I Wish I'd Been There .
The consulting editors
of the Mennonite Historical
Bulletin respond to the question: What is the one event in
Anabaptist-Mennonite history you wish you could have witnessed
-- and Why?
by Levi Miller
This wish, as you will soon see,
dear reader, has parts of myself written all over it. My only
defense against over-indulgent self-love, and gross narcissism
is that my subject was humble. Joseph Summers (1823-1892) stayed
solely in the nineteenth century and has no entry in the Mennonite
Encyclopedia. I can think of few better grounds for proper
humility, and I think Theron Schlabach would say so too.
Yet I wish I could have heard Joseph Summer's travel stories.
The only story I have comes from his obituary written by John
F. Funk, the Mennonite publisher, which a nice story of his life
as a teacher, farmer, '49er, mission board treasurer, editor,
and "faithful and devoted Christian." The obituary
appeared in the September 15 1892, Herald of Truth, (I
was also born on September 15, 1944), and was reprinted in the
April 1951 issue of the Mennonite Historical Bulletin.
Joseph Summers was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, married Barbara
Souders when he was age 24 (and I married Gloria Miller at age
24). He moved to Holmes County, Ohio, (that's where I was born),
where he took up farming and teaching near Millersburg (that
was my goal too).
However, such a life was not to be for either Joseph (nor for
me). Not long after marriage, he formed the Zanesville Mining
Company, and in 1850, he joined the '49ers in the California
Gold Rush. The Holmes County miners left home in teams and wagons,
but as Funk said, much of the journey was "performed on
foot and through country inhabited by the Indian and the buffalo."
(Soon after marriage, Gloria and I left for Puerto Rico. . .all
right, I'll stop this, gentle reader, but you do catch
It took the Holmes County '49ers about 10 months to arrive at
Dry Town, California. After two months and finding no gold, Summers
was on his way back to Ohio -- this time by boat from San Francisco.
He spent several months in Trinidad and stopped in Panama, San
Juan (I'll resist making any personal references here.), Havana,
and New Orleans. Finally, after about a year en route and "many
privations and hardships," he reached home in Holmes County
in December of 1851.
Two years later, Joseph Summers was on his way back to California.
This time he stayed six years. Whether he found gold or not,
we do not know. Nor do we know what Barbara made of all these
trips. What we do know is that he had many anecdotes and "valuable
lessons" from these journeys, and Funk said that his observations
"afforded many an hour's profitable entertainment."
In 1870, Summers joined Funk's Mennonite Publishing Company in
Elkhart. (In 1970, I headed for Mennonite Publishing House at
Scottdale.) Joseph spent the rest of his life as a proofreader
and editor of Words of Cheer, the paper for youth.
Funk said that Joseph was punctual -- actually clock-like --
in his reliability. His fellow-workers liked him, and toward
the end of his life they gave him a fine office chair. He was
also popular with his readers. The young people who read his
magazine called him "Uncle Joseph."
Joseph Summers was a minor player on the Mennonite stage, taking
his exit as a "faithful helper in every work to promote
the cause of Christ and his church." I could wish such a
line for myself when my final bows come. Still, I wish I could
have heard his travel stories of "profitable entertainment."
I might also benefit from hearing Barbara's edition of those
--Levi Miller is past editor of the Mennonite Historical
Bulletin, and is currently director of the Congregational
Literature Division, Mennonite Publishing House, Scottdale, Pa.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, July, 1996