July 1999 Schlabach

July 1999

Discipleship, Generational Change and the Practice
of Mennonite History


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

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
Meanwhile he also accumulated wealth and was a banker in the town of Bluffton,
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
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.


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 nave 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]



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
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
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–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

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.


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

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

. 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

. 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

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

. Ibid. Return
to Text

. Ibid. Return
to Text

. Bender and
Correll, “C. Henry Smith’s . . . ” (n. 2), 272. Return to Text

. Smith, “A Communication
from . . .” (n. 2), 247. Return to Text

. Bender and
Correll, “C. Henry Smith’s . . .” (n. 2), 271, 272. Return to Text

. Smith, “A
Communication from . . .” (n. 2), 249. Return to Text

. Friedmann,
“I. On Mennonite Historiography . . .” (n. 2), 121. Return to Text

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

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

. Smith, “A
Communication from . . .” (n. 2), 247. Return to Text

. 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

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

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

. 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

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

9. Ibid. Return
to Text

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

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. Friedmann,
“I. On Mennonite Historiography” (n. 2), 117. Return to Text

3. See n. 20.
Return to Text

4. See n. 20.
Return to Text

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

6. Urban and
Toynbee, Toynbee on Toynbee, 14. Return to Text

7. Ibid, 40.
Return to Text

8. Kenneth Scott
Latourette, “The Christian Understanding of History,” AHR 54 (Jan.
1949), 259-76. Return to Text

. 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

. 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

1. See n. 17.
Return to Text

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. Pieter Geyl,
“Toynbee as Prophet,” in Montagu, Toynbee and History (n. 25),
361. Return to Text

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

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

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

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

. J. H. Hexter’s
remarks in AHR forum (n. 20) on Novick’s book, 681. Return to

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

This page and all
its contents ©1995 The Mennonite Quarterly Review. All
rights reserved.
E-mail The Mennonite
Quarterly Review: mqr@goshen.edu
Voice: (219) 535-7433

Fax: (219) 535-7438