Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Discipleship, Generational Change and the Practice of Mennonite History

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Discipleship, Generational Change and the Practice of Mennonite History

Article excerpt

Abstract. In the early 1940s, a generational transition among historians engaged in Mennonite history produced a fine historiographical debate. In the 1990s another such transition is bringing even more profound questions for historians committed to the Mennonite faith. There are practical questions of how to operate in changed institutional settings and also deeper ones of whether the new generation can write convincingly with high professional standards even as they bring their faith commitments and Christian discipleship to-their work. Fortunately, within the historical profession a long history of wrestling with the "objectivity question" seems to otter a favorable climate for Mennonite historians who are just now receiving the mantle. (1)


In 1942 to 1944 MQR carried a notable historiographical discussion. It began when Harold S. Bender, the journal's editor who was just then developing what became the "Anabaptist Vision" school of interpretation, joined with fellow-Goshen College historian Ernst Correll to review The Story of the Mennonites (1941), the magnum opus of C. Henry Smith, a distinguished Mennonite historian at Bluffton College. After a time Smith replied; and before long another of Bender's Goshen colleagues, Robert Friedmann, answered Smith. Historian Paul Toews, in Volume IV of the Mennonite Experience in America series, has called the discussion "one of the finer Mennonite historiographical exchanges." (2)

Smith, who was near the end of his life, personified North American Mennonites' first generation of fully trained Mennonite historians and did so almost alone. He had studied at the University of Illinois and then at the prestigious University of Chicago to become, in 1907, apparently the first U.S. Mennonite to receive a Ph.D. degree. Thereafter he had taught history in Mennonite institutions: first at Goshen, an "old" or "MC" Mennonite institution; and then at Bluffton College, an institution of the culturally more liberal General Conference Mennonite branch. (3) Meanwhile he also accumulated wealth and was a banker in the town of Bluffton, Ohio. (4) Smith had done his advanced studies during the so-called progressive era of U.S. history. In the nation's universities the progressives had great faith that science and professional standards could bring the highest of human intelligence to human life and be powerful instruments for enlightened democracy. Such was the spirit in which Smith professionalized Mennonite history in the United States.

Much of the historiographical exchange between Smith and the Goshen historians had to do with two major issues: first, whether, or in what sense, the sixteenth-century Anabaptists had stood for individualism; and, second, the validity of what Germans were calling Geistesgeschichte--that is, history written to delve more deeply than just into narrative in order to capture the spirit, the genius, the essence of the group or culture under study. Smith's great work had offered quite an individualistic understanding of the Anabaptists, from which the Goshen historians dissented. Also, Friedmann challenged Smith to go beyond the surface story and search for the Mennonite essence.

Throughout the exchange, the protagonists kept the tone cordial and respectful, and they produced what was indeed a fine discussion of Mennonite historiography. Smith yielded very little on the matter of individualism. As for Geistesgeschichte, he partly agreed, but he warned that it too easily led historians into speculation and philosophy of history and away from interpretations grounded carefully in evidence. (5)

Less explicitly the exchange also touched a third subject more or less related to the issues of both individualism and Geistesgeschichte. That subject was the perceptions these Mennonite historians held concerning the church and the place of educated, trained, professional scholars within it. Taking issue in effect with Smith's American progressivism, Bender and Correll asserted, admittedly as a "matter of judgment," that "the soundest promise for the future of American [and world] . …

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