members of the broader northern Indiana community in support of justice for Native Americans.

But the event and the statement we produced also left me with lingering questions about the relationship between words and action and what it takes to bridge the divide that often separates them. In particular, the following quote from Sarah Augustine on the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition website has continued to challenge me since the event: “Until individuals representing committed institutions stand together with indigenous and vulnerable peoples, our words and gestures too are rendered hollow and symbolic.”3 In other words, it’s one thing to acknowledge and lament this history of injustice and another thing entirely to do something about it. This is why the image of Father McKinney’s blessing and the stopped cars on Main Street in Rochester has stuck with me. After the powerful moment of reclaiming that space for peace the idling cars continued on their way, consuming a resource that our society continues to privilege ahead of justice for indigenous and other marginalized people.

These patterns of exploitation and injustice against indigenous people have deep historical roots which took hold with a series of papal bulls dating to the fifteenth century. These papal bulls established the legal and theological framework for the Doctrine of Discovery and played an early and enduring role during the period of Spanish and Portuguese colonization in the Americas.4 Under the encomienda system, for example, indigenous populations in the central valley of Mexico and the Andean highlands were forced to provide tribute—in the form of labor or goods—to colonial title holders. In return, encomenderos were supposed to instruct indigenous people in the Christian faith.5 In some regions, such as the Andean highlands, the system later evolved into a forced labor draft through which indigenous communities provided an annual quota of laborers to the Spanish colonial government.6 Many of these workers ended up toiling in mines to produce the silver that fueled Spain’s colonial empire. In one notorious case, untold numbers of indigenous people died from prolonged exposure to mercury, the toxic mineral used by colonists to extract silver from mined ore.7

These injustices have taken on new forms over time. Across the Americas, indigenous people continue to struggle against unjust systems. In South America, indigenous communities are fighting to maintain their livelihoods and access to communal lands in the face of multinational corporations seeking to profit from the production of oil and hydroelectric power. Similar dynamics are playing out in North America between the Standing Rock Sioux and developers of the Dakota Access Pipeline. At the heart of both colonial, pre-capitalist economic systems and the current globalized, neoliberal order is the desire to maximize profit through the control of natural resources and the labor of others. And, as history shows, those in power—including governments and corporations—are not above using violence and repression to protect those interests.

As people who care about peace and social justice, what responsibility do Mennonite and other members of the Anabaptist community have to right the wrongs of history? In our statement on April 22, I said that Mennonite Church USA affirms the current efforts among Mennonites and people of Anabaptist faith to “actively dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery at every level of society—in our laws and policies, in our states, in our communities, in our church institutions and in our congregations.” What can we do as individuals and as a denomination to make good on this commitment? This seems like a daunting (even impossible) goal to accomplish in light of over 500 years of injustice and a global economic system that continues to favor the interests of the powerful few at the expense of millions. But I think it is important to think about what it would look like to put these convictions into practice.

Education and consciousness-raising are clearly two of the best places to start. We can’t address injustice without first taking the time to understand how it has functioned in both its historical and present contexts. The Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition has already done much work in this regard. The coalition recently produced a documentary that explains the historical context and theological basis of the Doctrine of Discovery and has also published study guides and reflections that help establish a biblical foundation to expose the misinterpretation of God’s word that the fifteenth century Church used to justify colonization.

It’s also important to open dialogue and build relationships with indigenous brothers and sisters in our local communities and across the country. For example, Ervin Stutzman, executive director of MC USA, and Jess McPherson, an educator and multidisciplinary artist of Susquehanna descent, have engaged in conversation about Stutzman’s work in historical fiction and how identities (as Amish, Native American, etc.) influence our ability to “tell history with integrity.” In northern Indiana, people like Rich Meyer have spent years researching the history of the Potawatomi and building relationships with members of the Potawatomi community. More recently, students and faculty at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary have worked to plan and lead a nine-day Trail of Death Pilgrimage from Indiana to Kansas. The course provides opportunities for participants to learn from members of the Potawatomi community about their history and the challenges they continue to face.

How do we get from education and relationship-building to the “actively dismantling” part? What would justice look like for Native American communities today and how can Mennonites best work in solidarity with them to achieve it? Would justice involve returning land, as the Jesuit order recently did to the Rosebud Sioux? Should Mennonite Church USA or member conferences and congregations establish a tithe paid to descendants of indigenous communities expelled from their lands? Or would dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery require a more radical restructuring of society and the legal, economic, and philosophical frameworks that underpin it? I don’t have answers to these questions. But the examples of people like Adam Friesen Miller and his students give me hope that God is at work in the relationships that Mennonites are building with Native American brothers and sisters, and that justice is possible.


  1.  The Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition defines the Doctrine of Discovery as a “philosophical and legal framework dating to the 15th century that gave Christian governments moral and legal rights to invade and seize indigenous lands and dominate indigenous peoples.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website contains a brief synopsis of its historical evolution as a concept. 
  2. The statement benefited greatly from feedback and phrasing suggestions given by Rich Meyer, Sarah Augustine, Katerina Friesen, and David B. Miller. 
  3. Augustine is co-director of Suriname Indigenous Health Fund, a private international charity, and Professor of Sociology at Heritage University. She is also actively involved in Mennonite efforts to work towards justice for indigenous communities in North America through the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition. 
  4. I’m most familiar with the case of Latin America but these dynamics played out in the context of British, French, and Dutch colonialism as well. 
  5. The encomienda was not initially a land grant. In the early years of colonization land held little inherent value without access to indigenous laborers to make it productive. This is one reason why the encomienda system became so entrenched in the highly populated regions of central Mexico and highland Peru. For a classic essay on the subject, see James Lockhart, “Encomienda and Hacienda: The Evolution of the Great Estate in the Spanish Indies,” Hispanic American Historical Review 49:3 (Aug. 1969), 411-429. 
  6. Many indigenous “elites” and middlemen actually profited from such colonial labor systems. 
  7. Nicholas A. Robins, Mercury, Mining, and Empire: The Human and Ecological Cost of Colonial Silver Mining in the Andes (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2011). 

Oral History for the “Quiet in the Land”

Janneken Smucker

I’ve read with interest the posts here from my colleagues  Ben Goossen on Digital History and Ted Maust on Public History, topics very near and dear to me in both my scholarship and teaching. Ben outlines some of the facets of digital history, particularly how digital technologies can provide increased access to historical sources. Ted considers what public history—historical interpretation that in some way engages with the general public rather than to fellow academic historians—can do and has done for Anabaptists. I’d like to draw on these threads by exploring the role of oral history, and how oral history poses particular opportunities and challenges for those of us conducting history among Anabaptist groups.

Much of my scholarly energy in recent years has involved oral history in one capacity or another. As a young historian working on contemporary history topics from the 1970s and ‘80s, it was a natural fit. Interviews with living subjects served as excellent primary sources for my senior seminar paper at Goshen College, about the origins of the Women’s Studies program at GC. When I began studying quilts from an academic perspective, my first paper was based on an oral history interview I conducted with my elderly grandmother about the quilts she and her Amish-Mennonite peers made as young women in the 1920s in eastern Ohio. I now regularly teach with oral history, working with my students to create digital public history projects, interpreting and providing access to archival oral history interviews, by building classroom/archive partnerships that take advantage of open source technologies.

Members of the Anabaptist faith have long valued oral tradition, as the stories from our ancestors have been a source of faith. So-called ethnic Mennonites remember the challenges of our forebearers as stories and folklore are passed down from one generation to the next. Perhaps Martyrs’ Mirror, with its tales of courage and conviction, is the ultimate collection of Anabaptist oral tradition. Books like Martyrs Mirror, Amish Roots, and MennoFolk: Mennonite and Amish Folk Traditions collect and interpret some oral accounts that have resonance to many members of the Anabaptist tradition.1

tonguescrew

Sons of Maeyken Wens search for the tongue screw used to silence her among her ashes, Antwerp, 1573. Engraving by Jan Luiken in Martyrs Mirror, v. 2, p. 661 of Dutch edition. Source: Rijksmuseum via GAMEO

But oral history itself is a historical method distinct from oral tradition. Oral history really only became possible in our current understanding of the term with the availability of audio recording technologies, which enabled the interview—the dialogue between the interviewer and narrator—to become permanently fixed as a primary source. One of the most straightforward definitions of oral history comes from Donald Ritchie: “An oral history interview generally consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee and recording their exchange in audio or video format.  Recordings of the interview are transcribed, summarized, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives.”2

My brief search for Mennonite (the wing of Anabaptism I most closely identify with) oral histories turned up archived collections of interviews (among others) with Russian Mennonite immigrants, World War I conscientious objectors (with digitized audio!), Mennonite women from Manitoba discussing their childbirth experiences, and video interviews collected by the Brethren Mennonite Council for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Interests. Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of the oral history collections I discovered are from Canadian organizations or are interviews conducted with individuals from Russian-Mennonite backgrounds. At the risk of overgeneralizing, I surmise that Amish and “Old Mennonites”—the really quiet of the land—have been less keen on recording oral histories. Maybe individual life stories have seemed not to reflect the humility for which these groups have historically striven, or members of these less worldly affiliations have been reluctant to record their stories using modern technologies for the permanent record. In my own research, I’ve encountered this. What if the narrator is from a plain community and does not feel comfortable with the research, the technology, the release forms, or the archive? Can we still do oral history?

Two current tenets of oral history which squarely place this methodology in relationship with public history are “informed consent” and “shared authority.” By informed consent, oral historians mean that the interviewee/narrator has a full understanding of the purpose and potential uses of the interview. They should understand that they are “on the record” while being able to restrict aspects of their interview for future use if necessary. Typically, this is handled through a release form granting the interviewer permission to record, use, and/or archive the interview. Historian Michael Frisch popularized the term “shared authority” in relationship to oral and public history, suggesting that historians are not the sole arbiters of historical interpretation, but instead share that authority with those from the public with whom we dialogue and engage—especially those sharing their testimony through oral history interviews.3

Amish Country Quilts

Carol Highsmith, Amish Country Quilts, c. 1990. Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

When I was conducting fieldwork among Amish quilt entrepreneurs, I was hesitant to pull out legal forms for these women to sign, let along my fancy little digital audio recorder. Although I strived to make these informants feel comfortable speaking with me, I don’t think I did particularly well with “informed consent” guideline. I typically told the proprietor of a shop I was a student studying quilts (true, even though I was a PhD student, who hoped to eventually translate my research into a book) and asked if I could ask her a few questions. These women (and the occasional man) were usually quite willing to talk. They were accustomed to tourists asking lots of questions about quilts, and they typically had an almost scripted answer to my questions about how the design, production, and sale of quilts functioned. I did not quote these informants directly in my text, since I did not record the conversations, although their responses certainly served as evidence that informed my interpretation of the subject. In the endnotes to my book, I refer to these non-interviews as “conversations” rather than as “interviews.”4

In 2003, when Emma Witmer, the Old Order Mennonite proprietor of the longest operating quilt shop in Lancaster County, agreed to give an interview for Q.S.O.S. – Quilters Save Our Stories, an oral history project of the non-profit Quilt Alliance, she declined to be recorded or have her photograph taken. But she agreed to tell her story, presumably feeling informed and giving consent, as she signed a release form. Interviewer Heather Gibson took notes rather than record the audio, and the online “transcript” begins with the disclaimer: “notes from the interviewer—Emma Witmer is an Old Order Mennonite. The interview was recorded on pencil and paper at Emma Witmer’s request. Portions of the interview that were not recorded verbatim are noted in brackets. There are no photographs.” With this note, can we even consider this interview as “oral history,” at least based on Ritchie’s definition that an oral history must be recorded in audio or video? I drew on this interview extensively in my research on the origins of the quilt industry in Lancaster County, but is this as reliable of a source as I think it is since it is based on notes, which ultimately are an interpretation of the interview rather than the verbatim interview itself? Is it more or less reliable than the “conversations” I had with other shop owners?5

In contrast, one particular Amish informant was quite willing to go on the record, signing the forms and having his voice recorded. He knew I was writing about his father, an Amish businessman who bought quilts from his co-religionists and sold them to New York quilt dealers. He was the expert. I was the student. Here I think I came close to achieving the elusive “shared authority,” with his interview completely transforming my understanding of the relationship of Amish individuals to the market for quilts. When I wrote articles drawing on what I learned from him, I sent him drafts, and he gave me feedback. I even invited him to attend my dissertation defense, where he engaged in the discussion along with my committee members (he continues to relish telling people about that momentous event).

Excerpt from interview with Benuel Riehl, conducted by Janneken Smucker, May 13, 2008.

Throughout my career as a historian, I am continually reminded of the power of the first hand accounts gained through oral history. But I worry about what interviews we might never have the opportunity to record because of the challenges of conducting interviews with some Anabaptist groups. I also fear for the collections of interviews that have been recorded—like the ones with Mennonite women about childbirth—but remain inaccessible, on analog cassette tapes in faraway archives. Too often oral history projects result in amazing resources that are virtually undiscoverable, although new technologies have made it increasingly affordable and possible to provide access. And most importantly, we need to find ways to ensure that we as historians freely share our authority with our publics, listening not only as a way to elicit details of the past, but also as a way to check our perceived expertise as historians.


  1.  Thieleman J. van Braght, I. Daniel Rupp, and Thieleman J. van Braght, The Bloody Theatre, or Martyrs’ Mirror, of the Defenceless Christians: Who Suffered and Were Put to Death for the Testimony of Jesus, Their Savior, from the Time of Christ until the Year A.D. 1660 (Near Lampeter Square, Lancaster Co., Pa.: David Miller, 1837); John A Hostetler, Amish Roots: A Treasury of History, Wisdom, and Lore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989); Ervin Beck, MennoFolk: Mennonite and Amish Folk Traditions (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2004). 
  2. Donald A. Ritchie, Doing Oral History, 3rd edition (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), 1. 
  3.  Michael H Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990); Michael Frisch, “From A Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen, and Back,” in Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, ed. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski (Philadelphia, Pa.; Walnut Creek: Pew Center for Arts & Heritage ; Distributed by Left Coast Press, 2011). 
  4.  See Janneken Smucker, Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). 
  5.  Emma Witmer, interview by Heather Gibson, October 20, 2003, Quilt Alliance, Quilters’ S.O.S.—Save Our Stories, Library of Congress, American Folklife Center, http://quiltalliance.org/portfolio/qsos-emma-witmer/

You wouldn’t think corn is fascinating, but it is: Three years of Midstate Memories

“You wouldn’t think corn is fascinating, but it is.” And with this comment, so launched the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society’s final “Midstate Memories” segment.

In 2014, Good Day PA, a program on WHTM/ABC27 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, began “Midstate Memories” as a repeating segment of its live show to educate viewers about history in central Pennsylvania and efforts to preserve that history. The vision was for brief spots—two and a half to three minutes of live television—that covered “one specific event (or anniversary of an event), an industry, a building, a natural disaster, a special visit of a prominent person, etc,” that also included strong visuals, whether photos, artifacts, or film footage. A caveat was that each segment was not to be promoting an upcoming event by the presenting organization, but instead “the essence of the segment [should] be a mini history lesson.” For 2014 and 2015, the segment ran every Tuesday sometime between 12:30 and 1 p.m., depending on the other portions of the show. In 2016, “Midstate Memories” aired the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month. In the first year, there were eleven participants, increasing to twelve in the second year, and thirteen for 2016.1 Each participating organization provided a scripted interview for its respective segments, which was then filmed live.

I became involved in my role as Director of Communications for the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society (LMHS), which includes the 1719 Hans Herr House & Museum. Over three years, we organized eleven segments:2 four each for 2014 and 2015, three for 2016. There topics were as follows:

  • Mennonite hymnody
  • Hispanic Mennonites in Lancaster, Pa.
  • Mennonite films
  • Travel and Mennonite emigration/immigration
  • Mennonite connections between Lancaster and the rest of the world
  • DNA and Genealogy
  • West Willow, Pa.
  • Native Americans in Central Pa.
  • Collecting historical photographs
  • Grain Harvesting
  • The history of corn

My general approach was to choose an upcoming event, and then do a segment on a topic related to what would be covered so that I could promote LMHS events while still living into the purpose of Midstate Memories. For example, the 1719 Hans Herr House & Museum, as well as the upcoming Christmas Candlelight Tours, focus on the role of corn in Native American society and how European immigrants interacted with it, and so on November 22, we focused the segment on corn. The presentation on connections between Lancaster and the broader world integrated the preparatory work the Society did leading up to Mennonite World Conference in Harrisburg, Pa., specifically the 2015 Annual Music Night which focused on the music of Anabaptist-associated immigrants to Lancaster (hymns, yes, but also norteño and more).

I was only in front of the camera for one spot. For the others, I worked with other LMHS staff persons or volunteers who were more connected with the topic, and had them present. When the segment was on Hispanic Mennonites, I turned to Rolando Santiago, our director, because this is part of his story. When the topic was Native Americans, I looked to Ruth Py, a volunteer educator for the Lancaster Longhouse at the 1719 Hans Herr House & Museum, because it is her story.

It is hard to quantify how successful these segments were. I have no hard data, only anecdotal evidence. As a marketing endeavor, there was no detectable impact on event attendance, and limited increases in website visitation and social media engagement. In terms of educating midstate residents about history, I can but wonder. It was only in the final year that I felt I had an effective approach—mostly on account of trying to accomplish too much in previous years during the very limited time slot. However, after each spot, I left feeling as if each segment’s core message had been communicated adequately, even if not in the depth I had hoped. Appearing on Good Day PA also presented the opportunity to reach out to a much larger audience in a very different space than usual for the Society, and making history known and visible in that way is valuable.


  1. Email Correspondence between the author and Good Day PA staff between 2014 and 2016. 
  2. See some of those here: http://abc27.com/?s=Lancaster+Mennonite+Historical+Society 

What do Public History’s methods have to offer Anabaptist History (and the Anabaptist Future)?

Mainstream (that is, acculturated) North American Anabaptist denominations have made efforts to reach outside of ethnic and geographical boundaries in many ways over the last century and a half. Beginning with the resettlement of Mennonite Refugees in the 1870s and continuing with mission and service efforts at home and abroad, these efforts have had varying amounts of success (however success is quantified). If this is a continuing social and evangelical goal for these denominations and the populations that compose them, the discipline of public history can provide strategies and techniques to achieve it.

Public history is a field that doesn’t like to be pinned down. Academic programs branding themselves as “Public History” sprang up in the 1970s in response to a shortage of jobs in academia, but the work the newly minted public historians did had a long history. Many of the products of the discipline—exhibits, archives, lectures, oral history, monuments and markers—were the only history products that existed prior to the nineteenth century and the Rankean professionalization of academic history. In the early twentieth century, public history had flourished in the form of the Works Progress Administration and the National Parks Service.

In the last half century, the field of public history has tried to define itself, often settling for the distinction that it is concerned with history outside of the academy. Yet at the same time public history has proliferated within the academy, with new public history programs emerging every year. Part of this explosion of interest is pragmatic: with fewer tenure-track jobs in the humanities available than the number of graduate students, departments must prepare their pupils for life outside of the academy. In part, however, public history is the logical extension of the social history movement of the 1960s. Public history often seeks to decentralize history through such tenets as shared authority. In the prologue to Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History, Denise Meringolo argues that public history is “practicing history not simply in public but rather for the public” (italics in original). By engaging in collaborative work with inter-disciplinary methods, Meringolo suggests, public historians who self-identify as such primarily see their work as public service.

So what would specifically Anabaptist public history look like? Or to put the emphasis differently, what would public Anabaptist history look like? Or what does it look like? Within the field of Anabaptist History, we already have many institutions that could be called public history: archives and libraries, local and regional historical societies, and interpretive exhibits in museum settings, to name a few. In several cases, multiple elements are present together, as in the Mennonite Heritage Center in Harleysville, PA, and Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, which combine exhibit space with library and archives. Efforts such as Lancaster Roots, a calendar of cultural events by the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society and 1719 Hans Herr House & Museum, take history out to churches and invite people in with specific programming on cultural crafts, as well as lectures.

However, these institutional settings tend to be intrinsically conservative in nature. Jarrett M. Drake has written about the oppressive experience of archives, which protect the resources within them through the tyranny of “silence, solitude, and surveillance.”1 Furthermore, archives often exclude people by virtue of their accessibility—located far from public transport or open for limited hours—or simply by the hoops would-be researchers must jump through—registration, fees for copying through convoluted mechanisms, etc.

On this blog in recent months we’ve seen calls to “deterritorialize” Anabaptist History from Felipe Hinojosa and Jason B. Kauffman. What could that look like?

The Lancaster Longhouse at the 1719 Has Herr House & Museum (created in collaboration with Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, the Circle Legacy Center, and local American Indian groups) is one example of public history in an Anabaptist context, though its creators may not have envisioned it as such. The digital archive of a (relatively) diverse Anabaptist web presence by Mennonite Church USA’s archive (begun under Colleen McFarland Rademaker’s tenure as archivist) is another way forward.

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Lancaster Longhouse at the 1719 Hans Herr House & Museum

This is the work of history but it has bearing on the present and future reality. The Longhouse and the MC USA web archive are both attempts to share authority with communities that have been held at arm’s length, at the the periphery, by Anabaptist denominations and academia. If Anabaptist denominations want to move toward a more diverse population (racially and otherwise) within North America, the techniques of public history present one way toward reconciliation and engagement with populations that have been excluded, offended, or oppressed by the church and/or the academy. This could also be an opportunity to connect with Amish and Plain communities who have been left out of the academic history of the last fifty years other than as subjects of academic work (and the Lancaster Roots approach is especially suited for this outreach). At the root of all of those efforts must be a willingness to cede truth-telling power, truly collaborate, and have projects and the greater church move in directions that weren’t expected or hoped for.

More traditional public history institutions can make changes to deterritorialize their collections. Archivists can identify collections that have been overlooked—those that provide a window into the lives of the evangelized as well as the missionaries, the lives of women as well as men, and the lives of Anabaptists whose sexuality was not recognized as legitimate by their social and religious communities, among others—and invite scholars to tell the stories they contain. Traditional methods such as historic preservation can be used in areas outside of the traditional Anabaptist enclaves—some of the first 1-W or MVS units could make fascinating historic house museums. Some changes could be painful. The Heinrich (Henry) Voth collection in the MC USA archives could be repatriated to the Hopi Reservation, for instance, even though the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) doesn’t extend to photographic materials.

The work of public history is not apolitical. As an example of the aims and methods of public historians in this country, it is instructive to read the National Council on Public History’s editorial in the wake of the presidential election.2 The whole piece is worth a read, but here’s the crux of the argument: 

Promoting education and dialogue will likely not be enough to ensure that human rights are respected. Public history exhibits and projects provide people with tools to parse how fear and self-interest can be manipulated, but if we want to walk our talk, our institutions will need to continue to strengthen emerging practices of direct engagement and civic action that we see around the field.”

While standing up for immigrant, minority, and refugee rights fits comfortably within Biblical calls to action, historians working in MC USA-affiliated organizations may find that advocacy for other vulnerable groups, such as LGBTQ Americans (which is also within the scope of “the least of these”) puts them in political or ethical quandaries at work. Historians may find themselves, in the coming years, in the public arena against their will, as our own Tobin Miller Shearer did this week when he was listed by an alt-right group for “advanc[ing]leftist propaganda in the classroom.”

This work is not simple. As Philipp Gollner cautions,  it will be easy for white progressive voices to drown out others, even while seemingly asking for input.3 The Mennonite world that I grew up in was proud of its humility, multiculturalism (even while being predominately white), and progressivism. Yet that very progressive identity can shield against self-reflection. Humility, self-examination, and willingness to listen when others tell you that you are wrong are all necessary in this work.

More pragmatic concerns are where the financial and social capital would come from to develop more innovative public history programming. The Anabaptist historical institutions that exist have long histories, yet little surplus that they could gamble on an ephemeral program that may or may not have the desired effect. Our colleges face tough financial times, and the departures of Lancaster Conference and others from MC USA  have put fund-raising throughout the Mennonite non-profit world in jeopardy in ways that may have knock-on effects.

So what does public Anabaptist history look like in a North American context and what should or could it look like? Our institutions have been resourceful with the budgets they’ve been given, but also tended to take conservative forms. I want to see Anabaptist Historians (the folks who contribute to this blog as well as the broader field) try new ways of making history that get out of our fellowship halls and our college campuses and our archives and combine the concerns of our religious community—pacifism, social justice, and the Dominion of God—with the methods and verve of public history. As public history moves toward disruptive techniques that cede control and challenge traditional narratives, public Anabaptist historians should do the same. As the greater discipline hears a call to activism, public Anabaptist historians should embrace the same call, especially where it aligns with the ethics we espouse in our congregations and households. We should approach the challenges that come—including funding shortfalls and awkwardness—with humility as well as fervency.


  1. Jarret M. Drake, “Libraries and Archives: Towards Belonging and Believing,” On Archivy, October 22, 2016 https://medium.com/on-archivy/liberatory-archives-towards-belonging-and-believing-part-1-d26aaeb0edd1#.fb37008sb 
  2. National Council on Public History, “A Response to the Election,” History at Work, November 11, 2016 http://ncph.org/history-at-work/a-response-to-the-election/ 
  3. Phillip Gollner, “Who Calls Whom Racist, and What’s The Privilege With That?” Anabaptist Historians, November 4, 2016, https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2016/11/04/who-calls-whom-racist-and-whats-the-privilege-with-that/ 

On Exhibit: Contextualizing Amish Quilts

Janneken Smucker

In the early 1970s, art enthusiasts began to display Amish quilts from the early twentieth century on the walls of apartments, galleries, antiques shops, and museums, noting how their strong graphics and minimalist designs resembled abstract paintings of the post-World War II period. Prior to the 1970s, no one really had paired the adjective Amish with the noun quilt. Yet with this cultural dislocation, Amish quilts shifted in status from special, heirloom bedcovers, kept folded in chests and treasured as gifts between family members, to cult objects in demand within the outside world. Amish families responded by selling their “old dark quilts,” happy to have extra money that could be split among descendants in a way a quilt could not be, and glad to remove objects now considered “status symbols” by outsiders from their homes. In turn, Amish entrepreneurs began making quilts to sell to consumers, creating a quilt industry that could capitalize on increasing tourism to settlements and the growing fascination with Amish-made bedcovers.

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Center Diamond, Unknown Amish maker, Circa 1920-1940, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Machine pieced, hand quilted. International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebraska – Lincoln; Jonathan Holstein Collection, 2003.003.0072

This intersection between the Old Order Amish and the worlds of art, fashion, and commerce is a central tension of my recent book, Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). As I worked on this book, I frequently imagined it as an exhibition, with the objects themselves serving as evidence and touchstones within the narrative. With this mindset, I was thrilled when the International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln invited me to guest curate an exhibit of Amish quilts. This exhibit, Amish Quilts and the Crafting of Diverse Traditions opens October 7, running through January 25, 2017.

Since the 1971 landmark exhibition Abstract Design in American Quilts at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the typical mode of display for quilts in museum settings has been on walls, hung vertically like the paintings to which Amish quilts in particular have often been compared. As I began work translating my research into an exhibition, I struggled to figure out how to simultaneously interrogate the de-contextualization of Amish quilts while participating in the process itself. I did not want to simply hang quilts on walls as they had been for the last 45 years, where too often they appear merely as great works of design, rather than as objects symbolic of the Amish emphasis on community, mutual aid, and Gelassenheit. But what could we do instead that would fulfill the museum’s dual mission of showcasing quilts’ artistry and cultural significance?

All public history requires careful and deliberate communication; it’s intended to translate complex ideas into meaningful and engaging forms. Working with the IQSCM staff, we’ve developed ways to communicate the multiple contexts of Amish quilts. When museum-goers enter the gallery, they will indeed still see quilts hanging on walls. But in the center of one gallery, there will be an object strangely foreign to most quilt exhibits, Amish or otherwise: a bed. My parents, who live in Goshen, Indiana, generously loaned the museum the ¾ size four-poster rope bed that descended in my mother’s family from our Amish-Mennonite ancestors. Made in the family of Solomon Beachy from Holmes County, Ohio, c. 1840-1860, the bed will be the perfect showcase for an early twentieth-century quilt made by Barbara Yoder.

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Nine Patch, Made by Barbara Yoder (1885-1988) Circa 1920, Made in Weatherford, Oklahoma, Machine pieced, hand quilted. International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebraska – Lincoln; Gift of the Robert & Ardis James Foundation, 2005.039.0005

But the Amish origins of these quilts are not the only context through which I interpret them. The lives of these objects since they left Amish homes are equally intriguing, and I explore them as influential within contexts of art, consumer culture, and fashion. The Esprit clothing company, well-known for its color block designs of the 1980s, was home to a significant corporate collection of Amish quilts which hung on the walls throughout its San Francisco headquarters. We will hang a quilt that Esprit once owned alongside a mannequin dressed in one of my personal favorite objects of material culture—this amazing Esprit vest that in my mind was clearly inspired by Amish quilts.

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One Patch/Checkerboard, unknown Amish maker, circa 1900-1920, machine pieced, hand quilted. International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebaska-Lincoln, Ardis & Robert James COllection, 1997.007.0469

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Espirit women’s vest, circa 1985, United States. Collection of Janneken Smucker

We will also display images of contemporary Amish quilt shops, along with two new quilts made for the consumer market, with designs in clear contrast to the “cult objects” with which art enthusiasts became enamored. I also had the pleasure of attending the Gap (Pennsylvania) Fire Company Sale last March, known locally as a mud sale. We include photographs from this event, which supports the local volunteer fire company, along with quilts I acquired on the museum’s behalf there (not a bad gig — bidding with someone else’s money). The quilts include a white and lavender Dahlia quilt from the mid-twentieth century, complete with intricate lavender hand quilting and ornate fringe—not what we expect from an Amish made quilt, but one of the many styles that have co-existed within Amish communities.

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Dahlia, Unknown Amish maker, circa 1940-1960, probably made in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebraska – Lincoln Gift of the Robert & Ardis James Foundation, 2016.030.0003

I have relished the challenge of translating my research into this physical form. I hope my thesis—that the craft of Amish quiltmaking has never fossilized, but has been a living, evolving, and diverse tradition, adapted by creative quiltmakers, capitalized upon by businesswomen eager to earn a livelihood, and embraced within both Amish communities and the broader artistic and consumer worlds—comes through. But even if my message is lost, the quilts look great, as they always have, both in and out of context.