Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

"United Progressive Mennonites": Bluffton College and Anabaptist Higher Education, 1913-1945

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

"United Progressive Mennonites": Bluffton College and Anabaptist Higher Education, 1913-1945

Article excerpt

Abstract: In contrast to the more established narratives of Mennonite higher education as represented by schools like Goshen and Bethel Colleges, the story of Bluffton College in Ohio is less well-known. As one of the first accounts rooted primarily in the archives at Bluffton, this article redresses that imbalance. It argues that what emerged at Bluffton was a self-consciously progressive approach to Mennonite higher education, one much more accepting of assimilation. As such, the "progressive Anabaptism" developed by Bluffton leaders like Samuel Mosiman, Noah Byers and C. Henry Smith emerged as a major target of attack for Mennonite Fundamentalists in the 1920s. This was an attack rooted partly in personal and institutional rivalries. By the 1940s, an emerging new cohort of institutional leaders at Bluffton, led by president Lloyd Ramseyer, worked to address the flaws of the earlier vision and reshape it into a durable program for the future.


On August 5, 1913, having just arrived and rented a home in Bluffton less than a month before, the recently departed president of Goshen College Noah Byers delivered one of the principal addresses at the "Bluffton Home Coming and College Day." "United Progressive Mennonites. These are significant words," Byers intoned to the crowd, since "the union of different sects in this great work is surely in line with the best spirit of the age...." (1) course, he added, "I need not tell you of the good qualities of progressive Mennonites. Five branches representing over fifty thousand members will unite here to build up here an institution of higher learning. There are other Mennonite colleges," Byers proclaimed, "but none that have aimed to do the advanced College and Seminary work to be offered here." (2)

In 1999, as Bluffton College reached its hundredth birthday, the events of the preceding century left an ambiguous record as to whether Byers' optimism of 1913 was fully warranted. As innovators and institution-builders, Byers and his fellow Mennonite academics were certainly progressive in pushing their own church to accept the ways of the broader society. And in their affirmation of assimilation, they were consciously absorbing a national mainstream culture that was progressive in an explicitly political sense as well.

In such a cultural embrace, however, the Mennonite scholars and church leaders at Bluffton College plunged their own institution into nearly twenty years of conflict with many of the churches in its constituency. Though these battles were ostensibly about theology, viewing them through the lens of power dynamics at Mennonite colleges reveals that they also emanated from rivalries that were both personal and institutional. The conflicts that ensued would ultimately threaten not only individual careers but also entire institutions. By the 1930s the cumulative effect of years of such battles would combine with the financial calamities of the great depression to destroy whatever hopes remained of the great "union movement" that Byers and his colleagues had so grandly inaugurated.

Even so, the college at Bluffton survived, partly because of the residual power of its founding vision. Several generations of college leaders adeptly built from and elaborated upon the heritage of progressive Anabaptism established in earlier years by Byers and his colleagues. In so doing, the community of Mennonite scholars and church leaders at Bluffton came to nourish a progressive Anabaptist vision for Mennonite higher education that may prove serviceable even for today and into the future.


The first dozen years of the new college were difficult and contentious. Born in 1899, the institution barely managed to survive the presidency of its first leader, the young and headstrong Noah C. Hirschy. Like its sister schools at Bethel and Goshen, Central Mennonite College was small and struggling, hardly much of a college at all; indeed, the vast number of its students were enrolled in the academy as secondary students. …

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