THE ANABAPTIST VISION AND ITS IMPACT AMONG FRENCH MENNONITES

Neal Blough*

     A supplement to the November 1950 issue of the French Mennonite monthly Christ Seul hailed the publication of the French translation of H. S. Bender's The Anabaptist Vision as "the book that every Mennonite should have." In his laudatory introduction to Bender's pamphlet[1]  Pierre Widmer, the editor of Christ Seul, presented North American Mennonites as the most faithful representatives of Anabaptist theology.[2]  What circumstances led French Mennonites to publish The Anabaptist Vision? How were Bender and, perhaps more important, North American Mennonite theology perceived and used in post-war France? What were the specific consequences of this theology in the life of the French Mennonite church? What, if any, is the ongoing legacy of The Anabaptist Vision in France?

The Historical Context

     French Mennonites[3]  can trace their origins to the sixteenth century, but their history began more directly in the mid-seventeenth century after the Thirty Years' War when the Protestant Ribeaupierre family called upon persecuted Bernese Anabaptists to settle and farm their war-torn lands in the Vosges mountains close to Ste. Marie aux Mines.[4]  In exchange for their farming skills and a promise not to proselytize others in their "heretical" faith, the Bernese immigrants were granted certain privileges, most notably exemption from military service. In 1693 the majority of the "French" followed Jakob Ammann in his split with the Swiss Brethren. In 1712 all Anabaptists were asked to leave Alsace. Some families defied the order and remained. Others left, settling, among other places, in the Montb‚liard principality, thereby creating new communities in territory that would later become French.

     In a little over a hundred years the hard-working Anabaptist farmers in the Montb‚liard region had become privileged workers for the nobility. They had a distinctive style of dress, they spoke a Swiss-German dialect and they maintained an ethnic and religious nonconformity which did not correspond to the new values of liberty, equality and fraternity ushered in by the French Revolution. In 1792 the revolutionary government accorded them exemption from military service, but this privilege was short-lived because of France's imperialistic desires and consequent need for soldiers in the early 1800s.

     After several attempts (until 1829) to obtain the right of conscientious objection, the French Anabaptists realized that they would not be able to escape military service. Thus the nineteenth century became a period of emigration to North America. Many who wanted to avoid military service ended up leaving; those who stayed accepted conscription. According to statistics compiled by historian and sociologist Jean S‚guy, in 1850 there were approximately 5000 Anabaptists in France; at the end of the century perhaps 3000 remained. The majority of those remaining became "German" in 1870 when Alsace and Lorraine changed hands.[5] 

     At the beginning of the twentieth century the remaining Anabaptists, who would soon be calling themselves Mennonites, were in a very difficult situation. Fourteen congregations had disappeared. Families were geographically scattered. Some communities held worship services only once a month and the different congregations maintained few connections with each other. S‚guy has suggested that at this time the French Mennonites had an inferiority complex and regarded themselves as a sect.[6] 

     Compared to this "low point" at the very beginning of the twentieth century, the years 1901-1939 were a period of "revival" for the French Mennonites. This revival had two different sources: the theology and practice of various evangelical revival movements[7]  spreading across Europe at that time and a revitalized interest in Anabaptist history and identity.[8]  A key figure in this French Mennonite revival was Pierre Sommer (1874-1952). Sommer actively tried to build relationships among the different congregations by establishing a monthly publication, Christ Seul, and by promoting regular meetings called "conferences." In 1929 the French-speaking Mennonites formed an organization called the "Groupe des Eglises ‚vang‚liques-mennonites de langue fran‡aise," which from its beginning developed close relationships with the German-speaking Conference of Alsatian Mennonites.[9]  Sommer and other key figures in this renewal were strongly influenced by revivalistic evangelical theology, which many saw as a logical and natural extension of the Pietist influence that had been strong among Anabaptists in the nineteenth century.

     However, Sommer and a few others (e.g., Valentin Pelsy) were also interested in Anabaptist history and attempted to use this history in order to reforge the identity of French Mennonites. Sommer and Pelsy read Anabaptist history in light of the recent past of the French Mennonites as well as in conjunction with French evangelicalism. They regarded the nineteenth century as spiritually barren, dominated by an Amish "legalism." Sixteenth-century Anabaptism offered them a way to critique the Amish experience in French Mennonite history, as well as a way to claim their newly adopted revivalist theology and piety as a rediscovery of primitive Anabaptism.[10]  Thus their work linked the French Mennonites both to French evangelicalism and also to what was going on elsewhere in the European and American Mennonite world.

     World War II interrupted this modest but important revival among French Mennonites. The renewal had not strongly emphasized nonresistance as a part of Mennonite identity, and nineteenth-century emigration to North America had contributed to the disappearance of this aspect of Anabaptist theology in France. Alsatian Mennonites, who once again became German, were forced to serve in Hitler's armies; there are no documented cases of conscientious objection among French Mennonites during World War II. One could rightfully wonder how French Mennonites would receive the North American MCC workers and theologians who would soon be telling them that true Christians did not participate in war. That some French Mennonites did respond favorably to North American peace theology was due largely to the influence of Pierre Widmer, a young French Mennonite reserve officer who spent five years in German prison camps and in the process became a conscientious objector.[11] 

The Anabaptist Vision in France[12] 

     Pierre Widmer-born in 1912, a school teacher by profession, son-in-law of Pierre Sommer and a key figure among postwar French Mennonites-was deeply attracted to North American Mennonite theology following the war period. In 1950 he promoted the publishing in French of Harold Bender's The Anabaptist Vision. But this translation was only part of a series of major changes occurring in the life of French Mennonites. For example, a quick look at the December 1950 issue of Christ Seul reveals some of these important changes and suggests how North American Mennonite theology was being used to explain and justify those changes. The December issue included:

     -an article on the Dutch Mennonite mission to Java mentioning MCC support of Swiss Mennonite missionary Daniel Amstutz.[13] 

     -a report of the first meeting of the French Mennonite Mission Committee (Pierre Widmer, president) which planned to send representatives to an upcoming meeting of other European Mennonites interested in mission.[14] 

     -a page-long report on the newly created French Mennonite Center at Valdoie.[15] 

     -several paragraphs on the newly created Mennonite Bible School in Basel.[16] 

     -the minutes of an Alsatian conference meeting at which elder Max Schowalter asked for action in favor of Jean Widmer, a young C.O. in prison at Metz.[17] 

     If defending conscientious objection was something new for French Mennonites, it is also significant that none of the French Mennonite institutions mentioned here had existed in 1946 when Christ Seul had resumed publication following several years of silence during the war. In a very fundamental way these relief and mission institutions, as well as the translation of The Anabaptist Vision into French, owe their existence to the immediate postwar presence of Mennonite Central Committee in France.[18]  The birth and development of these institutions from 1946 to 1951 provide an important context for the publication and reception of The Anabaptist Vision.

The Mennonite Central Committee in Postwar France

     Already in 1940 MCC began working in southern France among Spanish Civil War refugees.[19]  This work was interrupted with the internment in Germany of Lois Gunden and Henry Buller in January 1943. During the absence of North Americans, the work continued under the leadership of several French people and then began again in a new way in March 1945 when Henry Buller and his wife returned to France.[20]  According to John Unruh's history of MCC's early decades, "by the end of the year the fourteen MCC workers were directing at least seven different children's colonies besides the distribution of food and clothing in needy centers."[21] 

     As immediate needs became less pressing, the work diminished correspondingly. A year later in 1946 four centers remained in operation; by 1947 only two were left, one in Lorraine (Nancy-Laxou) and one in Alsace (Weiler), both of them geographically close to French Mennonites. One of MCC's conscious goals was to "provide a liaison base with the French Mennonites."[22]  By 1950 seventy North American Mennonites had worked with MCC in France.

     The first postwar issue of Christ Seul appeared in April 1946. Echoes of the MCC presence are found only a few months later in a short article telling how members of the Montb‚liard congregation had received canned fruit and meat from American relief workers. The article explained the historical origin and activities of MCC and also expressed sincere gratitude for MCC's postwar relief work.[23] 

     That same summer Pierre Widmer and Pierre Sommer,[24]  after visiting MCC's French headquarters at Chalons sur Sa“ne and one of the children's homes (Vescours), wrote an overwhelmingly positive report that was published in the September and October 1946 issues of Christ Seul.[25]  In conjunction with that report Pierre Widmer, the periodical's new editor, sought also to involve the French Mennonites in the work of MCC in two different ways: first, by publishing a letter from P. C. Hiebert, president of MCC, which asked the French to participate in the resettling of Mennonite refugees in Paraguay;[26]  and second, by passing on a suggestion from Henry Buller that the French Mennonites themselves become involved in relief work in France.[27]  In fact, Buller had asked specifically that each French Mennonite congregation designate a representative in order to facilitate cooperation with MCC. The French Mennonites quickly accepted Buller's request. On December 10, 1946, at a meeting in Chalons-sur-Sa“ne, delegates from the French Mennonite congregations created their own Relief Committee to serve as a liaison with MCC.[28] 

     From the beginning MCC clearly stated its attitude toward collaboration with the French Mennonites. In February 1947 Henry Buller announced that two of the four children's homes would be closed. In regard to the other two at Nancy and Weiler, MCC was willing to keep them going until the French were ready to take them over or until it was clear that they should be closed. At the same time, Buller did not want to wear out the positive welcome that MCC had received from the French: "We do not yet foresee leaving France. However, we would like to leave exactly one day before you yourselves want us to leave!"[29] 

     Clearly, MCC had won the confidence of most French Mennonites. Soon the results of this relationship proved to be extremely important in the life of the French Mennonite church. Several significant structural and institutional changes were taking place within only a few years, and in the context of these changes The Anabaptist Vision was published and used as a way of explaining and justifying these changes. Several of these changes especially embodied the way in which Pierre Widmer and others understood the Anabaptist Vision.

French Mennonite Relief Work and Service Ministries

     The first noticeable change among the French Mennonites involved the two children's homes that MCC continued to operate in eastern France. In 1947 MCC proposed that the French take over these institutions if they so desired. During the period that these institutions remained under the auspices of MCC, French Mennonites had become more and more active in collaborating with the North Americans.[30]  Yet as time went on, some people, especially Pierre Widmer, thought that not enough French Mennonites were showing real interest in these projects.[31]  The MCC's proposal for French takeover was not an easy decision for French Mennonites, who had no institutions and very little structure beyond the local congregation.[32] 

      The question of whether or not to assume full responsibility for the children's homes was another subject of repeated conversation at conference meetings. Pierre Widmer was a fervent supporter of MCC projects and advocated in favor of the French taking control of them.[33]  But the group hesitated on the question of finances. In spite of MCC's promises of financial aid, some French Mennonites thought they would never be able to come up with the necessary money. North American workers, including John H. Yoder, also joined actively in the discussions.[34] 

     In spite of these objections, however, sentiment in favor of French control persisted. In November 1949 both French Mennonite conferences decided to take on the responsibility of a new institution. On November 4 thirty representatives went to visit a property for sale at Valdoie, close to Belfort. On February 10 the French Mennonites created a committee to negotiate an agreement with MCC as well as to become the legal structure for the new institution. The "Association Fraternelle Mennonite" was born, with Alsatian elder Hans Nussbaumer as its first president.[35]  MCC promised financial aid[36]  for buying and renovating the property at Valdoie and also planned to transfer the children's home at Nancy.[37] 

     From this point on, the MCC center became "Notre Foyer de Valdoie" (Our Center in Valdoie).[38]  The first gathering for French Mennonites was held there on September 24, 1950[39]  and a service of dedication for the facility took place on July 14, 1951.[40]  The acquisition of a second home followed very quickly. On July 20, 1951 the "Association Fraternelle Mennonite" purchased the "Mont des Oiseaux" children's home, close to the Geisberg congregation in northern Alsace.[41] 

     With the acquisition of these two centers and the ensuing commitment to engage in service ministries, French Mennonites began a new chapter in their history. Because of its geographical location at the crossroads between Belfort, Montb‚liard and southern Alsace, the Center at Valdoie became a special place of cooperation for the two different French Mennonite conferences, and other new developments followed because of this newfound collaboration.[42] 

French Mennonite Missions

     From the beginning of his editorship of Christ Seul, Pierre Widmer strongly advocated missions. That was not surprising since Mennonites had been considerably influenced by conservative evangelicals. In fact, the first several allusions to mission in Christ Seul after World War II were totally unrelated to the Mennonite world; instead, they reflected the relationships of the Mennonites to French evangelicals and their theology of mission.[43]  As time went on references to evangelical missions continued to appear, but some important changes also occurred. For example, the July 1947 issue of Christ Seul included a letter from the Charlemagne-Kennel couple working as evangelical missionaries in New Caledonia; but it was accompanied for the first time by "news from our [i.e., Mennonite] missionaries in Java"-actually a translated portion of an article from the North American Mennonite periodical the Gospel Herald.[44]  Thereafter, although the evangelical tradition continued to nourish French Mennonite thinking, the Mennonites became more and more conscious both of the existence of Mennonite missions and of a distinctively Mennonite approach to mission work, nourished by the Anabaptist Vision and contact with MCC.

     The years 1947-1948 were important in this regard. The attempt to integrate mission and Mennonite identity is evident, for example, in the October 1947 issue of Christ Seul. That issue carried an editorial entitled "Why Are We Mennonite?" and a report of the "International Spiritual Life Conference" recently held at Basel. MCC had helped to initiate this conference and Harold S. Bender had given one of the main addresses, speaking on the nature of the church. The translated summary of Bender's talk in Christ Seul prefaced all the major ecclesiological points mentioned by Bender with the following statement: "The Church of Jesus Christ is a missionary church."[45]  One month later Pierre Sommer, Jr. wrote an article entitled "The Missionary Spirit of American Mennonites." In it he briefly related the mission history and activities of the General Conference and the "Old" Mennonite churches. The article ended with the following question: "When will we see the youth of our French congregations respond to the Lord's call?"[46] 

     From this point on, articles in Christ Seul increasingly mentioned Mennonite missions.[47]  In the summer of 1948 Pierre Widmer had represented the French Mennonites at the Mennonite World Conference held at Goshen, Indiana and North Newton, Kansas. In reporting back in September 1948, Witmer was impressed by North American Mennonite missions and saw them as a model for the French.[48]  Only one month later he published a condensed translation of a World Conference address on mission given by Joseph D. Graber, chief executive of the largest North American Mennonite denomination's mission board.[49]  In December 1949 French Mennonites contributed financially to the Dutch Mennonite mission in Java.[50] 

     Widmer's interest in mission, increasingly shared by his fellow French Mennonites, gave birth to new structures and institutions. In early 1950 the French decided to send their first missionary under the auspices of a Mennonite institution[51] -Dr. Marthe Ropp, sent to Java through MCC to work with the Dutch Mennonite mission as part of a new stage of inter-Mennonite cooperation. Those who sent Ropp saw her work as closely related to the "life or death of their congregations."[52] 

     In June 1950 Pierre Widmer represented the French at a Mennonite mission conference at Elspeet in the Netherlands. There a proposal emerged to create a Council of European Mennonite Missions, consisting of representatives of the mission committees-either existing or yet to be created-of the different participating countries.[53]  Mennonite mission committees were soon created in Switzerland, Germany and France.[54]  Almost immediately, the French Mennonite mission committee became visible. Just as news from the Valdoie and Mont des Oiseux centers appeared regularly in Christ Seul, so also the "Bulletin du Comit‚ de Mission" began to appear regularly as of February 1951.[55] 

     The same issue of Christ Seul which published the first reviews of Bender's La vision anabaptiste and Yoder's Que feriez-vous si . . . ? (What Would You Do If?) also featured the first missionary bulletin, describing the farewell service for Dr. Ropp, in which several people from MCC participated. Interestingly, in sending Marthe Ropp-a woman, in 1951-the French church sent someone who would meet the same obstacles as any "preacher of the Gospel."[56] 

     Mission has not always been seen as being essential to the Anabaptist Vision.[57]  After all, Bender's classic statement had not emphasized mission at all. But for Pierre Widmer and other French Mennonites, mission lay at the heart of the Vision. At least, that seems to be a faithful reading of what Widmer was seeing in MCC and other North American agencies. The period considered here was near the beginning of what Wilbert Shenk has called the "golden age" of Mennonite mission and service activity, 1945-1970.[58]  That the mission theme was closely tied to relief work and peace theology is also reflected in the theme of the Fifth Mennonite World Conference in Basel in 1952: "The Church of Christ and Its Mission."[59] 

North American Anabaptist Theology in France

     As in the life of any church, these institutional changes among the French Mennonites needed to be explained and justified.[60]  In the French context, Bender's theological understanding of Anabaptism proved useful in doing precisely this. As has been noted, the pre-World War II renewal that had taken place among French Mennonites drew its theology mainly from evangelical (i.e., fundamentalist) movements and to a much lesser extent from Anabaptist history. Given its strongly minority character, French evangelicalism tended to downplay denominational identities. Also, references to the Mennonite past were often loaded with negative memories of "legalism" and ethnicity by those who wanted to promote an interdenominational evangelical identity among French Mennonites. Any attempt to create institutions with a specifically "Mennonite" label was seen as divisive and was bound to meet with some important resistance. Therefore, Pierre Widmer and others who favored the changes taking place in their midst needed to demonstrate a theological basis for these changes which would be convincing to those who argued that it was sufficient to simply be "evangelical." Here North American Mennonite theology became useful.

     According to Jean S‚guy, North American Mennonite theology influenced French Mennonites for at least three reasons. First, World War II had forced people to think about the problems of violence and nonviolence (illustrated by Pierre Widmer's own pilgrimage). Second, those who had grown up under the influence of Pierre Sommer's revival were naturally interested in mission and evangelism. Third, the presence of MCC demonstrated the importance and value of relief work.[61]  North American Mennonite theology provided an understanding of the church that undergirded three new aspects of French Mennonite life: service ministries at Valdoie and Mont des Oiseaux, involvement in Mennonite missions, and the attempt to create a legal status for conscientious objection in France.

Traces of Bender in France

     Attention has thus far been focused on the MCC presence in France leading to a French translation of The Anabaptist Vision. This does not discount a more direct personal influence of Harold Bender on French Mennonite life. In addition to spending several postwar summers in France, Harold Bender came to Europe for one year with MCC Peace Section in the summer of 1947. His task was to get to know European Mennonites and to work on questions of peace theology.[62]  Although he could read French, he was not a fluent speaker. Nevertheless his knowledge of German allowed him to communicate with Alsatian Mennonites. Bender apparently did not spend much time in France, but he did take careful note of events in the churches there.[63]  Initially, Bender's plain coat and his interest in history, old books and manuscripts (which he gathered for the Goshen library) did not endear him to some French Mennonites who still had negative memories of Amish legalism.[64]  The French Mennonites who had been the most influenced by evangelical theology were somewhat suspicious of North American Mennonite theology because it seemed like a step backwards in history or because it appeared too intellectual.[65] 

     One finds few references to Bender in Christ Seul. Yet there are enough to give a good indication of the presence he established among French Mennonites. The first reference to his name was in relation to an "International Spiritual Life Conference" in Basel in August 1947. During several summers after World War II, MCC sponsored these conferences to help European Mennonites nurture an Anabaptist theological identity. The July 1947 issue of Christ Seul announced that Bender would give a lecture on nonviolence at the upcoming meeting.[66]  It is not clear how many presentations Bender gave. The October 1947 issue of Christ Seul summarized a talk by Bender on the nature of the church rather than on nonviolence.[67]  These conferences continued for several years. The same 1950 issue of Christ Seul that heralded the opening of the new Mennonite Center in Valdoie also announced another "International Conference" at Basel at which Bender would be one of the keynote speakers.[68] 

     Thus, relief work and mission efforts were being justified with explicit reference to Anabaptist history and theology. So too was the peace question. Through the influence of Pierre Widmer and others, French Mennonites were asking questions of nonviolence, nonresistance and conscientious objection in a new way. On August 5-6, 1950, along with two other representatives, Widmer attended a Mennonite conference on nonresistance at Heilbronn, Germany.[69]  Ten days later, at the Altkirch church in Alsace, there was a special meeting on this same subject for French Mennonite preachers, with H. A. Fast, a prominent leader among General Conference Mennonites in North America, and H. S. Bender participating. The meeting reached no decision in relation to the French Mennonite "official" position on nonresistence, but "the problem was seriously examined."[70]  In November 1950 the French version of La vision anabaptiste appeared simultaneously with J. H. Yoder's Que feriez-vous si . . . ?. Both publications clearly indicated the direction Pierre Widmer was trying to lead the French church. One month later, elder Max Schowalter from the Pfastatt congregation asked his Alsatian conference for a show of support for Jean Widmer, the young Mennonite in prison at Metz because of his conscientious objection.[71] 

     Given that the French Mennonites had abandoned the doctrine and practice of nonresistance around 1850,[72]  that there had been only one Mennonite conscientious objector during World War I and none during the World War II, and that the French had suffered under the German occupation (the Alsatians had even been incorporated by force into the Nazi armies), the topic of nonviolence must have aroused considerable emotion. Nevertheless, the discussions continued. At the International Conference held at Valdoie from June 22 to 24, 1951 the major topic was "biblical nonresistance." H. S. Bender was the opening speaker.[73] 

     In conjunction with the June 22-24 meeting, the elders and preachers[74]  of the French Mennonite churches held a special session on June 22. They had received a letter of invitation earlier that month signed by Pierre Widmer and H. S. Bender.[75]  During this session the leaders of the French Mennonite churches agreed to ask the French government formally to provide the necessary legal foundation for conscientious objection and civilian service.[76]  The ensuing letter, dated September 11, 1951, supported an initiative already proposed to the legislature and made an explicit reference to the nonresistant tradition of the Mennonite church throughout the centuries.

     According to Jean S‚guy the process taking place at that time was important also in that a new theological unanimity was emerging among the leaders of the church. Those leaders were seeing nonresistance and nonviolence once again as central to Mennonite identity.[77]  Of course not all French Mennonites had accepted the doctrine of nonresistance. But they did acknowledge that a Christian could legitimitely claim to be a conscientious objector.[78] 

     How Was the Vision Propagated?

     Clearly, Bender's influence in particular, and North American Mennonite theological influence in general, had been passed on to French Mennonite circles in a very important way by Pierre Widmer. Widmer was a fervent advocate for MCC work in France and for the opening of the French Mennonite centers at Valdoie and Mont des Oiseaux. He also was the first president of the French Mennonite Mission Committee, the editor of Christ Seul, and the instigator of the translation of The Anabaptist Vision. It could be said that Pierre Widmer exercised the same kind of influence among French Mennonites, in much the same manner, as did Harold S. Bender among the Mennonites in North America.[79] 

     If Bender's writings were an important factor in the thinking of Pierre Widmer, he was influenced even more by several MCC workers who were more steadily present in Europe than was the author of The Anabaptist Vision. Key examples were Paul Peachey and particularly John H. Yoder.[80]  According to S‚guy, Yoder was a major influence in the changes during this period:

     One can say that along with Pierre Widmer, he [J. H. Yoder] was one of the most efficient instruments of the reorganization of the [French Mennonite] churches after 1945, even if he had not participated in the events between 1945-1949.[81] 

     As for the important role that various publications played in the spreading of this theology, Christ Seul was a major source of this influence.[82]  The close-knit nature of the French Mennonite churches meant that this monthly journal was carefully read, even if people did not always agree with all of its contents. Widmer was responsible also for other influential publications. La vision anabaptiste and Que feriez-vous si . . . ? have already been mentioned. Other works written during this period that tried to reorient Mennonite theology through a return to sixteenth-century Anabaptist sources include the following:

-Almanach Mennonite du Cinquantenaire (1901-1951) [Mennonite Almanac].

     -Principes et Doctrines Mennonites [Mennonite Principles and Doctrines], by Pierre Widmer and John H. Yoder (1955).

-Nouveau manuel d'instruction … l'usage des Eglises Evang‚liques Mennonites et de tous ceux qui cherchent d'un coeur sincŠre le Seigneur J‚sus-Christ (1956) [New Manual of Instruction for the Evangelical Mennonite Churches and All Those Who Seek the Lord Jesus Christ with a Sincere Heart], a catechism written to reflect the new theological orientation.

     The European Mennonite Bible School, created during this period in Liestal, Switzerland, also contributed to the reorientation of Mennonite theological identity in France.[83]  French Mennonites did not have (and still do not have) a tradition of trained professional church leaders. The revival movement of the first half of the twentieth century led to contacts with evangelical institutions, and many French Mennonites attended French or Swiss Evangelical Bible institutes, such as Chrischona, Emmas or Nogent-sur-Marne. Once again, under the influence of MCC and particularly of H. S. Bender, the idea of founding a Mennonite Bible School was born, and Pierre Widmer was a fervent advocate. Widmer was also one of the school's first teachers in the French-language section. In 1949 he wrote an article "Do We Need a Mennonite School?" in which he argued that without such a school Mennonites would disappear. He also claimed that the intense missionary activity of American Mennonites was a result of their educational institutions.[84] 

Results, Ambiguities and the Future

     Thus in the space of only a few years several major transformations took place among the Mennonites of France. New involvements in service ministries, missions and peace witness emerged which were justified theologically as faithful expressions of the Anabaptist vision. The scope of the synthesis, on the part both of the French and of the North Americans, is very impressive. In these postwar years one sees the influence of church history, biblical theology, social involvement, missionary commitment and concerns for peace and nonviolence.

     Of course some French Mennonites resisted American ideas and ways. However, numerous conversations with people who lived through this period confirm the positive impression that Christ Seul gives of the interaction between French and American Mennonites. The question of why this was the case cannot be answered in detail, but one might offer several hypotheses. First, this story unfolded in a much larger context. France-and more specifically the Alsatian regions where Mennonites lived-had recently been liberated by American troops. These were also the years of the Marshall Plan, when the United States was playing an important political role in Europe. Recent fiftieth-anniversary celebrations of D-Day and the liberation of Paris have demonstrated an outpouring of positive French gratitude for American help in the liberation of France. Even if North American Mennonites came to Europe as pacifists, they probably benefited from the general pro-American sentiment of the postwar period. De Gaulle's anti-Americanism and the French pullout from NATO were not yet a part of the French view of Americans.

     Another part of the larger context was the arrival of American evangelical mission organizations in France in the postwar years.[85]  Compared to other American evangelical groups, who sometimes acted as if they had to start from nothing because there were no Christians in France, the North American Mennonites worked within the already existing structures of the French Mennonite church. This was of course facilitated by the Swiss-German ethnicity shared by many American and French Mennonites. People such as J. D. Graber and H. S. Bender, or more especially Bender's wife Elizabeth, still had cousins in Alsace and Germany. Such family connections provided a natural starting point.[86] 

     The ethnic ties probably facilitated the acceptance of the Anabaptist Vision because even if some French Mennonites reacted against what they considered to be "American theology"-especially in relation to nonviolence-they recognized that the Anabaptist history invoked in justifying nonviolence was a history in which they shared. Conrad Grebel and the Schleitheim and Dordrecht Confessions provided roots common to both European and American Mennonites, so that what the Americans brought was not imported foreign theology. Perhaps their theological nonconformity and ethnic identity gave North American Mennonites in Europe a more critical distance from their own American culture than was true of other American mission workers in France.

     Whatever the explanations, the changes have made important differences in the life of the French Mennonite churches. What began in the 1950s has grown and flourished. The centers at Valdoie and Mont des Oiseaux continue to function and have expanded their activities. In fact, the French Mennonite Mission Committee sponsors more workers and projects than does any of the other European Mennonite churches. Cooperation between North American and French Mennonites still continues. During the 1950s a North American Mennonite presence continued in France, but the work of MCC was gradually replaced by other mission agencies, primarily the Mennonite Board of Missions and the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities. This continued cooperation has encouraged, directly or indirectly, other new social involvements and the establishment of several new congregations.[87] 

     Perhaps the question of peace theology is the weakest link in the chain. Yves Klopfenstein has recently written a master's thesis on French Mennonite attitudes on nonresistance and conscientious objection between 1946 and 1962. The thesis shows that only a few years after the events described here a large majority of French Mennonites who had been drafted to serve in the Algerian War accepted military service without apparent hesitation.

     It is not clear that the synthesis of service ministries, mission work and peace theology has been maintained. The danger is that the three tracks may divide into separate paths. For example, French Mennonite social institutions have flourished in the last forty years, but because their financial support comes from the French government, there is still no institutional linkage between the church and these institutions. In the past several years a major question has been raised: "What makes these institutions, which receive little if any financial support from the churches and which have little if any accountability to church structures, specifically 'Mennonite'?"

     French Mennonite mission work has also flourished, but it is not obvious that the work is being done on the basis of a specifically Anabaptist missiology. A French Mennonite peace committee exists, and much has been and is being published on peace theology. But for many French Mennonites, peace concerns are marginal to church life and have little to do with mission or social work.

     Therefore, the French recovery of the Anabaptist Vision is not a demonstrated fact. The reasons for this continuing ambiguity are easy to discern. Ever since the beginning of the twentieth century, French Mennonite theological identity has been pulled toward two different poles: interdenominational evangelicalism and Anabaptist history and theology. The theology of what S‚guy has called "the First Revival" continues to limit the effects of the Anabaptist Vision.[88]  Many French Mennonites are content to be "evangelical," and the term "Mennonite" still often refers to a rural ethnic identity scarcely related to any kind of specific theological content. In a country where approximately one percent of the population is Protestant and where there are numerous divisions and subgroups among evangelical and "mainline" Protestants, it is more important for some people to maintain "evangelical" unity and identity than to work on a more specifically Anabaptist identity.

     Of course the future is open, and I will not predict what is going to happen. Several French Mennonites of the younger generation tend to be somewhat pessimistic about the Anabaptist identity of their contemporaries.[89]  Such opinions are not formulated lightly, and there is much to support a pessimistic outlook. On the other hand, one can use a longer-term perspective and claim that, presently, the Mennonites of France have more resources than ever in their history to work on defining and living out a clear Anabaptist identity.[90] 

     Already in 1977 Jean S‚guy claimed that this is the first time in French history since the seventeenth century that Anabaptists have a real chance to make themselves heard, if only they can break out of their ethnic isolation and articulate a true theological identity.[91]  This is even more true in the present. S‚guy also claimed that any discussion of the future of the Mennonites in France is intimately related to the larger question of the future of Christianity in France.[92]  Perhaps the questions are even broader than that. In asking about the future of Christianity in France we should also ask about the future of Christianity in North America. The question of whether or not the French Mennonites will be able to maintain the theological synthesis of service, mission and peace theology is related to whether or not North American Mennonites will be able to do the same thing. It is not only in Europe that this synthesis is in danger of disappearing.


[*] Neal Blough is Director of the Paris-St. Maurice Mennonite Study Center and pro-fesssor of theology at the Vaux Seminary. 1. Bender's work was accompanied by a translation of J. C. Wenger's "Who Are the Mennonites?" Another pamphlet by John H. Yoder, Que feriez-vous si. . . ? (What Would You Do If?), was published at the same time. Return to Text

[2] . Cf. Pierre Widmer's introduction to Bender, La vision anabaptiste (Montb‚liard: Publications Mennonites, 1950), 6. Return to Text

[3] . The term "Mennonite" will be used primarily to refer to twentieth-century French Anabaptists. Return to Text

[4] . The history of French Mennonites until the 1960s can be found in Jean S‚guy's masterpiece, Les assembl‚es anabaptistes-mennonites de France (Paris-La Haye: Mouton, 1977). Return to Text

[5] . S‚guy, Les assembl‚es, 372-76. Return to Text

[6] . Ibid., 547-48. Return to Text

[7] . French Mennonites were strongly influenced by Pietism in the nineteenth century and continued to have strong relationships with conservative evangelical groups who were living through the European version of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. Return to Text

[8] . Cf. S‚guy, Les assembl‚es, 545-612 and 730-69. Of course, at the same time, North American Mennonites were also being influenced by evangelicals. However, the French Mennonites had moved farther away from what American Mennonites have considered to be specifically Anabaptist. For a comparison of French and North American Mennonite histories, see N. Blough, "Secte et modernit‚: r‚flexions sur l'‚volution historique de l'anabaptisme aux Etats-Unis," Bulletin de la Soci‚t‚ de l'Histoire du Protestantisme Fran‡ais 140 (Oct.-Dec. 1994), 581-602. Return to Text

[9] . S‚guy, Les assembl‚es, 581. The Alsace had once again become French in 1918. Return to Text

[10] . Ibid., 583. Return to Text

[11] . In 1948 Pierre Widmer wrote about how his mind changed during the war. For the English translation, see "From Military Service to Christian Non-resistance," MQR 23 (Oct. 1949), 246-56. Return to Text

[12] . As a generic reference in this paper, "Anabaptist Vision" refers not just to Bender's pamphlet but to the larger context of North American Mennonite influence in France. Return to Text

[13] . Christ Seul [henceforth CS] (Dec. 1950), 8-9. Return to Text

[14] . Ibid., 10. Return to Text

[15] . Ibid., 14 ("Notre Foyer de Valdoie"). Return to Text

[16] . Ibid., 15. Return to Text

[17] . Ibid., 13. There was no legal provision for conscientious objection in France at this time. Return to Text

[18] . S‚guy, Les assembl‚es, 628. Return to Text

[19] . John D. Unruh, In the Name of Christ: A History of the Mennonite Central Committe and Its Service 1920-1951 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1952), 45. Return to Text

[20] . Ibid., 102. Return to Text

[21] . Ibid. Return to Text

[22] . Ibid., 103. Return to Text

[23] . "A Montb‚liard, le secours mennonite am‚ricain," CS (July-Aug. 1946), 14. Return to Text

[24] . Son of Pierre Sommer and brother-in-law of Pierre Widmer. Return to Text

[25] . "Un Reportage: avec le Secours Mennonite Am‚ricain," CS (Sept. 1946), 7-10; CS (Oct. 1946), 11-12. Return to Text

[26] . CS (Oct. 1946), 13. Return to Text

[27] . "Comment participer au Secours Mennonite: une d‚claration de H.-P. Buller," CS (Oct. 1946), 13-14. Apparently this is the first mention in French sources of MCC asking the French Mennonites to become actively involved as partners. Return to Text

[28] . "Un comit‚ fran‡ais de secours mennonite," CS (Dec. 1946), 9. Return to Text

[29] . "Echos et Nouvelles du Secours mennonite Am‚ricain," CS (Feb. 1947), 9-11. Return to Text

[30] . CS (June 1948), 14. Return to Text

[31] . Pierre Widmer, "A propos des Maisons d'enfants du MCC," CS (Dec. 1948), 14; CS (March 1949), 11; CS (April 1949), 11. Return to Text

[32] . The newly constituted French Mennonite relief committee began as an effort to foster greater collaboration with existing MCC projects within and outside of France. However, already in December 1947 the Mennonites began to think about taking on a major project themselves: beginning a center for elderly Mennonites.-"Le secours mennonite," CS (Dec. 1947), 13. Return to Text

[33] . CS (Nov. 1949), 14. Return to Text

[34] . CS (Dec. 1949), 13-14. Return to Text

[35] . This committee would soon replace the "comit‚ de secours" which had originally been formed to collaborate with MCC. Return to Text

[36] . The operation cost 6,000,000 francs, of which MCC paid about one-third.-"Une grande nouvelle: le Home Mennonite est fond‚ … Valdoie, prŠs Belfort," CS (July-Aug. 1950), 16. Return to Text

[37] . CS (April 1950), 12. See also John H. Yoder, "Histoire de la Fondation du Foyer Mennonite," Almanach Mennonite du Cinquantenaire 1901-1951 (Montb‚liard: Publications Mennonites, 1951), 74-76. Return to Text

[38] . "Notre Foyer de Valdoie," CS (Dec. 1950), 14. Return to Text

[39] . "Fˆte au Foyer Mennonite de Valdoie," CS (Sept. 1950), 16. Return to Text

[40] . CS (June 1951), 14. Return to Text

[41] . CS (Sept. 1951), 10. Return to Text

[42] . S‚guy, Les assembl‚es, 632. Return to Text

[43] . Widmer's editorial in the September 1946 issue (2-3) speaks of the "ripening harvest" and is accompanied by an article "La Moisson" by Jean-Baptiste Muller (4-6). This is the same issue where the first report on MCC presence in France is found. Two months later, CS (Dec. 1946), 10-11, Widmer suggested that French Mennonites send gifts to the Evangelical Society of Missions (a mainline Protestant institution) in Paris, a fact which testifies to Widmer's openness also to the non-evangelical wing of French Protes-tantism. Return to Text

[44] . "Lettre d'Oc‚anie" and "Nouvelles de nos missionnaires … Java," CS (July 1947), 9-11. Return to Text

[45] . CS (Oct. 1947), 2-3; 10. Return to Text

[46] . Pierre Sommer, "L'esprit missionnaire chez les mennonites d'Am‚rique," CS (Nov. 1947), 8-9. Return to Text

[47] . E.g., "Rapport sur la Mission Mennonite … Java," CS (March 1948), 9-11; CS (May 1948), 6-7. Return to Text

[48] . Pierre Widmer's report on the Fourth Mennonite World Conference, Aug. 3-10, 1948, gives his impressions of what he saw; his enthusiasm makes it easy to understand why some French Mennonites were beginning to think that he was becoming "Americanized."-CS (Sept. 1948), 9-11. Return to Text

[49] . "Vue d'ensemble sur les missions ext‚rieures des mennonites," CS (Oct. 1948), 4-7. 50. CS (Dec. 1949), 12. Return to Text

[ Return to Text

[]]  51. For the earliest reference to the decision to send Marthe Ropp to Java, see CS (June 1950), 19. 52. Ibid. Interestingly, Ropp also happened to be the person who translated Harold Bender's The Anabaptist Vision into French. Return to Text

[5] 3. "Rapport sur la conf‚rence missionnaire d'Elspeet (3 au 5 juin 1950)," CS (July-Aug. 1950), 11-14. These were the beginnings of the creation of the "Europ„isches Mennonit-isches Evangelisations Komitee" (E.M.E.K.), which recently dissolved (in June 1994). Return to Text

[5] 4. For Switzerland and Germany, see CS (Oct. 1950), 11. The "Comit‚ de Mission Mennonite Fran‡ais" (French Mennonite Mission Committee), with Pierre Widmer as the first president, had its first meeting on Nov. 12, 1950.-CS (Dec. 1950), 10. Return to Text

[5] 5. Consistently, the amount of space given to the news from the Mission Committee was proportionately greater than to any other subject in Christ Seul. The first bulletin (Feb.) had four pages; March 1951, four pages; April 1951, four pages; May 1951, six pages; June 1951, five pages; etc. The journal usually had sixteen to twenty pages. Return to Text

[5] 6. "Bulletin du Comit‚ de Mission des Eglises Evang‚liques-Mennonites de France" (4-page insert), CS (Feb. 1951), iii. Return to Text

[ ]  Return to Text

[5] 7. This can be argued both ways. On the one hand, in Bender's final presentation of the nature of the church in These Are My People (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1962), the "ministry of the gospel, that is, evangelism" is seen as one of the four basic qualifiers of the church, even though it is not developed in detail (100-02). On the other hand, Mennonite missiologist Wilbert Shenk claims that Mennonite theologies of peace and mission have been developed along separate tracks.-"Missions and Outreach: The Anabaptist Heritage" (unpublished paper given at Bridgewater College, Sept. 19-Oct. 2, 1993), 9. Pierre Widmer attempted to integrate mission and peace theology and thought he was getting his model from North American Mennonites. Return to Text

[58] . Shenk, "Missions and Outreach," 9. Return to Text

[59] . The entire Sept. 1952 issue of CS reports on this World Conference. The proceedings were edited by H. S. Bender and the executive committee of Mennonite World Conference.-Die Gemeinde Christi und ihr Auftrag (Karlsruhe: H. Schneider, 1953). 60. S‚guy, Les assembl‚es, 788. Return to Text

[6] 1. Ibid., 635. Return to Text

[6] 1. Ibid., 635. 62. Samuel Gerber, Vous puiserez aux sources du salut: Ecole biblique mennonite europ‚enne 1950-1990 (Liestal: Ecole Biblique Mennonite Europ‚enne Bienenberg, 1990), 9. Return to Text

[6] 3. S‚guy, Les assembl‚es, 634. Return to Text

[6] 4. Ibid., 768. Return to Text

[6] 5. Ibid., 794. Return to Text

[6] 6. CS (July 1947), 15. Return to Text

[6] 6. CS(July 1947), 15. 67. "La Conf‚rence Mennonite Internationale de Bƒle: impressions d'ensemble," CS (Oct. 1947), 9-10. Return to Text

[6] 8. CS (July-Aug. 1950), 16-18. Return to Text

[6] 9. CS (Sept. 1950), 19. There were several Mennonite peace conferences during the period, the first of which was held at Elspeet, July 23-24, 1949. H. S. Bender was also one of the speakers at this meeting.-CS (Sept. 1949), 8-11. Return to Text

[7] 0. Ibid. Return to Text

[7] 1. CS (Dec. 1950), 13. Return to Text

[7] 2. S‚guy, Les assembl‚es, 783. Return to Text

[7] 2. S‚guy, Les assembl‚es, 783. Return to Text

[73] . CS (June 1951), 15. Return to Text

[74] . Traditionally, French Mennonite congregations have been structured around lay elders (anciens) and preachers (pr‚dicateurs). These elders and preachers still meet regularly to deal with pastoral and theological questions. Return to Text

[75] . CS (July-Aug. 1951), 13. Return to Text

[76] . The text of the letter, addressed to the president of France and to the French government, can be found in CS (Sept. 1951), 13. The right to conscientious objection in France was not accorded until December 1963. Return to Text

[77] . S‚guy, Les assembl‚es, 674. Return to Text

[78] . Ibid., 677. Return to Text

[79] . Ibid., 625-27 ("Pierre Widmer, ou le R‚veil dans le R‚veil"); Yves Klopfenstein, "Attitudes mennonites face … la guerre: Histoire et analyse des prises de position concernant la non-r‚sistance et l'objection de conscience en France, 1946-1962" (Master's thesis, Protestant Theological Faculty, University of Strasbourg, 1992-1993), 1:100-51. Return to Text

[80] . S‚guy, Les assembl‚es, 769. Return to Text

[81] . Ibid., 637. Return to Text

[82] . S‚guy (675) counted 45 articles on nonresistance between 1946 and 1962. Klopft-enstein has carefully studied the contents of these articles, authored by Widmer, Yoder et al. Return to Text

[83] . Samuel Gerber, the first director of the European Mennonite Bible School (Bienen-berg), wrote a commissioned history of the school to help celebrate its fortieth anniversary in 1990.-Vous puiserez aux sources du salut. Ecole biblique mennonite europ‚ene, 1950-1990 (Liestal: Ecole Biblique Mennonite Europ‚enne Bienenberg, 1990). Return to Text

[84] . "Avons-nous besoin d'une ‚cole mennonite?" CS (Oct. 1949), 14-15. Ever since this period French Mennonites have participated in exchange programs and some have stud-ied in North American Mennonite colleges and seminaries. Return to Text

[85] . See Allen V. Koop, American Evangelical Missionaries in France, 1945-1975 (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1986). 86. Memo from John H. Yoder, Jan. 27, 1992. Return to Text

[ Return to Text

[]]  87. In Paris three Mennonite service institutions came into being devoted to the mentally handicapped and foreign students. The new congregations arising directly or indirectly from these mission efforts include Thionville, Longwy, Bruxelles, Flavion, Chƒtenay-Malabry, Hautefeuille and St. Maurice. All of these efforts in France have been carried out in direct cooperation with French Mennonites and integrated into their structures. More recently, Mennonite centers have been established in Brussels and Paris-St. Maurice. Return to Text

[88] . S‚guy, Les assembl‚es, 811. Return to Text

[89] . Claude Baecher, professor at the European Mennonite Bible School (Bienenberg), claims that the elements characterizing an authentic Anabaptist theology exist "… l'‚tat de trace et de nolstalgie."-"Le ph‚nomŠne anabaptiste ou du bois de bonne qualit‚ se fend-il bien?"-Souvenance anabaptiste 13 (1994), 44. Yves Klopfenstein has wondered whether those who are interested in a theology of nonviolence reflect "la tentative d'un groupe qui se retrouve en majorit‚ absorb‚ par le monde, de ne pas disparaŒtre complŠtement."-"Attitudes mennonites," 213. Return to Text

[90] . If evidence points to a lack of Anabaptist identity, some other signs point in a dif-ferent direction: (1) The present executive committee of the French Mennonite Conference is seeking to affirm a specific Anabaptist identity; (2) the French-language section of the European Mennonite Bible School (Bienenberg) has a dynamic lay-training program that is reaching more people than did the resident Bible School approach; (3) the Cahiers de Christ Seul, a quarterly supplement to Christ Seul, has consistently published materials that are consciously based on the Anabaptist Vision.-N. Blough, "Contemporary French Mennonite Identity Seen Through Recent French Mennonite Publishing Efforts," MQR 76 (Jan. 1992), 90-98; (4) a number of young French Mennonites are working on doctorates in Anabaptist history or theology; (5) the Conference recently created a "Faith and Life Commission" whose explicit goal is to help the church reflect theologically on its present situation from an Anabaptist perspective; (6) the Conference is trying to integrate the social institutions more directly into the life of the church; (7) the Mission Committee is in the process of restructuring and reflecting upon the need to redefine its missionnary vision in relation to Anabaptist theology; (8) the new Mennonite centers in Paris and Brussels are working on questions of Mennonite theology in an urban context; (9) the Mennonite World Conference headquarters have moved to Strasbourg. Return to Text

[91] . S‚guy, Les assembl‚es, 833. Return to Text

[92] . Ibid., 706. The Mennonite Quarterly Review The Anabaptist Vision in France