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The Historiography of Mennonites and Amish in America: Reflections on Past and Future

Article excerpt

In the 1970s to 1990s scholars published two substantial series of books, one on the history of Mennonites in Canada and another on the Mennonite experience in America. They hoped that their work would stimulate much further scholarship on their topics, especially by historians with professional training for the tasks. Now a survey of four journals of Mennonite studies suggests that the path to which the two series pointed remains wide open. This article suggests some of the topics that obviously wait for much further work, and offers some strategies and suggestions for scholars trying to marshal and mobilize resources for those efforts.

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A generation ago a group of scholars conceived the Mennonite Experience in America series, four books telling the history of Mennonite groups in the present-day United States. (1) We did not presume that these four volumes would be a final, definitive synthesis, but instead hoped that the project would inspire further research and discussion. Meanwhile, Canadian scholars moved ahead with a parallel series, Mennonites in Canada, (2) that they no doubt hoped would stimulate much more work in their field as well.

Have the two series yielded such results? Not abundantly. Since the two series began to appear in the 1970s and 1980s, several significant historical works in these fields have followed, including a handful that are truly excellent. Yet one can scarcely say that historical studies on Mennonites in America, or in North America, or in the Western Hemisphere, are really flourishing. Some years ago Mark Noll, a well-known evangelical historian, joked that he could say about Mennonites what someone had remarked about the New England Puritans--namely, that soon there would be more books about Puritans than there had been Puritans! Although his comment could seem like a gentle put-down--as if Mennonites, as a small group, may not quite be worth so much effort--he probably meant instead to compliment Mennonites for their historical consciousness and production. But do Mennonites in North America deserve the plaudit?

TWO SURVEYS

A question of interest is how much of the writing on Mennonites and Amish in the last two decades has been the work of persons with solid post-secondary training and practice in the field of history. Not that anyone should despise good historical work done by others, whether by amateurs or by scholars trained in other fields. Much of the work that such folks produce is very helpful; and professional historians need all the help they can get. Nonetheless, professional training and practice in the field of history surely have special value, as is true of training and work in other disciplines.

One answer may come from an examination of the authors, titles and actual content of articles published and books reviewed during the last two decades on subjects of Mennonites and related groups in North America, in four journals: The Mennonite Quarterly Review; Mennonite Life; The Conrad Grebel Review; and Journal of Mennonite Studies. (3) What portion of North American Mennonite history published recently has been by persons well-trained and practicing as historians? Table A provides some insight into that question.

TABLE A SOME STATISTICS ON HISTORY BOOKS AND ARTICLES REVIEWED OR
PUBLISHED, 1986-2005 AND WHETHER THEY ARE BY TRAINED HISTORIANS

(As seen in reviews and articles in MQR, Mennonite Life, The Conrad
Grebel Review and The Journal of Mennonite Studies)

Categories: US/WHem = Mennonites in the present-day United States, or,
predominantly so--although a few works included Amish and/or Hutterites
together with Mennonites, or those groups in Canada or the whole
Western Hemisphere together with the United States:); CANADIAN =
Mennonites, although a few included Canadian Amish and Hutterites
together with Mennonites; AMISH, throughout the hemisphere; LATIN
AMERICAN = Mennonites, including related groups such as "Beachy" Amish;
HUTTERITES in both the U. …