Global history project completedBy James C. Juhnke
Seeking Places of Peace is the fifth and final volume of the most significant Mennonite historical project of the last 20 years. In 1997 Mennonite World Conference commissioned the Global Mennonite History project. John A. Lapp and C. Arnold Snyder took on the roles of project coordinator and general editor. The commitment to a global history series that would celebrate the emergence of a truly global church required that the authors be from the continents about which they wrote: Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe and North America.
The first volume — on Africa — was completed in time for the 2003 Mennonite World Conference Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. In 2011 a scholarly meeting at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, “Mirror on the Globalization of Mennonite Witness,” celebrated and evaluated the entire series. This fifth volume, written by Royden Loewen of the University of Winnipeg and Steven M. Nolt of Goshen College, deserves its own fulsome celebration.
Loewen and Nolt, more than the authors of the non-European volumes, were able to draw upon an extensive body of historical research and writing in their own binational context. The three-volume Mennonites in Canada set (1974, 1982 and 1996), sponsored by the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada, set a high standard for national ethnic/denominational history. In the United States, four volumes were published from 1985 to 1996 in the Mennonite Experience in America series.
The new volume, Seeking Places of Peace, covers the same broad scope of the previous seven volumes while offering fresh interpretations based upon newer research. The project confirms that, compared to other church denominations, Mennonites have an outstanding tradition of historical scholarship.
Loewen and Nolt kept their eyes on the international/global context of their work. Their first chapter, “Finding Faith and Leaving Europe,” insightfully addresses Anabaptist Mennonite origins and reasons for migration. The final chapter, “Discovering a Global Community,” records overseas Mennonite business entrepreneurial ventures as well as missions and service enterprise. The authors intended to foster global consciousness and to write for a global, as well as a North American, readership.
Readers of traditional denominational history will observe that Places of Peace is distinctively committed to social history more than to institutional history. The authors’ preference for the lived experience of ordinary women and men occasionally is quite specific: “No doubt the most public manifestations of Mennonite life lay in the rich array of institutions — the schools, insurance companies, church headquarters and mutual aid societies — but the place where old values were anchored more securely and tested most dynamically was in the family.”
Each chapter begins with particular stories about particular people. The authors select quotations from personal diaries to illustrate the familial and communal dimensions of Mennonite society, economy and religious worship.
For people as socially diverse as Mennonites, it is a great challenge to generalize about “lived experience.” And the focus on farm, family and home means that the authors divert attention from other important events and institutions. Denominational politics, church splits, print publications and wartime experiences, for example, get relatively short shrift.
The authors bring their own backgrounds to the project. Loewen is a Canadian of Dutch-Russian background. Nolt is an American of Swiss-South German background. They treat Mennonite origins in Europe as a double-heritage — Swiss-South German and Dutch. For much of the book the social and cultural phenomena on such themes as money, gender and urbanization are dealt with in terms that cross national and ethnic boundaries. An excellent chapter on “Media, Arts and Mennonite Images,” however, divides the narrative into two separate sections — Canadian and U.S.
Loewen and Nolt are excellent writers. Among the insightful interpretations is their emphasis on the extent to which Mennonites in the Pennsylvania-Dutch subculture were integrated into that social order, despite their professions of separation from the world. They relate the 1847 (Oberholtzer) division in Franconia Conference in the context of “Social Refinement and Plain Living in a Market Economy.” Those people who later joined the General Conference Mennonite Church wanted to be middle class Mennonites. This account does not mention the GC dream that all Mennonites should come under one organizational umbrella. The 19th-century publisher and church leader John F. Funk is credited with the idea of a common American Mennonite historical and theological identity.
North American readers of this book will scan the index and the text to see if people and topics of their own special interest are treated. I confess that I was disappointed by the absence of Wadsworth Seminary (1868-78) or theologian Gordon Kaufman and such slight coverage of the War for Independence and the First World War.
But all readers, whatever their critical bias, need to exercise charity about what the authors chose to include and to leave out. This is a landmark book, masterfully written, organized in fresh and interesting ways. It represents a fitting culmination to the Global Mennonite History project.
James C. Juhnke, of Wichita, Kan., is professor emeritus of history at Bethel College.
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