Willard S. Krabill: Sexuality Pioneer for the Community, College, and Church

By Christa Graber

This project, which I worked on with supervisor Keith Graber Miller of the Bible and Religion Department, has made me reflect on why it is we do biographical research; why we examine some peoples’ lives and not others. Some people are well known because of some heroic event, making it obvious that theirs is a story worth telling. I thought also about the contrast between autobiographies and biographies. While neither is a fool-proof way of getting all the facts about someone’s life, it is exceptional to note a difference between those who choose to write their own memoirs and those who don’t get around to it because they are too busy with other causes and needs they observed.

Among his many other accomplishments as a father, spouse, physician, and church leader, Willard Krabill was instrumental in helping Mennonites negotiate their way through changing cultural understandings of sex and sexuality.

He remained open and yet grounded, helping Mennonites come to terms with their sexuality in a healthy way that was clearly and notably in contrast to the “get [sex] wherever you can” attitude becoming more accepted in American culture.

A necessary element of studying a life is having resources from which to study and analyze actions and reactions. Fortunately, Krabill’s family saw the importance of remembering his life and helped him to record ten hours of audio interviews with him shortly before his death in January 2009. They acted on a favored African proverb of Krabill’s, “when an old man dies, a library burns down.”

As I read and sorted through this “old man’s” library I learned of his life experiences and how he began playing his significant role in the Mennonite church. Although I never had the privilege of meeting Krabill, the audiotapes gave me insight about what things specifically influenced his life. These included incidents in his growing-up years, such as watching his father have the courage to be a pioneer in the education field and lose his job because others did not agree with him.

Another was hearing about the sexuality course Krabill took as a continuing education course in California that prompted him to begin Goshen College’s own Human Sexuality course.

Another important resource for this project was personal interviews with former colleagues, such as Norman Kauffmann and Anne Krabill Hershberger; and two of his children who live in the Goshen area: Merrill Krabill and Jeannie (Krabill) Miller. Norman Kauffmann was dean of students during the time Krabill was advocating for a sexuality course at Goshen College. Dr. Kauffmann’s support was an integral part to making changes on campus and a source of encouragement for Willard Krabill. In an interview with his youngest son, Ron, Krabill stated, “Norm was always behind me in everything I did.”

Another important player in making changes on campus was then-president J. Lawrence Burkholder. Unfortunately, I missed interviewing Dr. Burkholder personally because he died on the very day I had arranged to talk with him. Anne Krabill Hershberger, Krabill’s youngest sister, was another source of encouragement to Krabill. It was she that edited the book Sexuality: God’s Gift. In addition I am planning on continuing to interview colleagues of Krabill’s or former students whose lives were guided by their contact with him.

In the book, Mennonite Peacemaking, sociologists Leo Driedger and J. Howard Kauffman draw on a sociological concept from Peter Berger called plausibility structures. These are conversations, interactions, and other social factors that form a context that can support beliefs.

The authors of Mennonite Peacemaking used these structures to talk about how Mennonites’ response to war has changed throughout our history. They name people who re-formed the understanding of the meaning of pacifism ideological brokers, a term that identifies someone who responds to changing societal conditions without abandoning previously accepted convictions.

I have changed these quotes from the book to apply to the sexuality issues Krabill dealt with: “The Mennonite brokers struggled with a formidable task—how to reconstruct beliefs [about sexuality] in ways that paid deference to Anabaptist tradition and yet rang credible in modern Mennonite ears.”

“The ideological brokers, following the forays of the activists, sought to reconstruct [sexuality] in ways that would lend it credibility as Mennonites traveled through the throes of modernity. To discard it outright would have been to erase … the distinguishing mark of Mennonite identity.”

When Krabill came onto the sexuality scene in the Mennonite Church and on Goshen College’s campus in the 1960s and 1970s, he functioned as an ideological broker in part because he helped open up conversations about sexuality on campus and in the church. Similar to most other Protestants and Catholics in the first 60 years of the 20th century, Mennonites tended to avoid speaking openly about issues related to sexuality. It was not something normally addressed in church services and only minimally discussed in homes, nor was it a popular topic in Mennonite publications; the 1956 Mennonite Encyclopedia has no entry for sex education or sexuality.

There were some Mennonite authors who wrote sex education manuals. In 1942 Mennonite C.F. Derstine, for example, wrote a pair of books, The Path to Beautiful Womanhood and The Path to Noble Manhood. These two books vary in their description of anatomy depending on the audience and one other thing: the book for girls states that men only want virgin, clean women.

For boys, they are cautioned against associating with loose women. These research-free arguments include the idea that masturbation drains “life fluid” and thus energy; in addition, it can cause mental disturbances.

That was the common belief among most religious writers – and even medically trained speakers on sexuality – since the 18th century. Krabill once gave Keith Graber Miller a 1909 pamphlet circulated in Mennonite circles that identified about 20 different ailments associated with male masturbation.

To Derstine’s credit, he did have helpful suggestions, such as something along the lines of “children will learn about sex so make sure it is in the right context,” but he failed to give helpful suggestions for how to do so; he suggested a literal “birds and bees” explanation for children.

The most helpful suggestion in the group of books I read came from H. Claire Amstutz in 1956. In Growing up to Love: a guide to sex education, he pointed out that sexuality is not something you teach a child about all at once, in the same way you do not raise a child in one afternoon. It is a lifelong process that should be approached at deeper levels as the child becomes able to understand more.

At the time Krabill started the human sexuality class on campus in 1974, there were few, if any, other Christian college campuses with semester-long sexuality courses, and certainly none of the other Mennonite Colleges had such a course. In the early 1980s he was also a part of a Human Sexuality Study Committee made up of representatives from both General Conference and Mennonite Church Mennonites, out of which came a document that was grounded in the Bible and provided a guide for churches to study and discuss sexuality. The booklet talks about the meaning of the account in Genesis in which indicates that God created man and woman in God’s image and that they were created male and female in the beginning.

Their sex was not something that appeared after the fall, making it some sort of punishment. God’s intention was to make sexual beings, not only for purposes of procreation but for the relationship that could be formed between two such beings. He led the way in encouraging the Mennonite church to be honest with members about the sexuality present in them and fostering safe places for discussion by providing honest guidelines rooted in the Bible.

In the context of society’s changing sexual mores, Krabill functioned as an ideological broker by making an effort to help Mennonites affirm the good of sexuality and sexual expression while also speaking about guidelines for appropriate sexual practice. Like Most Protestant and Catholic groups, Mennonites had always supported saving genital-genital sexual intercourse for a covenanted marriage relationship. For a time this was not different from the sentiment of society as a whole, generally, whether or not it was always successful in practice. And it was usually stated as a negative: genital sexual relating before marriage is bad. The 1960s sexual revolution changed cultural perceptions of sexuality as the pill was invented and use of it became common. This was the first time that a quite simple and reliable contraceptive was invented that could be separated, in timing, from the act of heterosexual intercourse; one could take the pill throughout the month and be prepared for sexual engagement at any time with a low risk of pregnancy. Krabill sought to counter the trend of sexuality as self expression; instead, he insisted, “our sexuality is who we are, not what we do.”

And that, “Having a proper theology of the body would lead us to feel exuberant about the way our bodies allow us to express ourselves, enjoy a wide variety of sensations, reach out to others in fostering relationships, experience this good creation, and reflect the image of God.”

He remained grounded in the church tradition, yet “reshape[d] doctrines to make them chime with credibility in the context of new conditions.”

Krabill attempted to normalize discussing sexuality by emphasizing its unavoidable presence in every situation. It was from this context that he hoped to open the church to discussions about homosexuality. In a 1995 Sexuality Sunday School elective at College Mennonite Church where he was a member, he introduced his section on the background of homosexuality this way:

“It’s important to realize that the term human sexuality is redundant actually because only humans have the gift of sexuality. Other mammals have sex, have gender, have instincts, sexual reflexes, they copulate they reproduce sexually. But only humans have true sexuality; that rich tapestry of feelings of attraction of affection of affirmation of appreciation of reaching out which is all part of our sexuality. That need for intimacy or connectedness with other human beings. Our quest for wholeness, really. A biblically affirmed dimension of our humanity, sexuality is a marker of our humanity…. As we talk about homosexuality it is important that we place it in the context of our overall sexuality. In Genesis 1:27 you recall that we were created sexual “in the beginning.” Sexuality was not added after the fall. We are created by design male and female both in God’s image, sexual beings, and I am a sexual being from my birth to the day I die. This is a sexual body. We are whole creatures body, mind, and spirit, and these whole beings happen to be sexual in God’s good wisdom and we should rejoice. We are all sexual beings, married or single; young or old; celibate or otherwise. Sexual intercourse does not define our sexuality. Marriedness and singleness do not grade our sexuality. Sexual intercourse, genital interaction, is but a small part of our overall sexuality, which really includes everything about us that defines us as either male or female. It includes my body, my male feelings of masculinity, my male roles in home and community, society. My overall sense being male in a world that is populated by females as well. My sexuality is much more than my erotic feelings or any genital activity.”

This pointed out in an acceptable manner the importance of recognizing the sexuality in all people and the importance of accepting all persons, whether their sexuality is like or unlike that of the majority of people.

His role as a physician allowed him to speak clearly and articulately about the body and body parts and sexual bodily functions, without embarrassment. Perhaps more importantly, his education as a physician gave him credibility with those with whom he came in contact. He had established himself early in his life as a public speaker, beginning with his role in the peace problems committee that was part of the church peace oratorical commission after his graduation from Goshen College; this continued to benefit him as the topics he spoke on became less comfortable for listeners.

His knowledge of students’ sexual lives as campus physician and, over time, as teacher of Human Sexuality, gave him a window into sexual realities that essentially no one else in the Mennonite world had at the time. At the same time, Krabill was honest and realistic about what he was observing in students’ sexual behavior. He was quite empathetic with those students who discovered their same-sex orientation, and put in place the primary support systems for gay and lesbian students on campus. Most students exploring their sexual orientation eventually found their way into the Human Sexuality class and were guided by Krabill there and outside of the classroom context into understanding themselves. Krabill also understood fidelity and covenant to be a part of same-sex relationships (similar to what he saw in heterosexual ones) and was instrumental in opening the Mennonite world to consider blessing same-sex relationships. So he had the unique opportunity of being both aware of what was happening in the lives of young adults and in a position in which people trusted his authority on the subject.

Krabill sought to speak positively about sexuality; rather than focus on the badness of sex before marriage he supported the goodness of sexuality within appropriate contexts. That allowed him to promote relatively traditional views of sexuality but helped him provide a different sort of rationale for avoiding too early engagement in sexual intercourse, or engagement outside of a covenanted context. He also wanted sexuality to be something that is more freely discussed (like society was beginning to at the time), although in the right context and with the appropriate understanding that sexuality comes from God and with that there are certain responsibilities attached to that gift. He believed that sexuality could and should be celebrated.

Although this supported what society was beginning to display, it is also shown in the Bible. Part of what allowed Krabill to function as an ideological broker was that Krabill was conversant in the language of the Bible and the church, and also conversant in medical language and academic idioms. He was intentional about developing this quality; in 1984 he was scholar-in-residence at the Institute for Religion and Wholeness at the School of Theology at Claremont, California.

That plus his gentle, authentic spirit are what allowed him to make inroads in Mennonite congregations and the classroom.

Another major focus was his work on intimacy, which he saw so lacking among men and women who came to his medical practice and so little discussed in academic textbooks. He emphasized his position as a doctor and said, “never have I seen anyone die from the lack of sexual intercourse. I have, however, seen many people die premature deaths because they felt rejected and lonely, and they lacked intimacy.”

The importance of intimacy is how it is beneficial to both parties involved.

By putting sexuality in the context of humanity Krabill opened up the Mennonite understanding of sexuality to include elements of the sexual revolution. He did not uphold society’s way of expressing these elements, but supported a more positive view of sexuality than was true for some previous generations. He encouraged a deeper exploration of elements of sexuality. Most notable was his support of persons with a homosexual orientation as children of God and his encouragement for a closer look at the meaning of sin in relation to sexual orientation and behavior.

Another important element was the inclusion of all the elements that must be in place before a healthy sexual relationship can take place. Krabill’s understanding of sexuality permeated both his career as a doctor and his role as the physician on the Goshen College campus. He was, according to his sister, Anne, “an articulate author, spokesperson, and innovator” even into his retirement years.

He emphasized the importance of a complete understanding of persons as whole beings, mind, body, and spirit.

He hoped this would lead to a whole church, despite disagreements. His friend and colleague, Norman Kauffmann affirmed Krabill’s important contributions and expressed his belief that Krabill left an important legacy: that of his published works from which the church can continue to draw insight on important issues related to sexuality.


Amstutz, H. Clair. Growing up to Love: A Guide to Sex Education. Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1956.

Derstine, C.F. Manual of Sex Education. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1943.

Derstine, C.F. The Path to Beautiful Womanhood. Scottdale, Pannsylvania: Herald Press, 1940.

Driedger, Leo and Donald B. Kraybill. Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism. Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1993.

Hershberger, Anne Krabill, ed. Sexuality: God’s Gift. Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2010.

Human Sexuality Study Committee. A Working Document for Study and Dialogue: Human Sexuality in the Christian Life. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House and Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1985.

Kauffmann, Norman. Interview by the author. Goshen, IN. June 25, 2010.

Krabill, Ronald. “Comments at Willard Krabill’s Funeral.” Remembrances. College Mennonite Church, Goshen IN, January 9, 2009.

Krabill, Willard. Interviews by Ron Krabill, Goshen, IN. September-November 2008.

Krabill, Willard, Overview of Sexuality. VHS, Homosexuality and Christian Faith: A 13-Week Study on Homosexuality. College Mennonite Church. Goshen, IN, 1996.