Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism: Renewal in the Global Church

This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of The Bulletin.

John D. Roth

By John D. Roth ’81, professor of history and founding director of the Institute for the Study of  Global Anabaptism at Goshen College

ON OCTOBER 26, 2010, I was “born again” … again! For many years, I, along with my colleagues at the Mennonite Historical Library (MHL), had been conscientious custodians of a long tradition of “scholarship for the church” bequeathed to us by historians like Harold Bender (1918), Guy Hershberger, John Oyer ’51, Theron Schlabach ’60, Shirley Showalter and Alan Kreider ’62.

These amazingly gifted scholars were committed to bringing their academic disciplines into conversation with the life of the church. Convinced that the life of the mind and spiritual/ecclesial renewal were intimately related, they offered a model that combined scholarship and teaching with a deep love for the church. In the fall of 1985, when I was facing a difficult decision about where I wanted to teach as a young historian, their example inspired me to accept a call to Goshen College.

In the years since, my colleagues and I have worked hard to be good stewards of their legacy. We greatly expanded the holdings of the MHL, making it the world’s largest comprehensive research collection on the Radical Reformation and groups that descended from them (Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites). We continued to publish The Mennonite Quarterly Review, supported the work of the Mennonite Historical Society, wrote books and articles, organized conferences, hosted lecturers and preached in many congregational settings.

Along the way, however, something of profound significance was happening within the larger Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition.  All around the world — but especially in Africa, Asia and Latin America — churches bearing the Mennonite name were exploding in growth. And as they did so, they were translating the Good News of the Gospel into the realities of their own cultural context. In dozens of new settings, what it meant to be part of this 500-year-old Anabaptist-Mennonite stream was being stretched, challenged, transformed, reimagined and renewed in fresh and important ways.

In 2009 I attended the Mennonite World Conference (MWC) Assembly in Asunción, Paraguay, and witnessed first-hand the astonishing diversity of our global family. I returned to Goshen College convinced that the time had come for a new kind of “scholarship for the church.” After consulting with a wide range of colleagues and friends, the concept of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism (ISGA) emerged and the institute was created on that fall day in 2010, offering me my own story of spiritual rebirth and renewal.

For more than 125 years, Goshen College has served the Mennonite church and the broader academic world as a center of Anabaptist-Mennonite studies. As custodians of a rich theological and historical tradition, we have much to share with the global Mennonite church; but the survival of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition in North America may ultimately depend on our willingness to learn from our brothers and sisters in the Global South and their deep spiritual vitality. In particular, North American Mennonites must better understand the nature of the global church and nurture a closer sense of fellowship among Anabaptist-Mennonites around the world.

And that’s what the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism is all about. In its various projects — surveys, translations, conferences, story-gathering, digital resources and publications — the ISGA seeks to renew for the next generation the rich legacy of Anabaptist-Mennonite scholarship at Goshen College.

At Goshen College, Dr. John D. Roth ’81 is professor of history, director of the Mennonite Historical Library, editor of The Mennonite Quarterly Review and the founding director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism. He is also the secretary of the Mennonite World Conference Faith and Life Commission. Roth is retiring from Goshen College in June and will be starting a new position with MennoMedia as project director of their “Anabaptism at 500” initiative.