July 1999

           

 

Discipleship, Generational Change and the Practice of Mennonite History

 

THERON F. SCHLABACH*

     Abstract. In the early 1940s, a generational transition among historians engaged in Mennonite history produced a fine historiographical debate. In the 1990s another such transition is bringing even more profound questions for historians committed to the Mennonite faith. There are practical questions of how to operate in changed institutional settings and also deeper ones of whether the new generation can write convincingly with high professional standards even as they bring their faith commitments and Christian discipleship to their work. Fortunately, within the historical profession a long history of wrestling with the "objectivity question" seems to offer a favorable climate for Mennonite historians who are just now receiving the mantle.[1] 

     In 1942 to 1944 MQR carried a notable historiographical discussion. It began when Harold S. Bender, the journal's editor who was just then developing what became the "Anabaptist Vision" school of interpretation, joined with fellow-Goshen College historian Ernst Correll to review The Story of the Mennonites (1941), the magnum opus of C. Henry Smith, a distinguished Mennonite historian at Bluffton College. After a time Smith replied; and before long another of Bender's Goshen colleagues, Robert Friedmann, answered Smith. Historian Paul Toews, in Volume IV of the Mennonite Experience in America series, has called the discussion "one of the finer Mennonite historiographical exchanges."[2] 

     Smith, who was near the end of his life, personified North American Mennonites' first generation of fully trained Mennonite historians and did so almost alone. He had studied at the University of Illinois and then at the prestigious University of Chicago to become, in 1907, apparently the first U.S. Mennonite to receive a Ph.D. degree. Thereafter he had taught history in Mennonite institutions: first at Goshen, an "old" or "MC" Mennonite institution; and then at Bluffton College, an institution of the culturally more liberal General Conference Mennonite branch.[3]  Meanwhile he also accumulated wealth and was a banker in the town of Bluffton, Ohio.[4]  Smith had done his advanced studies during the so-called progressive era of U.S. history. In the nation's universities the progressives had great faith that science and professional standards could bring the highest of human intelligence to human life and be powerful instruments for enlightened democracy. Such was the spirit in which Smith professionalized Mennonite history in the United States.

     Much of the historiographical exchange between Smith and the Goshen historians had to do with two major issues: first, whether, or in what sense, the sixteenth-century Anabaptists had stood for individualism; and, second, the validity of what Germans were calling Geistesgeschichte-that is, history written to delve more deeply than just into narrative in order to capture the spirit, the genius, the essence of the group or culture under study. Smith's great work had offered quite an individualistic understanding of the Anabaptists, from which the Goshen historians dissented. Also, Friedmann challenged Smith to go beyond the surface story and search for the Mennonite essence.

     Throughout the exchange, the protagonists kept the tone cordial and respectful, and they produced what was indeed a fine discussion of Mennonite historiography. Smith yielded very little on the matter of individualism. As for Geistesgeschichte, he partly agreed, but he warned that it too easily led historians into speculation and philosophy of history and away from interpretations grounded carefully in evidence.[5] 

     Less explicitly the exchange also touched a third subject more or less related to the issues of both individualism and Geistesgeschichte. That subject was the perceptions these Mennonite historians held concerning the church and the place of educated, trained, professional scholars within it. Taking issue in effect with Smith's American progressivism, Bender and Correll asserted, admittedly as a "matter of judgment," that "the soundest promise for the future of American [and world] . . . Mennonitism" lay "not with the 'liberals'" but with the "moderates." The Goshen historians thought that the Mennonite moderates held more promise because they showed "stronger group solidarity," a "greater steadfastness under test," a "deeper sense of historical tradition" and "stronger resistance to 'worldly' influences."[6]  With those words, Bender and Correll clearly were speaking for the "old" or "MC" branch of Mennonites who operated Goshen College and somewhat against the General Conference (or "GC") branch with whom Smith had long cast his lot. But Smith replied no, he was not putting his faith in the program of the General Conference church but instead in the Mennonite colleges, including Goshen. The colleges were "the beacon lights of pacifism." They were "the most effective guardians of the essentials of the traditional Mennonite faith." If Mennonites were going to withstand influences such as the radio and the "centralized high school," Smith argued, the way was "the right kind of education and perhaps re-education in our church schools and colleges."[7] 

     Of course, more than Smith admitted, the debate was indeed between a Bluffton-style GC Mennonitism and Goshen's version of "old" Mennonitism. But more profoundly, Smith was putting his faith in a Mennonite leadership elite defined by their roles in the colleges, not their roles in the church. In contrast, the Goshen historians expressed a deeper faith in the church-perhaps in an idealized image of the church, but in the church nonetheless. Bender and Correll argued that while the Anabaptists had stood for freedom from state coercion of conscience they had strongly tempered any implied individualism by their very strong emphasis "upon the community and upon group solidarity and discipline." In other words, they had stood for the "'brotherhood' ideal."[8]  Smith responded that for the Anabaptists the church had been after all "merely a fellowship of congenial and like-minded believers," "democratically organized."[9]  That assertion aroused Robert Friedmann. The word "merely," Friedmann rejoined, showed that Smith's view of the church was simply not adequate. The Anabaptists, wrote Friedmann, had given church fellowship a much deeper meaning. Anabaptists had not just been individuals pursuing their own personal salvation and then sharing with fellow church members simply for "edification." For them fellowship had been of the essence. The "central idea of Anabaptism," Friedmann insisted, was "that one cannot find salvation without caring for his brother."[10] 

     Surely the difference was not simply two interpretations of Anabaptist ecclesiology or even simply "old" versus GC Mennonitism. It was also a difference of generations. Smith had entered his profession when American progressivism offered the exciting new challenge of professionally trained elites saving the situation for the masses by committing themselves to democracy and purifying and reforming it with applied intelligence. Also, he had entered the profession when the Mennonite colleges and any other instruments for Mennonite scholarship were undeveloped, and when the Mennonite churches were even less sure than later about the value of higher education and advanced scholarship. In that context, broad and enlightened learning seemed like something to be imposed on the church. It was not something the professional scholar might undertake from a sense of solidarity with the church and close fellowship within it.

     By contrast Bender had come to maturity just as American progressivism was giving way to post-World War I disillusion. In American life, including in the universities, the progressivist faith in trained and intelligent elites was losing its power. As for the church, Bender had grown up at the very center of "old" Mennonites' self-confident institutional development, with his father a key player in that development.[11]  By 1940 Bender's church, some of its top committees and one of its colleges had become a very effective base for collecting historical materials and conducting scholarship. From that base Bender and others had begun the MQR, developed it into a successful journal of Mennonite studies and attracted other scholars, including Correll and Friedmann. In organizations such as the Mennonite Central Committee, the Mennonite World Conference and the MC denomination's Peace Problems Committee, Bender worked intimately with the Mennonite churches' leaders, even if few of them were university-trained.[12]  Bender's greater faith in solidarity with the church was clearly ideological as much as circumstantial. Nonetheless, the circumstances within which his generation of scholars worked surely made faith in the church easier than it had been during Smith's formative years.

     It is possible to draw the contrast between those first two generations too sharply. Smith as well as the Goshen historians was a deeply loyal Mennonite, living out his life and his profession in the context of the Mennonite churches and their institutions. In the exchange he aimed a rather gratuitous pot-shot at the Mennonite Community movement,[13]  which was new just then with an aim to revitalize the Mennonites' rural and small-town community life; but in fact he lived out his life in a setting very much like what the movement was advocating. Moreover, Smith used the institutions of Mennonite scholarship and helped to develop them.[14]  So despite that early-1940s exchange, the differences between the first two generations of professionally trained Mennonite historians in the United States were not extremely sharp. Nonetheless, the exchange suggests a difference in how trained Mennonite historians have viewed their relationship to the church.

RELATING HISTORY AND FAITH

     Ultimately, of course, the key question for us Mennonite historians is not merely how we relate to our church but how, in our vocation, we live and act and work as disciples of Jesus and help bring in the reign of God. In 1998 a number of scholars who study Mennonites in North America met at Abbotsford, British Columbia, with at least three apparent purposes: (1) to think retrospectively about two recent series of books on North American Mennonite history,[15]  and then prospectively about where that scholarship should proceed further; (2) to strengthen collegiality and collaboration across the forty-ninth parallel; and (3) more or less to pass the task of writing North American Mennonite history from a generation at or near retirement to a new one, well-established as scholars and yet having their most productive years still ahead of them. The generational change suggests still another subject: how will Mennonite historians work out their Christian vocation-or in a more Anabaptist-Mennonite phrase, how they will be faithful disciples-as the new generation enters a milieu of new frameworks and conditions for their scholarship?

     Quite clearly we Mennonite historians, at least in the United States, are just now in the most historic generational transition yet. To a profound extent the generation receiving the mantle will address an audience quite different from the audiences Mennonite historians have served from the time of C. Henry Smith through the 1980s. More and more, historians of Mennonitism in the United States enjoy a hearing for their work not just mainly from Mennonites but in the profession at large (although not yet from the nation at large). Moreover, the institutional context is changing. More and more, the Mennonite historians who are now in or approaching their prime years are finding employment outside of Mennonite institutions. To publish their books in a manner that will help them establish and maintain careers in other-than-Mennonite institutions they are, understandably, turning away from Mennonite presses and from series such as Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite History; and fortunately university presses seem receptive to their manuscripts. Mennonite historians in Canada have been in a somewhat similar situation for quite a while, of course. The similarity may be far from complete, since there seems to be quite a difference in how important the two nations consider their Mennonites to be. Yet Mennonite historians in Canada may be well poised to help guide Mennonite-studies scholars south of the border, as those in the United States make their generational transition.

     We of the generation that produced for instance the Mennonite Experience in America (MEA) series had a fairly easy formula for connecting our professional activity to our commitment to live, act and work as Jesus' disciples. Ahead of us the C. Henry Smiths, the Benders (Elizabeth as well as Harold), the Samuel F. Pannabeckers, the Cornelius Krahns and others of that generation had won hearty acceptance within official church structures for the enterprise of Mennonite history. An intermediate generation-Cornelius J. Dyck, Robert Kreider, John S. Oyer, John A. Toews, Delbert Gratz, Irvin Horst, Walter Klaassen and others-had cultivated and maintained that acceptance well. Along with that acceptance the earlier generations managed to construct a very effective set of Mennonite institutions for doing Anabaptist and Mennonite history: historical libraries and archives, historical societies, journals, book series and so forth. If a new structure seemed necessary, as for the MEA series, it was relatively easy to draw on some old structures and their access to Mennonite philanthropy to put new structures in place. If we in the generation of the MEA authors were not quite prepared to do it, the Robert Kreiders and C. J. Dycks were: the roles they and others of their generation played were magnificent as they enabled the MEA generation in its work.

     Just as easy for many of us were the intellectual questions of how we as faithful Mennonites might relate our professional lives and scholarship to the church and to our sense of discipleship. In large part we answered all those questions simply by going to work in church institutions. We were not so načve as to believe that those institutions represented Anabaptist and Mennonite ideals pristinely or that they were pure embodiments of the reign of God; but we did assume that for persons with Mennonite understandings of discipleship, Mennonite institutions were probably the best approximations thereof available. So a goodly percentage of us joined Mennonite institutions and proceeded with our work.

     Not everything for our generation was easy. For instance, as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin I had to stand up to an aggressive major professor who told me quite emphatically that the idea of returning to teach at Goshen was just "damned stupid." (Fortunately a friend who was a fellow-student of my outspoken professor explained to our mentor that Theron retained powerful attachments to his Mennonite community and would not be won over-a point that the outspoken professor gradually came to accept.)[16]  Nor, even with considerable and much-appreciated subsidies, have we ever gotten full pay for our scholarly work. Generous as our contributors were, we and our families have felt the strains of long hours and reduced fringe benefits and salaries. Our generation has not lived in any utopia. Yet on the profounder questions of exercising our scholarship as an expression of our discipleship, our institutional context provided us with some relatively easy answers.

     For historians in the generation now receiving the mantle, the situation is different. As they operate more often with a broader audience and in a larger institutional context, they will need a very clear understanding of what they are doing. And they need to know where they stand on a timeworn question: Can a faith-centered historian, one who does not separate one's faith from one's professional work and hide it in some private compartment, operate without hagiography? In the reigning secularism that is the lingua franca of academe, can historians with explicit faith commitments write and speak in ways that will not block serious hearing for their work?[17] 

OBJECTIVITY, HONESTY AND COMMUNITIES

OF COMPETENCE

     About seven decades ago American historians such as James Harvey Robinson, Charles A. Beard and Carl Becker began a great debate within the history profession by introducing relativistic concepts such as "frames of reference." They were challenging the "objectivity" claims of the then-reigning ideal of "scientific" history, an ideal that the late-nineteenth century German historian Leopold von Ranke had planted and that had become the central criterion of whether one's history was professional.[18]  Anyone who wishes to explore the history of that ideal will do well to read a book by Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession[19] -along with many reviews, essays, and forums in response to that book.[20] 

     The issues Novick discussed remain very much alive. Sometimes they appear, radically, in today's "postmodernity" discussions. Of course the term "frames of reference" has yielded to the jargon of "paradigms"; and by now, practically no one uses the term "objectivity" without great qualification. The main quarrel now is not between objectivity and relativism but between radical forms of relativism espoused by postmodernists and, in effect, a formula that had emerged by the 1940s, called "relativist objectivity." "Relativist objectivity" exists where historians are conscious of their beginning assumptions and those assumptions' importance, yet apply rigorous rules of evidence and logic so as to end up with conclusions that no fair-minded critic can dismiss as merely conjecture or propaganda to fit an a priori stance.[21]  In that Mennonite exchange in the early 1940s Friedmann referred to Smith's method as "relativistic objectivity" and contrasted that approach with his own attempt to capture the Geistesgeschichte.[22]  On that particular point, Smith seems the more convincing.

     Mennonites of today's new generation should feel encouraged by the history of the so-called "objectivity question"-for the evolution of that question allows freedom to write from a framework of faith commitments. By now it is practically a truism that every historian writes from some commitments and some social location. The truism has grown stronger in recent decades as African-Americans, other ethnics, feminists and eventually gays have insisted that their social locations give them special understandings long neglected by other historians.[23]  We may accept the truism without having to accept the more radical claims of some deconstructionists and other postmodernists who insist that the meanings we extract from documents and other evidence have almost nothing to do with the original intent of the documents' writers and everything to do with who we are and what we intend as we read the evidence. We need not accept that extreme in order to enjoy the good news of the frame-of-reference or paradigm idea. The good news is that, at least in theory, professional standards have become quite amenable to history written within frameworks of faith commitments.

     Of course many historians have feared quite properly that writing frankly from religious, ethnic or other commitments may deeply corrode our professional standards. For that reason, even in recent decades, many want to cling to some idea of "objectivity" even if they have qualified that idea by honestly admitting that every historian comes to the task with some value system and from some social position.[24]  But even those who want to keep the word "objectivity" should feel free to speak and write from a position that includes faith commitments.

     Once Mennonites have decided that they may and will do their historical work very frankly as Jesus' disciples, there are various specific formulas from which they may borrow. One formula, of course, is that of the early-twentieth century English thinker Arnold Toynbee: using history to discern transcendent designs, even perhaps God's designs, in human affairs[25]  (although Toynbee also said he did not really know whether there is a God[26]  and that he used the word God for lack of any other word for what lies behind what is apparent).[27]  In quite a different manner Kenneth Scott Latourette, a mid-twentieth century historian of the mission movement, also spoke of history revealing God's designs. In 1948 he courageously made that point the central assertion of a presidential address to the secular American Historical Association.[28]  Another formula is one put forward by Arthur Link, prominent historian of U.S. diplomacy in the World War I era. Proceeding rather obviously from standard Protestant assumptions about the Christian and vocation, Link has argued in effect that being a Christian historian means being the best that professional standards call for. He reasoned that Christians, being freed from egotism, can pursue professional methodologies in a spirit of grace rather than law. Moreover Link reasoned that since Christian historians view the history they are trying to uncover as a creation of God, they have special reasons for maintaining high standards. Yet a third formula is one embedded in a classic work, The Historian and the Believer, by mid-twentieth century historian Van Harvey. Harvey really began with the reverse question: not how we apply Christian faith to the historians' task but whether Christians can look to history as a basis for their Christian belief. Using the early-twentieth century's so-called "quest for the historical Jesus" as a case study, he weighed the evidence carefully and soberly, in model fashion. His conclusion: No, Christians could not rest their faith in Jesus on historical evidence; the evidence is convincing only if one comes to the subject already a believer. Yet in his conclusion Harvey still said that of course the Christian will view historical evidence differently from the non-believer. Thus did a sober and careful Harvey assume that not only do Christians have the right to let their faith help set the frames of reference for their history; they also will do so, inevitably.[29] 

     If Harvey made that point rather obliquely, the contemporary historian George Marsden has been very forthright in defending the right of Christians to let their faith be the framework for their scholarship. This he has done especially in his 1994 volume The Soul of the American University and his 1997 one, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. A related volume is The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, by historian Mark Noll. Marsden and Noll are personal friends, they both write history of religion in America, both enjoy high respect for their scholarship and both proclaim their Christian stance boldly within the profession. Marsden writes more explicitly as a Calvinist, Noll as an evangelical. And where Marsden locates problems in America's secular universities, Noll has written a cry of the heart against the low state of intellectual life among evangelicals themselves. But both authors insist that Christians have every right to put forward an explicitly Christian scholarship.[30] 

     Marsden's central argument is very clear: that the American universities, who largely set the frames of public discussion in American life, have been ready to embrace and protect academic freedom for all sorts of highly committed, quasi-faith-based, sometimes even quite dogmatic schools of thought. His examples range from Marxism to feminism to gay perspectives to certain value-laden techniques of literary interpretation. Marsden has not asked that such faith-laden persuasions be quashed: he has only asked the academic community to give equal place for explicitly religious views and perspectives (Christian and other)-so long as the faith-oriented teachers and writers meet the criteria for genuine scholarship. While careful to cite some exceptions, Marsden insisted that in most cases the governing premises of American universities have given an overwhelming advantage to purely naturalistic explanations for phenomena, as contrasted to explanations informed by religious belief. This is true, he has insisted, even when religious people have offered their views with high intellectual sophistication and scholarship. Marsden has accepted all the rules of liberal and free discourse in the American academy, including criteria of sound scholarship; all he has asked is that the academy extend the same privileges to religious faiths that it accords to secular quasi-faiths. Indeed, he has accepted the liberal idea of a free marketplace for ideas to the point that he scarcely explored whether that framework is really consonant with Christian convictions.[31] 

     Some of the various historians' formulas are doubtful. While Toynbee's views won him a respect in some circles, historians have found them to be too much philosophy of history rather than history itself;[32]  and critic Pieter Geyl has charged further that where Toynbee did try to create real, documented history, he handled evidence poorly.[33]  By contrast, Latourette won considerable respect from professional historians for the historical facts he dug out and for his use of evidence; but apparently not many of his fellow-historians were convinced that the facts necessarily reveal the workings of God.[34]  Link probably will not provide Mennonites with much guidance because his understanding of Christian vocation is too different from more counter-cultural Anabaptist-Mennonite understandings of everyday discipleship. Moreover, his suggestion that Christians are most likely to achieve high professional standards may seem to insult others whose integrity and dedication stem from other value systems.

     If Mennonite historians are going to borrow any of the formulas mentioned, they will do best to borrow from Harvey, Marsden and Noll. Those three authors offer helpful arguments for any religious person who aspires both to scholarly competence and to a professionalism based on Anabaptist-Mennonite understandings of vocation and discipleship. And they have another great advantage: in the profession at large they comport well with the current state of the long objectivity-relativity debate. That means that the Mennonite generation that is coming into its own, with a broadened range for employment and publishing, should be able to work with a sizable spectrum of professional historians.

     In the matured debates over objectivity, relativity and standards which can provide historians with some common standards for discourse, there is an idea that Mennonites should perhaps be quick to embrace. That idea is "communities of competence." The essence of the idea is that since historians inevitably come to their work from differing value commitments, social positioning, frames of reference and paradigms, they cannot look to any agreed-upon abstractions to serve as professional standards and boundaries for their use of evidence, their arguments and their conclusions. Instead they will have to look to the community of trained and competent people. A corollary is that the standards and boundaries will not be formalistic and fixed, but instead will change from time to time and place to place. To its proponents, that view is very compatible with the historical way of thinking: history, after all, teaches us to relate phenomena to the particular contexts, and the contexts are ever-changing.[35] 

     The "communities of competence" idea should be one that Mennonite historians can quickly grasp, use and advocate for the historical profession. After all, is it not almost a secular version of a key Anabaptist-Mennonite understanding of church? The understanding is that the church is a body who seeks truth through a corporate hermeneutic, is open to new truth as guided by the Holy Spirit, and has the authority, after proper and loving discernment, to set some definitions and even boundaries for the group's belief and practice. Such ecclesiology would seem to fit nicely with the "communities of competence" idea. Of course, if Mennonite historians see the academic disciplines as "communities of competence" they will need to be vigilant lest they let the profession in effect become their church (or, to use a phrase from the secular literature, their "salient . . . reference group").[36]  But if Mennonite historians can avoid that temptation, they may quite rightly look to the "communities of competence" idea as one framework for maintaining scholarly standards and rapport within the broader profession.

     As they do that, Mennonite historians should probably not speak of "objectivity" but instead of honesty. "Objectivity" implies a stance; "honesty," by contrast, implies a moral commitment. "Objectivity" too often implies the existence of some von Rankean history-as-it-really-was, with its own existence apart from historians' efforts to reconstruct it-an idea that simply has not stood up well as historians have thought more deeply about their intellectual processes. Honesty, by contrast, suggests no such assumption; it merely implies a moral attitude and quality with which to go about our work. Probably, among all the values we could name, honesty comes as close as any to being a universal moral principle, self-evident and shared (albeit sometimes in the breach) by persons and peoples across the spectrum of value systems, both religious and secular. Therefore it applies regardless of the specific value commitments and social positions from which we come. If historians would discard the word objectivity in favor of the word honesty, much of the past discussion about objectivity would probably seem misguided and moot.

     Of course, for professional standards, honesty must include empiricism, care in the use of evidence and a dogged commitment to careful logic. And debates will flourish concerning methodologies for achieving honesty and about how well this or that historical work has met the ideal. But if our key criterion were honesty, then at least the debates would rest on a universally accepted and even self-evident standard of morality and quality.

     Oddly, one seldom finds the word honesty in a perusal of American historians' key writings about objectivity vis-Ö-vis relativity and about various formulas that might escape the confines of the objectivist-relativist dichotomy. A rather quick perusal turned it up only once.[37]  The word "integrity" did appear[38] -but again perhaps only once, and there its author did not develop it well at all. Occasionally there were phrases such as "fair-minded."[39]  But the simple standard of honesty seemed strangely missing.

     It goes without saying that honesty is by no means the sole property of Mennonites: one strength is its moral universality. Nonetheless, committed Mennonites should perhaps be among the first to articulate it as the key professional criterion. In much of our history we Mennonites have made candor a high principle, to the point of refusing to take oaths. In general the Mennonite folk cultures have not glorified clever repartee, innuendo and circumlocution; instead, Mennonite speech has generally been blunt. Even if Mennonites have sometimes carried bluntness to a fault, overall their ideal of straightforward honesty has surely been a virtue. That is why Mennonite scholars might be among the first to make honesty, rather than an elusive objectivity, their professional standard.

     The outcome of seven decades of discussion of "the objectivity question" would seem to offer a climate for the generation of Mennonite historians who are now receiving the mantle. A large part of that mantle is to bring commitments as Jesus' disciples to their historical work. This is true in a broad theoretical sense, and it is true also for specific ideas, such as the right to speak from a group's social position or the concept of "communities of competence." In a general way, historians who apply the perspectives of African-Americans, feminists and various other groups have helped pave the way. Another favorable auspice is a willingness of American historians to look to religion as an independent variable for explaining anything from voting behavior to social reform. Still another is that historians are not as preoccupied as they once were with the nation-state, but instead show interest in other human groupings, including religious ones. In such a context, Mennonites should be able to form various alliances as they more widely address audiences and work through institutions other than Mennonite.

     Actually, if Mennonite historians take Christian discipleship seriously, they simply have no choice. Discipleship means that they must let their commitments to follow Jesus and to work for the reign of Christ determine how they do history. If they are to follow Anabaptist-Mennonite understandings of practical faithfulness in one's everyday walk, there is no other option. The Anabaptist-Mennonite understandings do not allow any compartmentalizing of life into sacred and secular. By those understandings, any faith that does not express itself in one's day-to-day actions and work is bogus and apostate.

SUMMARY

     At least since the exchange between C. Henry Smith and the Goshen historians there have been somewhat different formulas of how Mennonite historians should relate to the church and to Christian faith.

     In the late 1990s, not only is Canadian and Mennonite history passing from one generation of Mennonite historians to another; but also, at least in the United States, the generation of historians now receiving the mantle will work increasingly for other-than-Mennonite audiences and will look beyond Mennonite institutions for employment and publication.

     The generational change now underway highlights key questions of how Mennonite historians should proceed unabashedly from their commitments as disciples of Jesus.

     Fortunately, important developments within the historical profession at large are favorable. The nation-state has yielded its overwhelming place as the subject of history, allowing much more place for histories of various other human groupings including religious ones. Meanwhile historians are accepting religion as important for explaining human motives and behaviors. Not least, historians' current thought about objectivity, relativity, bias, paradigms and scholars' social locations offers considerable leeway for Mennonites to get their hearing, both as a social group and as scholars with faith commitments.

     Fortunately also, Mennonite historians who want to operate explicitly from their faith commitments should be able to form key alliances with some others. Where it is pragmatic to do so, they may join forces with others who also come with quasi-faith commitments: advocates of ethnic history, proponents of feminist history, etc. More directly, they can count on the George Marsdens and the Mark Nolls as their allies.

     As Mennonite historians formulate their new modes of operating, they should make very clear, as people of integrity and discipline, that they still are committed to operating by broadly acceptable professional standards.

     As the profession at large recognizes, "objectivity" is not a fruitful concept on which to base those standards. A better one, albeit hardly discussed within the profession, is the moral principle of honesty. Mennonite historians might even do well to try to lead fellow-scholars into a full discussion of honesty as the basic and universally acceptable standard.

     For setting standards that may nonetheless shift from context to context, another helpful concept that Mennonites may want to embrace is that of "communities of competence."

     However, for historians who are committed Mennonite Christians, professional "communities of competence" must never replace the community whose competence comes from commitment to Jesus, i.e. the church. The important point is to go into the new situation always determined to work as disciples of Jesus, as surely earlier generations of Mennonite historians have done. The historical profession should not become the Mennonite historians' church.

     Discipleship remains the framework for how Mennonites of every generation should operate within the profession; fortunately, it is a framework fully conducive to high scholarly standards.

     The intent of these thoughts is to offer stimulants rather than authoritative pronouncements. In the end, the next generation of Mennonite historians is highly competent to decide its own standards. But let conversation between the generations proceed.


[*]  Theron F. Schlabach is a historian on the faculty at Goshen College. Return to Text

[1] . The analysis in this article applies most directly to persons in the United States who both do Mennonite history and consider themselves committed Mennonite Christians. But it invites critique and response from anyone connected with Mennonite studies, whether Mennonite or not. Responses from readers outside the United States, especially Canadians, may be especially valuable because of the settings in which they do Mennonite studies. Return to Text

[2] . Harold Bender and Ernst Correll, "C. Henry Smith's The Story of the Mennonites," MQR, 16 (Oct. 1942), 270-75; C. Henry Smith, The Story of the Mennonites (Berne, IN: Mennonite Book Concern, 1941), 823 pp.; "A Communication from C. Henry Smith Concerning the Review of His Book 'The Story of the Mennonites' [sic], MQR 17 (Oct. 1943), 246-52; Robert Friedmann, "I. On Mennonite Historiography and on Individualism and Brotherhood," and Smith, "II. On Mennonite Historiography," MQR 18 (April 1944), respectively 117-22, 122-25; Paul Toews, Mennonites in American Society, 1930-1970: Modernity and the Persistence of Religious Community, The Mennonite Experience in America vol. 4 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1996), 98. Return to Text

[3] . H[arold] S. B[ender], "Smith, C. Henry," ME 4:552. Return to Text

[4] . Ibid. Return to Text

[5] . Ibid. Return to Text

[6] . Bender and Correll, "C. Henry Smith's . . . " (n. 2), 272. Return to Text

[7] . Smith, "A Communication from . . ." (n. 2), 247. Return to Text

[8] . Bender and Correll, "C. Henry Smith's . . ." (n. 2), 271, 272. Return to Text

[9] . Smith, "A Communication from . . ." (n. 2), 249. Return to Text

[10] . Friedmann, "I. On Mennonite Historiography . . ." (n. 2), 121. Return to Text

[11] . See esp. the early chapters of Albert N. Keim, Harold S. Bender, 1897-1962 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1998). Return to Text

[1] 2. Ibid. Throughout, Keim's biography is mainly a story of a churchman in action, not that of a cloistered scholar. Return to Text

[13] . Smith, "A Communication from . . ." (n. 2), 247. Return to Text

[14] . In the exchange, he responded to some remarks of Friedmann in praise of Goshen's historical library by gently referring to the considerable body of materials he himself had collected at Bluffton and to other fine collections at Bethel College in Kansas, at Amsterdam, and elsewhere; Friedmann, "I. On Mennonite Historiography . . ." (n. 2), 118; Smith, "II. On Mennonite Historiography . . ." (n. 2), 124. Return to Text

[1] 5. Referring of course to the Mennonite Experience in America series by Richard MacMaster, Theron Schlabach, James Juhnke and Paul Toews, and to the Mennonites in Canada series by Frank Epp and Theodore Regehr. Return to Text

[1] 6. For the full story, see "Whom Shall I Serve?" in eds. Donald B. Kraybill and Phyllis Pellman Good, Perils of Professionalism: Essays on Christian Faith and Professionalism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1982), 147-55. Return to Text

[17] . For discussion of American universities' strong message to professors that being religious is fine but only if one limits that faith to the purely private sphere, and their insistence that academic discourse must rest on non-religious or secular assumptions, see George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1994) and Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1997). The first chapter of the 1994 book is a fine summary of Marsden's message; some key pages in the 1997 one are 3-24, 28-29, 40-42, 47-53, 67. Return to Text

[1] 8. For classic early writings setting the context of the debate and then the debate itself, see esp.: James Harvey Robinson, The New History: Essays Illustrating the Modern Historical Outlook (reprint of 1912 Macmillan book with new intro. by Harvey Wish; New York: The Free Press, 1965), xii, xx-xxi, 1-25, 47-69. The relativity idea was implicit rather than explicit in Robinson's essays. He still wrote of "objectivity" and of being "scientific," but he found biases in von Ranke's history and although he did not quite seem to recognize that making "progress" the theme of history was a bias of his own time, the progressive era, he argued strongly for doing so); Charles A. Beard, "Written History as an Act of Faith," The American Historical Review [hereafter AHR] 39 (Jan. 1934), 219-31; response by Theodore Clarke Smith, "The Writing of American History, from 1884 to 1934," AHR 40 (Apr. 1935), 439-49; Beard's quick rejoinder, "That Noble Dream," AHR 41 (Oct. 1935), 74-87; and Carl Becker, "Everyman His Own Historian," AHR 37 (Jan., 1932), 221-36, repub. in Becker book of the same title (New York: F. S. Crofts & Co., 1935), 233-55. See also Ellen Nore, "Charles A. Beard's Act of Faith: Context and Content," The Journal of American History 66 (Mar. 1980), 850-66; and esp. for a charge that supposedly objective history was biased against radicals and minorities, see Nell Irvin Painter, "Bias and Synthesis in History," The Journal of American History 74 (Dec. 1987), 109-12. For the whole debate from the 1920s to the 1980s, two valuable books are Maurice Mandelbaum, The Anatomy of Historical Knowledge (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1977), esp. chs. 6 and 7, and esp. Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1988). Return to Text

[1] 9. Ibid. Return to Text

[2] 0. Some key reviews of Novick's book are by: John Higham, in The Journal of Modern History 62 (June 1990), 353-56; Carl Degler, in The Journal of American History, 76 (Dec. 1989), 892-94; Alan Brinkley, in Times Literary Supplement (10-16 Nov. 1989), 1246. Some review essays are: James T. Kloppenberg, "Objectivity and Historicism: A Century of American Historical Writing," AHR 94 (Oct. 1989), 1011-30; and David W. Noble, "Perhaps the Rise and Fall of Scientific History in the American Historical Profession," Reviews in American History 17 (Dec. 1989), 519-22. A major forum is in AHR 96 (June 1991), 675-708, with contributions by J. H. Hexter, Linda Gordon, David A. Hollinger, Allan Megill, Peter Novick and Dorothy Ross. Return to Text

[2] 1. My generalizations from perusing Mandelbaum, The Anatomy, esp. chs. 6 and 7, and sources mentioned in n. 18 and n. 20. Return to Text

[2] 2. Friedmann, "I. On Mennonite Historiography" (n. 2), 117. Return to Text

[2] 3. See n. 20. Return to Text

[2] 4. See n. 20. Return to Text

[2] 5. For an introduction to Toynbee a few good sources are: G. R. Urban and Arnold Toynbee, Toynbee on Toynbee [Urban interviewing Toynbee] (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1974); and M. F. Ashley Montagu, ed., Toynbee and History (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1956), esp. pieces by Tangye Lean (pp. 12-38), G. J. Renier (pp. 73-76) and Pieter Geyl (pp. 360-77). Return to Text

[2] 6. Urban and Toynbee, Toynbee on Toynbee, 14. Return to Text

[2] 7. Ibid, 40. Return to Text

[2] 8. Kenneth Scott Latourette, "The Christian Understanding of History," AHR 54 (Jan. 1949), 259-76. Return to Text

[29] . Van Austin Harvey, The Historian and the Believer: The Morality of Historical Knowledge and Christian Belief (c. by the author, 1966; Macmillan edition [used here] c. 1969), esp. ch. 7. Return to Text

[30] . For Marsden's books, see n. 17. Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., and Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994). Return to Text

[3] 1. See n. 17. Return to Text

[3] 2. Montagu, ed., Toynbee and History (n. 25), passim, esp. the G. J. Renier piece titled "Toynbee's A Study of History." Return to Text

[3] 3. Pieter Geyl, "Toynbee as Prophet," in Montagu, Toynbee and History (n. 25), 361. Return to Text

[3] 4. See esp. reviews in AHR as follows. Of Latourette's A History of the Expansion of Christianity: David S. Muzzey review of vols. 1 and 2, AHR 44 (July 1939), 865-66; Muzzey review of vol. 3, AHR 46 (Oct. 1940), 117-18; Muzzey review of vol. 4, AHR 48 (Oct. 1942), 66-68; Frank J. Klingberg review of vol. 6, AHR 50 (Oct. 1944), 96-98; Lowell Ragatz review of vol. 7, AHR 51 (Oct. 1945), 95-97. E.H.P., book note on Latourette's The American Record in the Far East, 1945-1951, in AHR 58 (April 1953), 704. George H. Williams, review of Latourette's A History of Christianity, in AHR 59 (Apr. 1954), 589-90. Huntley Dupre, book note on Latourette's World Service: A History of the Foreign Work in World Service of the Young Men's Christian Associations of the United States and Canada, in AHR 63 (July 1958), 1028. Of Latourette's Christianity in a Revolutionary Age: Reinhold Niebuhr review of vol. 2, AHR 66 (Oct. 1960), 126-27; Anne Pannell, review of vol. 4, AHR 67 (July 1962), 1013-14; M. Searle Bates, review of final volume, AHR 69 (Oct. 1963), 84-86. Almost every reviewer praised Latourette for prodigious research and mastery and synthesis of great detail, but a number of critics expressed reservations about his philosophy of history; more specifically, reviewers rather often raised questions as to whether he attributed too much to Christianity as an agent of change in the countries to which it spread, at the expense of neglecting other, esp. secular, factors. Occasionally a reviewer praised Latourette for "objectivity," but such commentators generally meant that he was non-partisan toward the various Christian denominations rather than that he was neutral about Christianity itself. A scan of some reviews in The New York Times Book Review and of excerpts in Book Review Digest indicated similar judgments in other journals. Return to Text

[3] 5. See Kloppenberg, "Objectivity and Historicism" (n. 20), 1026-27. For a dissent from the idea (on grounds that "there is no single competence"), see Megill in AHR forum (n. 20) on Novick, That Noble Dream, 695. Megill's footnote 7 offers further bibliography for the idea, esp. in writings of Thomas Haskell and David A. Hollinger. Incidentally, Marsden used an entire chapter in The Outrageous Idea (n. 17) to develop the point that if Christians want to be heard along with the various quasi-faiths in American universities, they will have to build organizations and operate as "communities." Return to Text

[36] . Megill in AHR forum on Novick, That Noble Dream (n. 20), 696. Return to Text

[37] . Urban and Toynbee, Toynbee on Toynbee (n. 25), 13. Return to Text

[38] . J. H. Hexter's remarks in AHR forum (n. 20) on Novick's book, 681. Return to Text

[4] 0. See, e.g., Marsden, The Outrageous Idea (n. 17), 67.

 

 

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