The Mennonite Historical Library and the Renewing of a Tradition
JOHN A. LAPP*
My remarks are dedicated to the memory of two remarkable contributors to the character and quality of the Mennonite Historical Library. I had the great privilege and pleasure of working with Nelson Springer and John Oyer for twelve years. I observed their profound love for the Anabaptist-Mennonite insights into the Christian story. Their careful stewardship of the collection, their imaginative nurturing of Anabaptist-Mennonite scholarship, their sense of responsibility to the community of scholars and this significant tradition, and their conspicuous mutual regard for each other made their leadership a model for all who follow in their train.
Nelson Springer and John Oyer would have strongly affirmed the recent comment by the current Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams: “A church which reflects systematically on why it should be grateful for its existence, is a more effective witness to revelation than one that has ceased to be surprised by itself.” Nelson and John guided so many of us in such reflection, making this celebration all the more valuable.
REMEMBERING WITH GRATITUDE
Many of us can recall our connections through the years with this special collection. A few of us recall it being located in the Memorial Library. More of us recall its location in the former seminary building, now the Newcomer Center. All of us have frequented the Mennonite Historical Library in its current location on the third floor of the Harold and Wilma Good Library. And all of us remember the formative individuals who created this wonderful center for historical research.
I have a number of distinct recollections of my encounters with the M.H.L. In August 1962 I visited the library and archives, then housed in the seminary building, for a day to check on the resources that might contribute to a dissertation on the Mennonite Church in India. Melvin Gingerich showed me the dozens of boxes of archival material and assured me there was more than one dissertation in these alone. During that visit, I again met Harold Bender in the library on one of his last visits to the collection for which he did so much.
In the summer of 1964 and again in 1966 I spent extended time in research at the M.H.L. I recall with special fondness Nelson Springer showing me the neatly bound copies of the Annual Reports of the American Mennonite Mission in India. He also made sure I saw all the other published material.
When I became academic dean of Goshen College in 1972 I learned that one of my delightful tasks would be to oversee the M.H.L. That meant supervising “Uncle Nelson”-Betty Springer is my wife Alice’s aunt. This proved to be an easy task. There was only one additional full-time staff person at the time, Lena Lehman, who required no more supervision than did Nelson. I soon learned about the important role of students and volunteers in keeping the library functioning.
That first year as dean, 1972 to 1973, was a dramatic and stressful moment in the M.H.L.’s history. During the early years of the 1970s the college and Goshen Biblical Seminary were concluding their negotiations on the terms of the separation of these two institutions. Lawrence Burkholder, president of Goshen College, was kind to the novice dean by not including me in these negotiations. But I heard a lot and tried to encourage Lawrence in his wrestling with John Howard Yoder, then president of Goshen Biblical Seminary, on one of the most contentious issues-the ownership of the M.H.L. Many options were on the table, including moving the library to the Elkhart campus. Finally, under the strategic oversight of Albert J. Meyer, executive secretary of the Mennonite Board of Education, the parties agreed that this institutional jewel would continue to remain at Goshen College. The tough negotiations included a commitment on the part of the college to make its collection (including rare books) fully accessible to the seminary and to put more financial and human resources into managing and developing its holdings. From 1972 to 1984 I chaired the M.H.L. committee, which included a seminary representative. I do not recall any major crises along the way. Early in my tenure, Nelson asked to be relieved of the library administration so he could concentrate his energies on serving students and scholars while attending to the backlog of cataloging. It took us six years to free John Oyer from some teaching duties and schedule an overdue sabbatical before he began to direct the library from 1978 until 1988, when John D. Roth assumed leadership. John Oyer and Nelson Springer were a good team for moving the library forward. They pressed the need for more space, which included the addition of movable shelving. They urged and negotiated more inter-institutional cataloging with other Mennonite historical libraries as well as participating in the Library of Congress catalog.
In a May 1986 article in the Goshen College Bulletin John Oyer described the way the historical library has served scholars far beyond Mennonite circles. He noted how Lutheran, Calvinist and Catholic researchers, as well as others, have found materials here that were not readily available elsewhere, and he listed the names of ten European universities and many more American universities from which these researchers came. John also pointed out a rich array of topics researched here from Marpeck’s Christology to Old Order Gelassenheit to Anabaptist and Mennonite political prisoners.
I like to muse on the big and little people who have contributed to this wonderful collection. It is fascinating to me that both C. Henry Smith and Harold S. Bender, in spite of their differences, played essential roles in developing the library. I was slightly miffed when I learned that during those years one of my favorites of the civil rights movement, the Southern Baptist agitator and writer Will Campbell, was here in his Amish hat to explore the library without others of us getting a chance to meet him. After that, he wrote The Glad River and Cecilia’s Sin, the latter a novella about the life of Cecilia Jeronymis, one of the many heroes found in the Martyrs Mirror.
I am so pleased that Nelson Springer and John Oyer, and now Joe Springer and John Roth, have insisted that the library is about services as well as building a collection, and that its holdings include not only historical publications but also noteworthy artifacts, particularly visual arts. Ervin Beck, a longtime professor of English at Goshen College and chair of the Mennonite-Amish Museum Committee, had a base to build on as he developed the growing museum collection. Arnold Snyder in his Anabaptist History and Theology observes in his acknowledgments “special thanks is due to the Mennonite Historical Library for graciously allowing me to reproduce illustrations from their holdings.” He also thanked Joe Springer and John Roth for assistance and support. This kind of expression multiplied thousands of times is why we all are here to celebrate these 100 years.
Before moving to my assigned topic, I want to note two manuscripts that I worked through this winter, both deeply beholden to the contributions of our historical library. Theron Schlabach wrote much of his 880-page manuscript biography of Guy Hershberger in the M.H.L. This superb, though quite lengthy, biography of a friend to many of us, not only tells Hershberger’s story but also places him in the middle of Mennonite developments in North America and Europe. Many of us knew Hershberger as classroom teacher and peace advocate. Schlabach also shows Hershberger as a promoter of rural life, and an architect of Mennonite Mutual Aid. Hershberger’s interest in Quakers and the growing evangelical movement demonstrate how his scholarship had an ecumenical angle. I hope this biography will be published as it provides a significant perspective on twentieth-century Mennonite history, the context in which the M.H.L. emerged.
The second manuscript I worked through this winter is the European volume of the Global Mennonite History series titled Testing Faith and Tradition. This 300-page volume is the first European Mennonite history in English since John Horsch’s Mennonites in Europe was published in 1942. Alle Hoekema, a retired professor at the Doopsgezinde Seminary in Amsterdam, and Hanspeter Jecker, dean of the Bienenberg Theological Seminary, edited the volume whose nine authors are from France, Germany, Netherlands and Switzerland. The story is divided along national lines but there is clear awareness of the interrelatedness of these churches within their cultural and political context. This particular volume in the global series is unique in having to deal with the subject of decline, indeed the disappearance, of Mennonite churches in Prussia, Poland and Russia.
Fresh insights can be found on nearly every page. Frequently these suggest comparison with Mennonite experiences elsewhere. The chapter on the Dutch, for example, observes that “the motive underlying the Mennonite attempt to assimilate fully into Dutch society was their weariness in being different and being looked upon as sectarians.” Might Steve Nolt and Royden Loewen say something comparable in telling the American and Canadian Mennonite stories?
Hanspeter Jecker’s reflection on the Swiss Mennonite situation also sounds like something a North American scholar might say about our situation: “One of the great challenges in future years will be to continue to find sufficient common ground for the various theological and liturgical tendencies . . . whether they be traditional or progressive, conservative or liberal, liturgical or charismatic, evangelical or ecumenical, peace church or mainstream oriented.”
Both German and Dutch Mennonites played a role in the nineteenth-century national politics, usually not very prophetic. But Albert van Delden, minister of finance in the Dutch cabinet from 1872 to 1874, held on to his Mennonite sensibilities. He recalled his grandmother’s prayer, “May we be saved from the extremes of human suffering and human celebrity.” Van Delden observed that this is “really a prayer to remain free and to be saved from this grandeur.”
The chapter on Mennonites in and from Russia is the longest in the book. The most flourishing Mennonite church in Europe during this epoch was in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Russia. As we all know, there were large migrations westward in the 1870s, 1920s and 1940s. Drawing on his own expertise in the area, John Klassen devoted a great deal of attention to the massive movement from the former Soviet Union to Germany from 1965 to 1995. Like the other migrations, this movement took place amidst hundreds of thousands of other Russian Germans who were also on the move, a fact that both complicates the analysis and makes the numbers of Mennonites difficult to measure. Klassen concludes by asking: “Is this the end of the Russian Mennonites'” Editors Hoekema and Jecker express the hope “that this volume will contribute to a reflection on our past, on behalf of our future.”
Which brings us back to the M.H.L. The church historian Martin Marty once observed that “intellectual culture has a tremendous memory, and that which is ‘handed down’ reposes at least in the libraries; without them an intellectual culture cannot exist.” A unique library like the M.H.L. preserves this memory and this culture. Each of us owes a debt of gratitude to God and to the creative leadership of the Mennonite Historical Library!
REMEMBERING THEN AND NOW
In 1982 I joined in celebrating the publication of the second volume of Frank H. Epp’s Mennonites in Canada with a paper, “Mennonite Studies: Preparing for the Next Agenda.” Conveners of this gathering asked me to offer an update on those reflections; but they tripled the assignment to include not only the future, but also the past and present as well. This is a daunting task. Even though I read widely in Anabaptist and Mennonite material, the field has become so enormous that it is doubtful whether anyone can do more than provide a sketchy overview.
One way to highlight this flourishing of Mennonite studies is to compare Anabaptist and Mennonite studies in 1906 with the state of the field in 2006. I will note five comparisons between 1906 and 2006.
1. In 1906 there were two North American Mennonites-C. H. Wedel, president of Bethel College, and C. Henry Smith, professor of history at Goshen College-who had done academic research and writing in Mennonite history. A third noteworthy scholar of that time, John Horsch, was a self-trained researcher and writer. In 1906 the major center of Mennonite studies was in Europe. Already in 1906 Christian Neff and Christian Hege were envisioning the Mennonitisches Lexikon. The first volume appeared in 1911, the same year P. M. Friesen’s major work on Mennonites in Russia was published. In 1906, the libraries that supported the research of Wedel, Smith and Horsch were largely personal.
Today the center of Mennonite studies has shifted from from Europe to North America. Nearly all North American Mennonite colleges and seminaries have one or more faculty trained in Anabaptist and Mennonite history. These teacher-scholars offer courses and degrees in this area. As the holdings of the M.H.L. demonstrate, the productivity of these scholars in articles, speeches and monographs is truly astonishing.
2. In 1982 I defined Mennonite studies as “a field of scholarship which explores, reconstructs, and articulates the Mennonite reality that has been, is, or ought to be. This field of study is multi-disciplinary and frequently interdisciplinary, using any tool or conceptualization or medium based on critical methodology.” Between 1906 and 2006 the field has exploded. Today there are courses or seminars in various dimensions of Amish-Mennonite theology, various historical periods, distinct geographical locations of Mennonites (Dutch, Russian, Canadian, American, Eastern Pennsylvanian), the sociology of various Mennonite groups or groupings, Mennonite literature, creative arts and crafts, Mennonites and politics. Mennonite scholars are freer and more daring, including Mennonite or Anabaptist insights in virtually all disciplines except perhaps the hard sciences; but even here ethical and vocational issues are frequently addressed.
Of course the most substantial contribution to Mennonite studies during these 100 years was the rediscovery of the extent, depth and significance of the sixteenth-century Anabaptist dissent, the main outlines of which are well known. The insights uncovered in this story continue to nurture my own faith and likely yours.
One of the ironies of this history is the popular usage of the term “Anabaptist” within and beyond the Mennonite family. The historian Walter Klaassen has rightly noted an apprehension that we not glibly identify ourselves or others as Anabaptists in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Klaassen concedes that the Anabaptists may be “our spiritual ancestors. We rightly celebrate their life, witness, and martyrdom. But that does not make us Anabaptists.” Instead, only those Mennonites in Vietnam, Colombia and Ethiopia who actually suffer and are persecuted ought to be considered Anabaptists today.
Nonetheless, we are profoundly grateful for the impact in our post-denominational epoch of what Norman Kraus has called a “generic anabaptistic spirituality,” “an evangelical, pacifistic, non-hierarchical, (lay), socially concerned church group with an emphasis on a Jesus-centered view of the Bible.”
3. In 1906 Goshen College made a commitment to creating a Mennonite Historical Library. At that time, several special collections existed in Europe but this was the first of its kind in North America. John Umble described the M.H.L. in 1955 as “the largest, the most complete American collection of books, documents, and historical records on Mennonite history [with] facilities adequate to constitute a complete research center in Mennonite history, doctrine, and life.” I recall John Oyer noting in the early 1970s how the explosion of Mennonite materials had made the original goal of having a copy of every North American publication in the M.H.L. virtually impossible to realize. Today, in addition to numerous Mennonite colleges and seminaries, there are no less than ninety centers for collecting, examining and promoting Mennonite and Anabaptist studies in the U.S. and Canada. Most of these are quite regional or local in character but they play significant roles in collecting and in promoting this cause. Many of these centers have publications or Web sites that propagate general and factual information. In order to consider a comprehensive gestalt of Mennonite studies today, one must read widely in these publications. Serious researchers travel to the main centers in order to utilize the major collections.
Closely associated with the M.H.L. is the Mennonite Historical Society, established in 1921. In 1926 the society began publication of The Mennonite Quarterly Review. For decades, The Mennonite Quarterly Review was the only outlet for critical Mennonite studies. Today the list of academic journals would also include the Journal of Mennonite Studies, Conrad Grebel Review, Brethren in Christ History and Life, Direction (Mennonite Brethren), Mennonite Life and Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage. The Mennonite Historical Society also established a publication series, Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite History. Bethel College, Bluffton and Canadian Mennonite University also publish similar series.
One of the biggest changes in recent years has been the growing impact of electronic media. Mennonite Life since 2000 has demonstrated the capacity of the Internet for circulating well-researched articles as well as literary and artistic material. Several historical libraries and archives are beginning to make their materials available electronically. GAMEO, for example, is a new group established to develop a “Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online” and the Archives of the Mennonite Church USA is steadily expanding their online holdings.
4. The North American inter-Mennonite situation-the context for Mennonite studies-has also changed enormously between 1906 and 2006. If demonstrating differences in scholarship is complex, differences in defining who Mennonites are is now even more complex.
One of the major differences between Mennonites in 1906 and 2006 is simply in our demography. In 1905, J. S. Hartzler, a teacher at Goshen, and Daniel Kauffman, soon to be editor of The Gospel Herald, published Mennonite Church History. They suggested that there were about 65,000 Mennonites in the United States and 10,000 more in Canada. Today, according to the Mennonite World Conference, the numbers are over 300,000 in the United States and over 100,000 in Canada.
More striking is to place these numbers in a global context. Wilbert Shenk estimates that there were about 230,000 Mennonites in the world in 1911: 150,000 in Europe, including Russia; 77,000 in North America;p and 3,000 in Africa and Asia. Today, according to figures released by Mennonite World Conference, there are some 1.3 million Mennonites worldwide. In 2006 there are more Mennonites in Africa than in North America, more in Congo and India than in Canada.
During the same period there has also been an explosion of Mennonite groupings. In 2001 Don Kraybill and C. Nelson Hostetter tried to identify these groups in their Anabaptist World USA. They cited thirteen distinct Amish groups and fifty-seven Mennonite groups, with additional independent congregations. If anything, the numbers have continued to grow since 2001.
In 1905 Hartzler and Kauffman noted that “it is not pleasant to write about church divisions.” I was intrigued to again read their longing “to see the day when all people calling themselves Mennonites can be united in one body.” As a kind of portend to the coming together of the two largest Mennonite groups a decade ago, their prayer was that “some day there may be union, real union. Our fathers were separated under circumstances over which we have no control. We are kinsmen and agree on many points of doctrine.”
Despite these differences within our conferences and within our congregations there are also, as every historian knows, deep continuities. Indeed, much of twentieth-century North American Mennonite history can be read as a continuation of the basic changes Theron F. Schlabach identified in the conclusion to Peace, Faith, Nation in his summary description of Mennonites at the end of the nineteenth century: a more outward-looking vision; more Protestant, more American kinds of structures; a separation of salvation from Christian practice; a move from humility to aggressive action. Schlabach observed that the new mood of Mennonites took more from the “spirit of nineteenth-century American Protestantism than it did from Christian Burkholder’s call to kneel at Jesus humble manger. It encouraged Mennonites and Amish to move outward in mission. It also brought them closer to the spirit of the America ready to fight the Spanish-American War and gain an empire.”
In this regard I am intrigued by the observation of Helene Slessarev-Jamir on contemporary American Christianity. In the January 2006 issue of Missiology she notes that “in the midst of empire, the American church finds itself deeply divided between those who have embraced a new Constantinianism and those who are seeking to live out a first century understanding of the Beatitudes.” If Helene Slessarev-Jamir is correct, early-twentieth-century Mennonite conflicts might be seen to presage the larger conflicts many of us sense in our own time.
5. This introduces a final contrast, which requires only a brief summary. Few would have sensed in 1906 that Teddy Roosevelt’s martial interests were the beginnings of what has been called a century of total war. Few could have anticipated American imperial activity in eastern and central Asia, let alone Central and South America, during the course of the twentieth century. Few in 1906 would have understood the intimate linkage of technological development under the aegis of military sponsored research. Even fewer anticipated the economic development and national prosperity that accompanied the enormous public investments often identified as the basis of national defense.
Early-nineteenth-century culture still basked in an optimistic outlook on life and history. Those who established the Elkhart Institute and Goshen College were often imbued with expectations for widening world peace and improving human well-being, a spirit Susan Fisher Miller captures well in the early chapters of her history of the college, Culture for Service.
The guns unleashed in August 1914 quickly demonstrated the shallowness of this widespread confidence in the inevitability of progress. It took much longer for North Americans to accept the pessimism that permeated Europe in the decades following World War I. But it came here as well, particularly during the Depression years and World War II.
Perhaps North American Mennonites have not yet tasted deeply the sense of failure and decline widespread in Europe and among many peoples victimized by war and oppression. The rising prosperity and institutional vigor among Mennonites may have compensated for the larger cultural malaise. I suspect, however, that now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century in the midst of a deliberately aggressive war in Iraq, the last vestiges of uncritical hope are disappearing. The tightening economic situation challenges the maintenance of our extensive institutional network, including resources for historical libraries. The American hegemony politically and religiously appears already to be on the wane.
Although additional contrasts could also be cited, these five demonstrate that Mennonite studies in 2006 have come a long way since 1906. They also demonstrate how this field of study is deeply immersed in developments both within the church and in the larger culture. As we anticipate the future of Mennonite studies, we need visions like those expressed in 1906. One of the most impressive dimensions of these 100 years is how Anabaptist-Mennonite studies have been preoccupied with and focused on the renewal of the church. Mennonite studies during the past century were not abstractions, but closely in tune with the changing needs and interests of our churches. In this respect historians, theologians, artists and social scientists fulfilled a profound calling. In the words of Dale T. Irvin: “Renewal of the Christian churches requires not forgetting the past, but a more faithful remembering of the past.”
REMEMBERING: THE CONTINUING TASK OF RENEWING THE TRADITION
In recent years, I have pondered more and more the notion of tradition. For many people, including many conservative Christians, the very notion of tradition bears a negative connotation. But if, in the language of the Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann, all of us live according to a script that is largely a product of “nurture, formation, and socialization,” this script has to come from somewhere. The script is “handed over,” the literal meaning of tradition. Tradition is memory, the recollection of significant events, and the effective presence of the past is an accumulation of moral and spiritual capital.
Traditions can also become ossified and even die. They are fragile and need constant replenishing. The General Conference historian C. H. Wedel called tradition “a delicate thing.” Yet traditions are history bearers. Their common life includes a sense of purpose, a vocational consciousness. Indeed, the vision for renewing the Mennonite tradition led Smith, Bender and many others to pour their energy into the historical library and the historical society, a primary impetus for the flowering of Anabaptist-Mennonite history during the second half of the twentieth century.
A unique collection like the M.H.L. preserves the raw material of our corporate memory. Such a collection, such a memory, is essential for expanding the tradition and revisioning a tradition for a new time and place. I have been impressed by how much Christian missions throughout history have been involved in nurturing new traditions. The call today, Dale Irvin says, “is for historical metanoia by turning from the master narrative of Christendom toward a new remembering of un- or under-represented Christian pasts, and a more diversified accounting of church history.”
So what can we anticipate? During the past eighteen months I have visited three overseas historical libraries committed to nurturing the tradition. The first of these was at the Mennonite Brethren Seminary in Shamshabad, Andra Pradesh, India. The director of the library, I. P. Asheervadam, is the writer of the India story for the Global Mennonite History series. Each time we meet he tells me about these archives. In November 2004 I spent an hour following him through the holdings. They are in two rooms, about 15 by 20 feet. There is a table for reading and study, 150 feet of shelving (far less than in my study), a small collection of Mennonite books provided by the Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission and a small collection on Indian and world Christian history. Asheervadam’s dream is that this will become the historical research center for the six Mennonite churches of India. He has suggested on several occasions that I might send the Mennonitica in my personal library for this library. Asheervadam wants the Mennonite tradition to flourish in India. Part of his inspiration has come from visiting five Mennonite historical libraries in North America where he saw the library as a vehicle for doing this.
About a year ago I spent two weeks in Paraguay. There I visited two research centers. In Filadelphia, Fernheim Colony, Gundolf Niebuhr directs the town museum and oversees the archives part of the city library. The builders of the colony came with a tradition they hoped would be reestablished in a new environment. Niebuhr is a graduate of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and one of the local pastors. He has spacious quarters for the library and archive collection. Recently he spent a lot of time renovating one of the early dwellings, now the town museum. Niebuhr has the great advantage of having strong community support and the expertise of historians like Peter Klassen and Gerhard Ratzlaff to develop the growing collection.
At Casa Menonta (formerly Mennoheim) in Ascuncon I visited a large room that holds the records of the “Association of Mennonite Colonies in Paraguay,” dating from the 1920s. Another Paraguayan Mennonite historian, Hans Theodor Regier, has indexed and arranged these massive files in an orderly, accessible manner. Irene Lehman, archivist of Mennonite Central Committee, had asked me to check this out to be sure the M.C.C. files there were well preserved I was pleased to be able to give her a good report. This archive in particular has the raw material for many researchers.
My work with the Global Mennonite History project has inspired other stories of the growing historical-mindedness with the global Mennonite church. From the first meeting with the writers from Africa, Asia and Latin America, these young historians were inspired to extend the project. They suggested the need for a permanent worldwide Mennonite historical commission to expand the circle of interest as well as to nurture more research and writing. Several participants like Asheervadam of India want support for library and archive development. Eric Kumedisa, one of the Africa writers, drew up a five-page proposal for a “Mennonite Archives of the Congo.” His vision was inspired, in his words, by “what is already done in Northern America Mennonite churches through initiatives such as the Mennonite Historical Library (Goshen, Indiana), Mennonite Church Historical Association, the Historical Committee and Archives of the Mennonite Church, etc.”
Kumedisa observed that there are archival materials in the Congo but they tend to be poorly preserved and hence not used. His proposal included training a person in archival management and establishing a training program for researchers. He concluded his passionate appeal with these words: “To the network of Mennonite and BIC Global Archivists, historians and documentary directors at the head of the great global family. These are the ideas that liven one. My humble and deep wish is that they may ever become a reality by God’s grace through you.”
Along with the archive and library Kumedisa proposed a historical museum similar to what he saw in North America. “I saw that history remains alive among the churches and they are proud of their heritage.” He was especially impressed by Menno-Hof in Shipshewana, Indiana. For five years this request and that of Asheervaadam have been pressing for a response. Maybe you can help share the pressure of such a vision and help to develop a response to this appeal.
One of the major tasks for Mennonite studies in the future will be to find creative ways to broaden our tradition and to welcome new ways of expressing the tradition in the context of the new global majority. I do not have ready answers on how this can be structured, though I doubt that a northern-inspired superstructure is the way forward. I am also sure that we need to be prepared to share intellectual and financial resources for making this possible. In this regard, I am deeply grateful how the M.H.L. has shared its duplicate books with new Mennonite study centers in Europe, Asia and Latin America through the years. The call is for more.
This task of reorienting ourselves, our libraries, our societies, our curricula and our research pursuits has to be the most important priority for the next generation. Just as Anabaptist-Mennonite scholars renewed the tradition in the early and mid-twentieth century, I believe our task is to explore how our tradition can be nurtured by scholars, teachers and pastors for churches rooted in the rich spiritual experiences and insights of the ninety conferences now located in more than sixty countries. All of us must see ourselves in relationship to one another creating a unique voice, a new script that continually interacts with other Christian voices.
Anabaptist-Mennonite studies in the future will become increasingly inclusive, including the richness of a peoplehood rooted in multiple languages and cultural groups. This inclusiveness will recognize the contributions of those from the global South and North, those from disparate social and economic circumstances, those who are female and male, and those from multiple ethnicities. There will inevitably be tensions and conflicts over positions and over resources in the struggle to become a global family where all are one in Christ Jesus. There will be an expanding ecumenical conversation for our peoplehood. James McClendon was surely correct when he observed that a separate Christian tradition can only be “justified if it serves as a provisional means toward that one great peoplehood that embraces all.” In the words of the late Sjouke Voolstra of the Netherlands, “The past should point us to God’s promises which have not yet been fulfilled in this world.” An alternative church is essential to the well-being of the entire Christian movement until “God’s purposes are fulfilled in this world.”
This exploration is obviously incomplete. I have only hinted at future possibilities. I have not tried to imagine or develop an agenda for the years ahead. The future continues to be the growing edge of the past and present. I invite each of you to join in making the next chapters of Anabaptist-Mennonite studies as fruitful as they have been in the past 100 years.
I began with a note of gratitude. I want to end with another such word. Marilynne Robinson, in her wonderful piece of fiction about three generations of Iowa pastors, entitled Gilead, has one seeker for God’s mercy declare: “It’s an enviable thing to be able to receive your identity from your father.” We might alter it slightly: “It’s an enviable thing to be able to receive your identity from your church.”
That is the great gift of the Mennonite Historical Library!
[*]John A. Lapp is coordinator of the Global Mennonite History Project and executive secretary emeritus of Mennonite Central Committee. Between 1972 and 1984 he served in various roles as professor of history, dean and provost of Goshen College.
1. Rowan Williams, Why Study the Past? The Quest for the Historical Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmann’s Publishing Co., 2005), 174.
Return to Text
. Ervin Beck, MennoFolk: Mennonite and Amish Folk Traditions (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2004) and MennoFolk2: A Sampler of Mennonite and Amish Folklore (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2005).
Return to Text
. John A. Lapp, “The Global Mennonite History Project: What Are We Learning'” in ed. James R. Krabill, et al., Evangelical, Ecumenical and Anabaptist Missiologies in Conversation (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2006).
Return to Text
. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), 168.
The Mennonite Historical Library
The M.H.L. and the Renewing of a Tradition
MQR 81 (Jan. 2007)