Ontario’s Conference of Historic Peace Church Families
and the “Joy of Service”
Abstract: This essay briefly examines the family relationships of four executive leaders of the Conference of Historic Peace Churches (CHPC) in order to raise questions about the gendered nature of service. Following a review and interpretation of the oral and biographical sources, the essay describes ways that the mothers and wives of these leaders influenced and supported their non-resistant beliefs and their ecumenism; in particular, it shows how their wives provided an environment that allowed the CHPC executives to participate in what J. B. and Naomi Martin called the “joy of service.” Although women are rarely identified in the written records, interviews and other biographical materials suggest that women not only provided the context for their husbands’ public work, but they also reflected theologically on their role in way that minimized the great personal costs entailed.
Early in 1944 Harold and Mila Senor Sherk were travelling down the highway with their four children. The three teens-Iva, Arthur and Harold-sat in the rear of the car, with little Mildred perched up front between Harold Sr. and Mila. The Sherk children have never forgotten the moment when their mother turned around and told them that Daddy was going to be travelling to India. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) had asked him to spend two years there to help in its relief program. Harold was a Mennonite Brethren in Christ pastor and the family had served in a half-dozen Southern Ontario parishes in their eighteen-year marriage. More recently, Harold had agreed to become secretary of Ontario’s Conference of Historic Peace Churches, and he had spent the past fifteen months as a chaplain for the conscientious objectors assigned to the alternative service camp 80 kilometers north of Sault Ste. Marie. The family lacked a solid community base, and now they would be left behind while Harold travelled half-way around the world.
This vignette illustrates assumptions about gender roles that have undergirded the work of the church. Mennonite history has long focussed on the theology, the ideas and the work of the leadership, while paying little mind to the women who laboured silently in the background. As historians Kimberly Schmidt and Steven Reschly recently have pointed out, “the development of an Anabaptist vision of women’s history is in its infancy.” Historians concerned with Mennonite women are turning to the “highly developed and self-conscious field” of women’s history, as they attempt to understand both women’s contributions to Mennonite history and the historical context.
Historians of Mennonite women are taking up the challenge to pursue questions of “what women do and think,” raising them to equal prominence with the classic historical questions that have addressed “what men do and think.” Studies such as Marlene Epp’s Women without Men on post-war Russian Mennonite refugees to Canada, and Rachel Waltner Goossen’s Women against the Good War on American female conscientious objectors during World War II, have employed feminist analysis to show how gender is socially constructed, and even how “gender roles were transformed” during times of war. Their work illustrates that gender identities-masculinity and femininity-are more than opposites. These authors show that the meaning of men’s and women’s thoughts and actions can be understood only in relationship to one another and to the societal events surrounding them. By asking questions about what women did and thought, we can incorporate them into the historical narrative.
The idea for this paper emerged while Linda Huebert Hecht and I were conducting interviews for the Mennonite Central Committee Ontario history project. Hearing about the Conference of Historic Peace Churches work during World War II from the perspective of members of the major leaders families, raised new questions. As Epp has noted, while “the collector of stories holds the power of synthesis and interpretation, . . . the narrator inevitably maintains power over her own story to the extent that she can withhold, emphasize, and indeed fabricate aspects of her life at her own choosing.” Oral interviews “give us . . . the truths” that interviewees see in their own experiences. In this case, personal interviews have expanded the story beyond the more empirical sources, such as archival records, giving us insights into how women viewed their role as supporters of their husbands’ public work. As wives and children spoke of their husbands’ and fathers’ involvement in negotiating alternative service privileges and doing war relief, it became clear that service was a family enterprise. These narratives thus “have the potential of bringing women ‘into’ history and making the female experience part of the written record.”
Research on the history of MCC Ontario thus raises questions regarding assumptions about men’s and women’s roles in the church; it has brought out issues that suggest that service, as understood by Mennonites in the 1940s, was undergirded by assumptions about gender. Indeed, evidence indicates that the Mennonite philosophy of service that developed during the war years was based on social constructions defining men’s and women’s capacities. Discipleship, which had come to be understood as the mandate to extend Jesus’ love to all humanity, hinged on cultural ideals that framed church families within strictly defined gender roles. As literary critic Magdalena Redekop has put it, “women were Mennonite, not because they held passionate opinions, but because they made the quilts,” and good meals. “While the [men] were making the important decisions in the main body of the church, the [women were] in the basement, getting the food ready. They might be talking, but they did not have a voice.” Yet I would argue that within this arrangement women saw themselves as playing an important role in providing this environment for service; further, they have theologized both contributions made and costs endured in living gendered lives.
ONTARIO’S CONFERENCE OF HISTORIC PEACE CHURCH FAMILIES
Much has already been recorded about Ontario’s Conference of Historic Peace Churches. On the eve of World War II several Mennonite-related groups including the Mennonite Brethren in Christ and the Brethren in Christ rekindled connections that they had enjoyed “in pioneer days” with the Quakers. Their common commitment to a distinctive belief in nonresistance reversed the previous century’s history of fragmentation among Ontario Mennonites and brought members of the extended Mennonite family back together in what their chair, E. J. Swalm, later called an “enduring solidarity.” Historian Ted Regehr has compared this alliance with the “Family Compact” that ran Upper Canadian politics in the early nineteenth century. He noted the joint strength that several powerful figures from the (Old) Mennonite, Brethren in Christ, Mennonite Brethren in Christ, and Mennonite Brethren denominations posed in government negotiations. In addition to successfully arranging alternative service privileges during the war, the conference supported the Canadian office that the United States-based Mennonite Central Committee planted in Kitchener, Ontario, and drew that organization into its community.
Swalm, who was well known as a charismatic speaker and a warm friend to many, chaired the CHPC throughout its 25-year history. Tirelessly promoting nonresistance among his own people, the Brethren in Christ, he nurtured ecumenical connections with those of like mind in other peace churches. In his memoir My Beloved Brethren Swalm wrote at length of these relationships:
My life has been enriched by the contributing influence of these church leaders. They have left me hopeless [sic] in debt to them. Among them are . . . J. B. Martin with whom I travelled during World war II more than any one person; J. Harold Sherk, the first secretary of the Conference of Historic Peace Churches; C. J. Rempel, Conference of Historic Peace Churches secretary for twenty-four years, who aided me greatly in directing the annual meetings; . . . . I owe much to them for their help.
These are the men with whom Swalm worked so effectively with on the Conference of Historic Peace Churches executive. But as the title suggests, what is missing in Swalm’s reminiscences is the significant role that women also played in the spirit of cooperation that undergirded the Conference of Historic Peace Churches’ work. Swalm attributed his ecumenical mind-set to his mother. Born Mary Alice Sammon, she had been raised as a “New Mennonite,” as the Mennonite Brethren in Christ were called, but following her marriage to Isaac Swalm, she joined the Stayner Brethren in Christ church. Historians have noted the strong influence that mothers have played in nurturing their sons towards the ministry. In Swalm’s case, his mother’s influence opened up possibilities for many rich friendships across denominational lines.
With his Mennonite Brethren in Christ connections on his mother’s side, Swalm had good relations with J. Harold Sherk, the pastor of that denomination’s congregation in Stayner. Although the Mennonite Brethren in Christ evangelistic zeal, which manifested itself in such practices as tent revivals, had separated the denomination from its Mennonite roots in the previous century, the impending war seems to have called Sherk back to his ancestral theological beliefs. Despite her roots in the Methodist Episcopal tradition, Sherk’s wife Mila supported his decisions. The two had met at the Chicago Evangelistic Institute in the latter 1920s. Just as Swalm’s mother converted to her husband’s denomination with marriage, so Mila answered her call to service by leaving her Methodist Episcopal affiliation to become an Ontario Mennonite Brethren in Christ minister’s wife. Although conscientious objection was foreign to her belief system, she trusted Harold’s conviction that Christians were called to resist violence and to avoid taking up arms.
Sherk’s decision to work with other Mennonites in several capacities reversed the step his great-grandmother Louisa Schneider had taken in the previous century, when she walked out of Kitchener’s First Mennonite Church and joined the New Mennonites. Besides serving on the Conference of Historic Peace Churches’ executive committee, Sherk volunteered as chaplain to the young men in the Montreal River Alternative Service camp north of Sault Ste. Marie for fifteen months in the early years of the war. Toward the war’s end, he also served overseas with the Mennonite Central Committee for two years. His evangelical wife supported his journey back into the Mennonite fold.
J. B. Martin, who chaired the CHPC Military Problems Committee, also had an ecumenical mind-set, as did his wife Naomi. Well over a decade earlier, Martin had moved in a direction opposite to that of Sherk’s family. Born in Waterloo County’s Old Order Mennonite community, as a young man Martin had converted to the (Old) Mennonite Church. Shortly thereafter he married Naomi Collier, whose family was of Baptist/Methodist background. By the time Swalm and Martin met at a peace conference in 1937, J. B. and Naomi had successfully negotiated their divergent backgrounds and had been pastoring Waterloo’s Erb Street Mennonite Church for eight years.
Finally Cornelius Rempel, a Mennonite Brethren immigrant from Russia, accepted the role of CHPC secretary in 1944, following Sherk’s departure as a volunteer relief worker in India. Rempel was the only one of the four CHPC leaders who served the church in a lay capacity. A businessman, he accepted Mennonite Central Committee’s invitation early that same year to facilitate the organization’s work in Canada. Rempel’s wife Marguerite Baerg Rempel, also a Mennonite Brethren migr, had come to faith under the ministry of Myrtle Wishart, a Mennonite Brethren in Christ evangelist. Marguerite had served a sister agency, Ontario’s inter-Mennonite Non-Resistant Relief Organization. She had acted as secretary of the group’s Sewing Committee for several years. Having been already immersed in this Mennonite cooperative work, she was willing to accept MCC’s invitation to serve as hostess, while Corny directed the Kitchener office. Their decision would firmly place the Conference of Historic Peace Churches in Mennonite Central Committee’s extended family.
The CHPC families’ relationship with MCC symbolized a new manifestation of the non-resistant beliefs held by the historic peace churches. During World War II MCC, which had been established in 1920 as a vehicle whereby American and Canadian Mennonites could help their coreligionists suffering in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, came to represent an “intellectual redefinition of Mennonitism.” Even as Rempel was approached to run the Kitchener office and Sherk was asked to serve in India, “a fraternity” of Mennonite historians was articulating a new synthesis of sixteenth-century Anabaptist belief and practices. That year Harold Stauffer Bender, a Goshen College history professor, presented his interpretation of the “Anabaptist Vision” to the American Society of Church History, over which he presided. Bender and his colleagues re-interpreted the Mennonite past in a way that would “simultaneously protect . . . the distinctiveness of the Mennonite past and encourage . . . greater engagement with the larger society,” a notion that must have struck a chord with the ecumenically minded executive couples of the CHPC family.
The new understandings highlighted three principles in sixteenth-century Anabaptism as fundamental to the Mennonite belief system: Christian discipleship, voluntary church membership based on the decision to follow Christ, symbolized by baptism, and Jesus teachings on love and nonresistance. These tenets provided “ideological justification and reinforcement for the continuation of the Mennonite tradition,” but in a way that encouraged the outward mission that all four of the CHPC executives’ connections with Methodist/Mennonite Brethren in Christ evangelicalism fostered.
Ontario Mennonites joined their co-religionists south of the border in expressing their convictions in ways that reflected the Anabaptist belief that Jesus had foreordained the Kingdom of God to be established on earth in the “here and now.” Discipleship came to be understood as the mandate to extend Jesus’ love to all humanity; simple nonresistance was no longer an adequate expression of the Mennonite faith. A “philosophy of Christian service” developed among members of the Conference of Historic Peace Churches, which demanded that discipleship proclaim itself in action, even if it entailed sacrifice. Whether negotiating conscientious objection privileges in Ottawa, or looking for ways in which they and draft-age men could benefit society, CHPC volunteers assumed that they would spend extended periods away from their families.
Although in Magadelena Redekop’s words, “women did not participate in the forging of the Anabaptist vision,” they were expected to keep the home fires burning while their men were involved in public service. Indeed, similar to other Canadian women who faced new opportunities amidst familiar obstacles during World War II, the CHPC wives acted at times as both mother and father to their children while keeping their households running smoothly during their husbands’ extended absences. At the same time they took leadership in women’s organizations dedicated to war relief; some were even available to church members who needed pastoral attention when their minister husbands were away. Unlike women in the broader society, however, they were able to frame their work and the great personal costs involved in their husbands’ long absences as well as their lack of opportunities to serve in the public domain, within their theological understandings.
PROVIDING AN ENVIRONMENT FOR SERVICE
In a brief biographical sketch, Lorraine Roth has suggested that Naomi Martin’s “greatest contribution was the freeing of her husband to work in the broader church.” Biographer Urie Bender concurs. In assessing the dynamics of the Martin household, he concluded that “letting your husband go to do service was the thing to do if you were committed.” A woman of her time, Naomi served the church extensively, but in roles considered appropriate for her sex. She taught Sunday School and Vacation Bible School; she also took leadership in the Ontario District Sewing Circle (under the General Sewing Circle Committee of the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities), serving on the executive during the late 1950s and early 1960s. For Naomi Martin, church ministry was “our work.” Thus amidst her own responsibilities she supported J. B. in his multitude of conference commitments. She even arranged for people to fill J. B.’s pulpit when he was called to Ottawa at the last minute.
But what did all of this mean for Naomi Martin? Did being in a support role have the same negative connotations for women of the 1940s and 1950s that it might have for women of today? A recent study by anthropologist Janet Mancini Billson provides a useful framework for analysis that explains in theological terms Mennonite women’s understandings of their work. Among contemporary conservative Mennonite women, Billson discovered baptism means choosing “to devote their lives to family, community and church.” Pamela Klassen, a scholar of religion and culture, has put it this way: “Home is a sacred space.” With this in mind, we might assume that Naomi Martin and the other CHPC wives, in choosing marriage as their mode of service, may have felt little need for interests apart from those of their husbands.
In the post-war years, then, most Mennonite women likely found “security and sanity” in a theology which mirrored societal norms. They felt called to make their primary vocation supporting their husbands and mothering their children. In Billson’s words, “Mennonite women perceived their power as deriving from the role of mother.” They chose to hold their marital relationships above all else. If, as Bender put it, “‘Life in the [Martin] Family’ . . . could also have been called ‘Life Without Daddy’,” Naomi had ample opportunity to fulfill her role as a Christian mother. When J. B. insisted, “the boys [in the alternative service camps] need us,” she stayed behind. While J. B’s “long shadow” fell on his people, to use the metaphor by which his friend E. J. Swalm described him, Naomi answered her sense of call by supporting her husband and managing the home front. She was the one who provided the security their children needed.
This is not to deny that the Martins’ commitment to solving military problems and other church work meant that their children, and probably Naomi herself, at times felt overlooked by husband and father. One of the Martin’s adult children confessed to Bender:
“I had a feeling the church always came before us kids. From my earliest recollection, what I remember best was always this coming and going. He was gone so much I didn’t really get to know my father: we never got that close. We seldom did anything together, just my dad and I.”
Naomi’s recollection in later years that “we saw him sometimes,” might raise questions about how she felt about being left alone so often. Or did J. B.’s extended absences give her opportunities to answer her calling by providing an environment for service? While J. B.’s contributions were out there, hers lay in creating a sense of continuity and stability in the family, as well as in the church. In Bender’s words, “by the testimony of all three children: `If it had not been for mother, daddy could not have done his work’.”
Marguerite Rempel’s recollections of their involvement with the CHPC and the MCC Kitchener office also exude a strong belief in her calling. She stresses that she felt fulfilled in her mandate to make Corny a home and to mother their growing family. Indeed, her vocation of motherhood may have given her a place of power as she nurtured the younger women who worked in the MCC office and clothing centre. Making Corny’s travel arrangements when CHPC or MCC business called him away to Ottawa at the last minute also seems to have given her life meaning, as did managing the household during his extended absences-for instance, to South America to deal with refugee issues in 1947 and to Europe to promote the peace witness in 1949.
Marguerite has also described feeding her family and unit members in a time before fast food, and opening up their home to church leaders like E. J. Swalm, Peter Dyck and Harold Bender, when they were visiting on CHPC or MCC business, as a sacred trust. For instance, she has recast the frustration she felt when Corny called on her at the last minute to provide dinner for Bender during a brief visit to Kitchener in the early 1960s in the context of servanthood: preparing a meal for Bender, shortly before he was diagnosed with the cancer that would take his life, became for her a “privilege,” an act of discipleship. Memories of laundry drying over kitchen chairs and a dinner planned from left overs have faded. They have been transformed by a vivid memory of the grateful look on Bender’s face when she served him a simple supper of cold meat, vegetables and zweibach, to meet the restrictions of his diabetic diet. In later life, Marguerite has reconstructed what must have been a difficult moment as a “worthwhile” opportunity to practice discipleship.
As they dedicated their homes to service, Marguerite Rempel, Naomi Martin and the other CHPC wives diverted the “male problematic,” defined by Don Browning in From Culture Wars to Common Ground: Religion and the American Family Debate as “the tendency of men to drift away from families.” They provided the hospitality so important to the travelling minister’s sense of well-being, and they created for their guests a sense of extended family. These women’s hospitality also nurtured kindred-like ties among the CHPC leaders’ families. In his memoirs E. J. Swalm stressed how much his “ministry was enriched in working with pastors of so many different persuasions.” He noted further, “in most cases I shared the hospitality of their homes, enjoyed the inspiration of their family altars and learned helpful techniques in the training of children and the development of wholesome home life.”
Naomi Martin’s pragmatic “E. J. was at our house as much as anywhere when he was not at home,” illustrates her role in nurturing the closeness of the two families. She accepted Swalm into the family circle as he became one of her husband J. B.’s “most intimate friends.” This included being there while the two men partnered “in some of the most prolonged and intense negotiations that the peace churches had ever experienced in Canada.” Marguerite Rempel also remembers with fondness visits with the Swalm family. In her words, E. J. was “our best friend.” Their eldest child Carol was flower girl at the wedding of E. J. and Maggie Swalm’s daughter Leila. Although Maggie seldom accompanied E. J. on his travels, their youngest daughter Jean’s recollections of the summer when there were not more than forty-eight hours without guests suggests that the Swalm family was also a part of the circle.
COUNTING THE COST
While women took seriously their responsibility for providing an environment for service, evidence also points to the great personal cost. E. J. Swalm, for instance, evoked painful memories in My Beloved Brethren as he reflected on the early years of his evangelistic ministry: “My wife expressed an anxiety that caused her to shed tears. ‘I am afraid you will often be asked to hold special meetings and I will be left alone.'” His response reflects the patriarchal culture in which women have lived their lives. “In the succeeding forty-five years,” he wrote, “my devoted companion paid the larger share in many ways. Her bravery, efficiency, and fortitude of spirit contributed immeasurable (sic) to my work.” While gender analysis is not always comfortable, Schmidt and Reschly have challenged historians “to acknowledge the barriers women faced within their homes, churches and communities.” Hence it is important to note Swalm’s acceptance of Maggie’s self-sacrifice, which was undergirded by traditional views of the role of women in the family that insist it is up to women to “assume the major burden of pain and self-denial.”
A patriarchal system which privileges men’s public work, undergirded by Anabaptist/Mennonite beliefs in service, no doubt helped Maggie Swalm swallow her tears. Indeed, their daughter and granddaughter both recall how Maggie and the children supported E. J.’s ministry in the broader church. Whether he was out on evangelistic campaigns or travelling to Ottawa for the CHPC, Maggie and their children harvested the farm’s produce, including the apples that Swalm so generously shared with his colleagues. Other women in the CHPC family tell similar stories. Iva Sherk Taves also remembers her mother Mila Sherk’s tears. While Harold had time to study in preparing his sermons, there was no time or opportunity for Mila to use her talents outside their home.
Do the tears reflect mere sadness, or do they go deeper, to signal feelings of pain and anger? Feminist literary critic Carolyn Heilbrun has noted, “above all other prohibitions, what has been forbidden to women is anger, together with the open admission of the desire for power and control over one’s life.” Thus most women have negotiated society’s prohibitions by creating meaning within the framework of their existence. It is difficult to assess what women’s tears might have meant, but it is clear that as evangelical women, the Conference of Historic Peace Church wives turned to their faith to provide meaning for their lives. Similar to the faith of their foremothers, “their ability to place temporal events within eternal time, provided . . . purpose to the limitations of their daily existence.”
CREATING MEANING THROUGH A THEOLOGY OF SERVICE
Mila Sherk’s response when Harold answered MCC’s call to serve in India at the end of World War II possibly best illustrates these women’s ability to create a theology that would provide meaning for their lives. Early in their relationship, Mila and Harold had both felt called to minister overseas. Somehow with marriage and a young family, however, these dreams had been put on hold, at least for a time. Harold’s ready response to MCC Executive Secretary Orie Miller’s request in 1944 that he direct MCC’s India relief program, suggests that his call to serve overseas was readily rekindled:
We have given prayerful consideration to your request. I have had a real interest in . . . the work in MCC. . . . With the intensification of the war overseas in recent weeks, I have had a real sense of longing to have some part personally in ministering to the sufferers. I feel . . . that your letter constitutes a call to this work, and that I should leave myself open to further Divine leading in this matter.
As he stressed in his letter, “we do not enjoy the prospects of a separation of years, but we feel that God’s hand is in this.” Even though Mila would remain behind, her willingness to support him by staying at home to care for their children, illustrates her ability to reshape her calling by supporting her husband
Harold was able to negotiate a two-year leave of absence from his denomination’s Emmanuel Bible School, where he was teaching, to free himself to organize the first MCC relief work in India. One of MCC’s 94 volunteers-which included those serving in England, Puerto Rico, the Near East, China, South America, as well as India-Sherk would undertake the dangerous war-time voyage to Bengal province, where he would help to succour the “hundreds and thousands of people who were dying daily” during the prolonged famine conditions there.
Meanwhile, Mila framed her youthful desire to serve overseas within her understandings as an evangelical woman. Ironically, this probably meant decreasing what visibility she had had as a pastor’s wife. Yet despite her “disgust” when MCC neglected to follow up by letting her know when Harold arrived safely in India, in his absence Mila “parented very well without complaint.” Their son Harold Jr. recalled: “We never had any sense of division in commitment to the ministry.” She theologized her diminished public role by claiming “that verse [from the Old Testament] . . . . [S]he’s written that verse . . . from David’s accounts . . . in the front . . . of her old Bible . . . where the ones who stay at home . . . share equally with those who go to war . . . who go to the battle.”
As the war worsened, Mila’s situation was mirrored in many Canadian homes. Conscription called hundreds of single and married men to the front. Anxiety must have been high, with constant war news and infrequent word from husbands overseas. Harold’s airmail letters came much faster than correspondence carried by ship, but news was still three weeks old by the time it reached me. Mila must have relied heavily on her faith and her theology of service when news of riots, murder and devastation reached the home front. An August 20, 1946 editorial in The Statesman, circulated via MCC Akron, described Calcutta (where Harold was situated) as “a town that has just known a heavy air-raid. On all sides are death, injuries, destruction. Houses have been destroyed with the men, women and children in them. Men have returned home in the evening to find neither home nor wife nor children.” The article continued: “The homeless are lying about unsheltered and starving, along the streets . . . . Some who gave shelter to the homeless have been dragged out and bludgeoned for doing it.”
As if this was not worry enough, potential disaster also loomed at home. Similar to others of the time, the Sherk household’s demands upon Mila in Harold’s absence increased with the call to conserve by rationing and recycling and with requests for public support for the war effort. Although MCC’s monthly $130 stipend was generous compared with the way the church looked after its COs, it must have been a challenge and considerably trying at times to be both mother and father to four children between the ages of nine and 17. For Mila, all this was compounded during the agonizing days after her positive tuberculosis test, and the fears of a resurgence of the family disease, until she was declared clean. What a disappointment Harold’s letter received in late October 1946 must have been when she read how he was stranded en route home because he “could not get a priority out of England.”
As she waited, Mila faced all of these difficulties and challenges with ingenuity and courage, providing a Christian environment for her children. Besides feeding and nurturing them, she provided such spiritual rituals in the home as family worship. According to Van Die, in an evangelical home like the Sherks’, “every activity and decision contained grave moral implications,” because “woman’s principle duty was to redeem.” J. Harold Sherk Jr. substantiates this idea. He insists that through providing an environment for service, Mila did her part, with her husband, in witnessing in a positive way “to the wider community that being a Christian was a healing thing.”
This analysis leads me to conclude that women of the 1940s and 1950s played a significant role in providing an environment for service. Many found their power in motherhood and in creating a sacred space for their families. Women like Mila Sherk, Naomi Martin, Maggie Swalm and Marguerite Rempel all seemed to find meaning in their work and the “joy of service” as they supported their husbands’ public ministry. Despite a patriarchal system which gave them little voice in the public sphere, they found a place to practice discipleship. Although, to use Redekop’s image, the Anabaptist Vision seems to have been “built on the bodies of the women who offere[d] their labour” in their homes and in the basements of the churches, they also seem to have found meaning within their theological understandings as Mennonite women.
Yet questions remain about how they handled their disappointments and their pain. It is safe to say that in the post-war period women were often willing to provide the environment for service assumed by the Anabaptist Vision articulated by Mennonite scholars. It is also clear that women’s work allowed men to practice a new vision of discipleship that called them to extend Jesus’ love to all humanity. While church leaders were attempting to transform a broken world, their wives were teaching Mennonite values in their homes and practising them in their communities. In short, without women to provide the environment, the church leaders in question would have been hard pressed to experience the joy they found in service.
[*]Lucille Marr is Associate Professor of History at Augustana University College, Camrose, Alberta. This paper is part of a larger research project. I am grateful to members of the Mennonite Central Committee Ontario History Project Committee for financial support and for their confidence in me as I research and write MCCO’s history.
1. Lorraine Roth has noted that J. B. and Naomi Martin both lived by a philosophy based on the “joy of service.” See Willing Service: Stories of Ontario Mennonite Women (Waterloo, ON: Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario, 1992), 139. The idea of women providing an environment for service emerged during a brainstorming session between Linda Huebert Hecht and the author following our interview with Naomi Martin, June 8, 1996, Cambridge, ON.
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. Gerda Lerner has noted the significance of women’s work in Why History Matters: Life and Thought (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1997), 143. See also Katie Funk Wiebe, “Me Tarzan, Son of Menno-You Jane, Mennonite Mama,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 17 (1999), 9-21; Magdalena Redekop, in “Through the Mennonite Looking Glass,” in Why I Am a Mennonite: Essays on Mennonite Identity, ed., Harry Loewen (Kitchener, ON and Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1988), 226-53, has given a moving account of what this silence meant for her own Mennonite mother.
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. Marlene Epp has made major strides in “uncovering” Canadian Mennonite women’s history. See, for instance, her recent book, Women without Men: Mennonite Refugees of the Second World War (Toronto: U. of Toronto Press, 2000). She has also published several articles: “Women in Canadian Mennonite History: Uncovering the ‘Underside’,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 5 (1987), 90-107; “The Mennonite Girls’ Homes of Winnipeg: A Home Away from Home,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 6 (1988), 100-14; “Carrying the Banner of Nonconformity: Ontario Mennonite Women and the Dress Question,” Conrad Grebel Review 8 (Fall 1990), 237-57; and with Frank H. Epp, “The Diverse Roles of Ontario Mennonite Women,” in Looking into My Sister’s Eyes: An Exploration in Women’s History, ed., Jean Burnet (Toronto: Multicultural History Society, 1986). Other important works on Canadian Mennonite women are as follows: Pamela E. Klassen, Going by the Moon and the Stars: Stories of Two Russian Mennonite Women (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier U. Press, 1994); Frieda Esau Klippenstein, “‘Doing What We Could'”: Mennonite Domestic Servants in Winnipeg, 1920s to 1950s,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 7 (1989), 145-66; Gloria Neufeld Redekop, The Work of Their Hands: Mennonite Women’s Societies of Canada (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier U. Press, 1996); Lucille Marr, “‘The Time for the Distaff and Spindle’: The Ontario Mennonite Women’s Sewing Circles and the Mennonite Central Committee,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 17 (1999), 130-51. An important contribution on the American scene is Rachel Waltner Goossen’s Women Against the Good War (Chapel Hill, NC: U. of North Carolina Press, 1997).
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. Feminist Methods in Social Research (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1992), 134; see also Epp, Women without Men, 15 and Luisa Passerini, “Women’s Personal Narratives: Myths, Experiences, and Emotions” in The Personal Narratives Group, Interpreting Women’s Lives, 194-96.
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. Schmidt and Reschly have suggested that it makes sense to begin looking at women in Mennonite history from the perspective of family and community studies. See “A Women’s History for Anabaptist Traditions,” 38; Royden Loewen, in Family, Church and Market: A Mennonite Community in the Old and the New Worlds, 1850-1930 (Toronto: U. of Toronto Press, 1993), 3, 32; and Katie Funk Wiebe, in her remarks at the conference Engendering the Past: Women and Men in Mennonite History, October 16, 1998, U. of Winnipeg. All emphasize the significance of families in Mennonite church life. The metaphor of family is one that Mennonite workers often have used in describing their relationship with their parochial organizations. For instance, MCC foreign relief worker Verna Zimmerman addressed her January 15, 1946 letter from her station in Dhamtari, India to the Mennonite Central Committee Headquarters in Akron, “to the M.C.C. Family.” Mennonite Central Committee Correspondence, J. Harold Sherk, 1946, file 32, Archives of the Mennonite Church, Goshen, Indiana (hereafter AMC); interviews by the author with Ruby Schmitt, June 18, 1997, Kitchener, ON and with Dave Worth, October 31, 1998, Edmonton, AB-all bring out similar comments.
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. See, for instance, Frank H. Epp, Mennonites in Canada, Vol. 2, A People’s Struggle for Survival (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1982), 568; Ted Regehr, Mennonites in Canada, Vol. 3, A People Transformed (U. of Toronto Press, 1996), 43, 46-47; David Fransen, “‘As Far as Conscience Will Allow’:” Mennonites in Canada during the Second World War,” in On Guard For Thee: War, Ethnicity and the Canadian State, 1939-1945, ed., Norman Hillmer, et al (Ottawa: Canadian Committee for the History of the Second World War, 1988), 131-49.
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. Swalm, Canadian Mennonite, September 6, 1959, 5; see also J. B. Martin, “Canadian Government Contacts,” in E. J. Swalm, Non-Resistance under Test (Nappanee, IN: Evangelical Publishing House, 1949), 66. The CHPC had commissioned Swalm’s collection the year previously.-CHPC Minutes of Book Committee, February 24, 1948, CHPC files, Box 2, Mennonite Historical Archives of Ontario (hereafter MHAO); Esther Epp, “The Origins of Mennonite Central Committee (Canada), MA thesis, U. of Manitoba, 1980, 40-42, 59-60; Urie Bender, Four Earthen Vessels: Biographical Profiles of Oscar Burkholder, Samuel F. Coffman, Clayton F. Derstine, and Jesse B. Martin (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1983), 282; Guy F. Hershberger, War, Peace, and Non-Resistance (Scottdale, PA.: Herald Press, 1953), 130.
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9. Although their nonresistant stance has at times been weak, the Brethren in Christ promoted nonresistance during World War 2 and in 1940 “officially support[ed] the Mennonite Central Committee relief program.”-C. N. Hostetter Jr., “Claim for Christian Liberty in the Second World War in the United States,” in E. J. Swalm, Non-Resistance under Test, 61-62. See also my “Peace Activities of the Canadian Conference of the Brethren in Christ Church: 1945-1982,” Brethren in Christ History and Life 9, No. 1 (April 1985), 13-36.
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. For instance Ann Douglas has argued that many Methodist ministers in the northeastern United States were nurtured into their role by their mothers. See The Feminization of American Culture, 2nd ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 99-100; Marguerite Van Die makes a similar claim in An Evangelical Mind: Nathanial Burwash and the Methodist Tradition in Canada, 1839-1918 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen U. Press, 1989), 20-37. I have also made that case in my doctoral dissertation, “Church Hierarchy and Christian Nurture: The Significance of Gender in Religious Education in the Methodist, Presbyterian and United Churches of Canada, 1919-1939,” (Ph.D. diss., U. of Waterloo, 1990), 81-82.
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. J. Harold Sherk Jr., interview; Iva Taves, interviewed by Linda Huebert Hecht, August 29, 1996, Kitchener, ON; Frank H. Epp, Mennonites in Canada, Vol. I, The History of a Separate People, 1786-1920 (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1974), 153, 262.
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. Iva Taves, interview; J. Harold Sherk to Orie O. Miller, June 16, 1944, J. Harold Sherk Jr., personal papers; Thomas Socknat, Witness Against War: Pacifism in Canada, 1900-1945 (Toronto: U. of Toronto Press, 1987), 241, 291; Morris Sider, “Life and Labor in the Alternate Service Work Camps in Canada during World War II,” MQR 66 (Oct.1992), 580-81, 590.
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]28. The Mennonite Brethren in Christ were influenced by the holiness movement, which from its nineteenth-century beginnings affirmed women’s call to ministry. According to Susie C. Stanley, however, “historians, for the most part, have overlooked the hundreds of Wesleyan/Holiness women evangelists who were preaching at the turn of the century.” See “The Promise Fulfilled: Women’s Ministries in the Wesleyan/Holiness Movement,” in Religious Institutions and Women’s Leadership: New Roles inside the Mainstream, ed. Catherine Wessinger (Columbia, SC: U. of South Carolina Press, 1996), 139-57.
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. Marguerite Rempel, interviewed by Linda Huebert Hecht, Kitchener, Ontario, Oct. 25, 1996; Marguerite Rempel to Dear Fellow Workers, Jan. 5, 1942, Mennonite Central Committee Ontario Correspondence files, Box 2, file 5, MHAO.
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. Paul Toews, “The Impact of Alternative Service on the American Mennonite World: A Critical Evaluation,” MQR 66 (Oct. 1992), 618; Guy F. Hershberger, “Historical Background to the Formation of the Mennonite Central Committee,” MQR (July 1970), 213-44.
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. Bender’s articulation of his “Anabaptist Vision” is best known as it was presented at the December 1943 meeting of the Society of American Church History; see Church History 13 (1944), 3-24 for the published version.
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. Ibid., 37-38; for further background on Methodism in the Canadian context, see Neil Semple, The Lord’s Dominion: The History of Canadian Methodism (Montreal: McGill-Queen U. Press, 1996).
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. Redekop, “Through the Mennonite Looking Glass,” 239. Stanley has noted that even in the Wesleyan/Holiness groups which had influenced all of the CHPC wives, by this time the professionalization of leadership and “acquiescence to cultural stereotypes” had limited “women’s participation in positions of authority.”-“The Promise Fulfilled,” 149-50.
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. See Canadian Women: A History, 2nd ed., ed. Alison Prentice et al (Toronto: Harcourt Brace, 1996), 249-76 and Ruth Roach Pierson, “They’re Still Women After All”: the Second World War and Canadian Womanhood (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1986) for a discussion of the opportunities and obstacles Canadian women encountered during the war.
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. For further analysis of women’s roles in the Mennonite church see Marlene Epp, “Women in Canadian Mennonite History,” 90-107. On their work in the Women’s Missionary Sewing Circles, see my “‘The Time for the Distaff and Spindle’,” 130-51. On women as Sunday school teachers, see my “Sunday School Teaching, A Women’s Enterprise: A Case Study From the Canadian Methodist, Presbyterian and United Church Tradition 1919-1939,” Histoire sociale/Social History 26 (Nov. 1993), 329-44.
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. Pamela Klassen, “Childbirth and Identity Among Mennonite and Amish Women,” paper presented at the conference “Engendering the Past: Women and Men in Mennonite History,” Oct. 17, 1998, U. of Winnipeg. See also Elizabeth Dodson Gray, Sacred Dimensions of Women’s Experience (Wellesley, MA: Roundtable Press, 1988).
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. Rich makes the connection between the creativity in motherhood and women’s power.-Of Woman Born, 284; see also Gill Frith, “Women, Writing and Language: Making the Silences Speak,” in Introducing Women’s Studies, 2nd ed., ed. Victoria Robinson and Diane Richardson (New York: New York U. Press, 1997), 104.
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. Historians corroborate Swalm’s hints that this sense of being cared for while away from home was a significant support in the ministry of travelling church workers. Marguerite Van Die’s findings also help explain mid-twentieth-century evangelical women’s self-understandings. See “`A Woman’s Awakening’: Evangelical Belief and Female Spirituality in Mid-Nineteenth Century Canada,” in Wendy Mitchinson et al, Canadian Women: A Reader (Toronto: Harcourt Brace Canada, 1996), 62.
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. Rich, Of Woman Born, 43. In a conversation with the author on April 30, 2000, Lamar Fretz recalled Swalm speaking publicly about women’s proper roles. See also Redekop, “Through the Mennonite Looking Glass,” 241, for further analysis of the violence that the Mennonite church has done in silencing women.
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. P. G. Lehman, report to Non-Resistant Relief Organization as representative to the MCC annual meeting, Dec. 28 and 29, 1944; S. F. Coffman, “Report of my trip to Ottawa,” Dec. 7, 1943, Non-Resistant Relief Organization files, Box 1, MHAO.
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. Redekop has suggested that “a preacher’s wife, despite hard work, is almost invisible to the church during her husband’s lifetime; when he dies she may drop out of existence completely.”-“Through the Mennonite Looking Glass,” 243.
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. J. Harold Sherk, Jr., interview. Corny Rempel indicated in a Jan. 8, 1945 letter to Ernest Bennet that Mila was “somewhat disgusted” when she heard casually in a public meeting that Harold had arrived in India, since she had received no personal word from MCC. The misunderstanding was cleared, but it did little to make a wife who had chosen to fight the battle from home feel a part of the organization.-MCC Correspondence, MCC Canadian Headquarters 1945, file 25, AMC.
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. Mennonite Central Committee (Canadian) financial statement, July 1945 and September 1945, MCC Correspondence, MCC Canadian Headquarters, 1945, file 25, AMC. See also Marlene Epp, “Alternative Service and Alternative Gender Roles: Conscientious Objectors in B.C. During World War II, BC Studies, 105-106 (Spring/Summer 1995), 1-49.
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. J. Harold Sherk, Jr., interview.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Peace Church Families and the “Joy of Service”