Nineteenth-century Humility: a
Vital Message for Today?
by Theron Schlabach
As you can see, my title refers to the nineteenth century,
but I hope to say something for the twentieth and twenty-first
centuries. While I do not believe in using history for polemics,
I do believe that history should be a kind of dialogue between
past and present. If it is to be a dialogue, then we must let
it speak to us. But I will let you decide whether it speaks to
the present or not.
I could have given this talk a different title: "What
Might Have Been: Twentieth-century Mennonites and Humility."
I believe we might have kept the humility motif more intact and
central to our understandings of the faith and what makes for
faithfulness than what we did. I guess it is no secret that I
think that the Mennonite Church reformers of the late-nineteenth
and early-twentieth centuries (the people of the period I have
labeled the "Quickening" because there was such an
increase in activity as Mennonites began to build colleges, publishing
houses, orphans' homes, and hold young people's programs) would
have done better if they had constructed their new, more activist,
more outreaching Mennonite Church more by reworking the humility
theology of the nineteenth century and less by abandoning the
motif. The "what might have been," in my vision is
a deeper understanding of the prophetic, evangelistic possibilities
of nineteenth-century Amish and Mennonite humility theology.
Humility theology dominated among (Old) Mennonites in North
America in the first three-fourths of the nineteenth century.
The original and clearest voice for humility theology was Christian
Burkholder (1746-1809), a bishop in the Groffdale district in
Lancaster Conference. In 1792, Burkholder wrote a manuscript
in the form of a dialogue. On one side, he had an earnest youth
asking questions of his pastor. In turn, the pastor kindly answered
the youth's questions, explaining the faith in very clear, simple,
yet profound language. Burkholder called it Nützliche und
Erbauliche Anrede an die Jugend (Useful and Edifying Address
to the Young).
The Address was not printed right away, but by 1804 the ministry
in the Lancaster area decided it ought to be published. The book
sold fast, and before the year was out, they published another
version of it. The Address caught on so well that it was reprinted
eight more times in German in the nineteenth century. In 1857
it was translated into English and published four times during
the century. That says something about the importance of Burkholder's
We can see the Address's importance also in the way nineteenth-century
Mennonites picked up and used the language of humility and its
understandings. Humility became the dominant way of thinking
about the nature of Christ and the Christian life and of our
relationship to the world. The emphasis on humility continued
until roughly 1875 or 1880 when the "Quickening" generation
brought in different ideas, which to some degree replaced it,
although not completely.
Burkholder's purpose was outreaching. The Address was not
a book to help Mennonites to withdraw into themselves. Burkholder
conceived of humility as a Christian message for all Christian
churches in America - not just a Mennonite emphasis, or a Mennonite
peculiarity, or a Mennonite genius. He also understood humility
to be a message of deliverance from the evils emerging from the
denominational pattern in America. This was a new America where
the church was disestablished. It was a free market, and anybody
could start a church. The chaos and bickering of the new pattern
disturbed many Christians, and many others became argumentative.
Burkholder saw the need for more humility in Christians' relationships
with each other. The opening sentence of his introduction to
the Address declared:
The chief motive [for producing] this work is the present declining
state of the Christian Church in which there is such a great
difference in the performance of external worship: as also in
the external demeanor of its members towards each other; as one
has still some fault to find with his neighbor - thus following
his own will and inclination....
Many persons, Burkholder wrote a bit later, saw "the
present state of Christendom as a Babel." All of this he
said was contrary to what the Apostle Peter had written: "All
of ye be subject to one another, and be clothed with humility;
for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the Humble."2
(1 Peter 5:5) Burkholder was addressing a problem in the American
context. Thus, it was a message for the larger society, not just
a message for Mennonites. He offered humility as a means for
church renewal, not just for purifying his own group.
Burkholder went on to build an all-embracing theology of humility.
He was not a systematic theologian; he was a pastor. However,
the Address does come together to create a holistic understanding
of what Christ was about and how we are to follow Christ.
In his first chapter, Burkholder called his reader to repentance.
Repentance meant changing the heart to an attitude of humility.
He wrote: "The fruit of true repentance grows in a change
of heart, for the heart of man by nature is proud and conceited;
but the heart of a penitent is humble and contrite." The
repentant heart, Burkholder emphasized, "imitates the virtues
of our Savior while on earth," who described himself as
"meek and lowly in heart." The one who truly listens
to the Word of God, Burkholder went on to say, becomes "converted;
namely, from pride to humility, from incontinence to chastity,
from hatred to love, ...from...lying and cheating to truth and
honesty."3 When Burkholder looked at Christ, he saw the
meek and humble and submissive Christ, not Christ as a mighty
warrior. Burkholder explained to his young hearers:
In the days of His incarnation, Christ set the pattern of a lamb,
and thus by endurance, suffering, and patient submission, yea,
by suffering the most painful and ignominious death on account
of us sinners, He gained a triumphant victory over the world,
sin, death, and the devil.
There was triumph, but it was triumph through being lamb-like.
Burkholder also wrote extensively on the nature of the new
birth. He called people not so much to Christ's sacrifice on
the cross as to the example of Jesus in his manger.
Christ has given us in His birth a pattern of true humility.
Thither, namely to His manger, we are to direct our course. Indeed
He has given us in His birth, doctrine, and life, an example
of childlike humility.
From that basic understanding of Christ and Christ's incarnation,
Burkholder went on to make many applications for the Christian
life. He made the humility attitude a part and parcel of nonresistance.
In fact, nonresistance and humility become inseparable Siamese
twins. Burkholder applied humility to politics. He maintained
that the humble did not wish to be politically powerful and exert
their will over others the way the rulers of this world do. As
for more personal applications, he insisted that an inner attitude
of humility would bring an outward appearance of humility in
attire and demeanor. In regard to worship, Burkholder viewed
with skepticism the revivalist emphasis on giving a personal
testimony concerning one's own religious experience. To him such
testimonies so often seemed egotistical and prideful.
Thus without being a systematic theologian, Burkholder offered
a quite coherent and holistic set of theoretical and practical
understandings of the meaning of Christ's incarnation, example,
and death, and of what Christian faithfulness was all about.
He set it forth in basic, clear, understandable language, as
a good pastor uses when counseling an earnest, inquiring youth.
As I have tried to emphasize, Burkholder saw his book as a
message of renewal - and renewal not just for Mennonites, but
for all of American Christianity. Burkholder's outlook became
so dominant that it really became the major Mennonite formulation
of the faith for the next sixty or seventy years. Thus in 1980
a young scholar, Joseph C. Liechty, could publish a landmark
article in The Mennonite Quarterly Review with the title, "Humility:
The Foundation of Mennonite Religious Outlook in the 1860s."
In his studies, Liechty focused on another nineteenth-century
Mennonite leader, John M. Brenneman of Elida, Ohio. Brenneman
was much more than a local leader. If there was any person at
mid-century who was a continental Mennonite leader, it was Brenneman.
His family had come from Virginia, and he had many contacts there.
But far more importantly, the railroads were coming and people
were moving to the frontier. There were scattered little groups
of Mennonites and Amish struggling on the frontier and needing
pastoral care. Brenneman traveled extensively to provide pastoral
help to these scattered folk. He went from place to place to
help with various types of church problems. He had friends everywhere.
One friend he wrote to frequently was preacher Peter Nissley
of Mount Joy, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
Brenneman wrote his own small book of humility theology, Pride
and Humility, published in 1868. Its basic theology was very
much like that of Christian Burkholder. Again, Brenneman made
many practical applications for life in nonresistance, political
attitude, dress and demeanor, even behavior at the table. Like
Burkholder, John M. Brenneman was interested in church renewal
and outreach. He supported the young John F. Funk in his advocacy
of Sunday school.
I have heard Joseph Liechty refer to John M. Brenneman as
a "spiritual genius." Both Liechty and I think that
we found in the humility era a deep and vital faith, a deep and
vital spirituality, a profound and vital understanding of Jesus
Christ. But when we say that, we run against the grain of most
historical interpretations of early nineteenth-century Mennonitism.
Historians and other commentators who have written about that
period have often used phrases such as "dead and formal,"
"unenlightened," "moribund," or, to use the
words of historian Samuel F. Pannabecker, the "dark ages."
Well, what about the "dark ages" thesis? I looked
at that when I wrote Peace, Faith, and Nation. What I found was
that whereas various writers have used the "dark ages"
idea, they have not agreed on what made those ages dark. Robert
Friedmann in his Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries wrote
as if the problem was a matter of straying from pristine Anabaptism.
Pannabecker pointed mainly to decline in literacy and a lack
of progressive outlook. He suggested that Mennonite leaders were
really more literate when they came over from Europe than they
were a hundred years later, and the nineteenth century was a
low point. Reformers touched by revivalism, like Daniel Kauffman
and J.S. Hartzler in their book Mennonite Church History, spoke
of dead "formalism," a lack of fervor, and failure
to be active for mission. Others such as the Reformed Mennonites
and Jacob Stauffer, who were inclined to be Old Order, had been
sure that the deterioration came about due to lack of discipline.
Old Order reformers believed that the church would achieve deeper
spirituality through discipline. Today we often hear these set
against each other. If you have a strong church discipline, that
is legalism and that is not spiritual. But the Old Orders believed
discipline was the path to spirituality.
My point is that quite a few different voices have agreed
that the first three-fourths of the nineteenth century were the
"dark ages" of Mennonite history. Yet, when we look
a little more closely, they do not agree about what made them
dark. So the dark ages charge is not one charge but many. In
short, the various "dark ages" interpretations rest
on the different authors' beginning assumptions and on the biases
they have brought to the subject as much as on the evidence.
Now we all bring our biases or orientations to the writing of
history, and so I do not mean to be harsh with these writers
with whom I disagree. Still, I think they did bring quite a bit
of preconception to their writing. I would also add that one
other reason the period has been treated poorly in history is
that there is a bias in a written culture against a people who
express themselves primarily in an oral way. This was a period
in which most people expressed themselves in an oral way or through
their folk culture. Most did not write clearly. For those of
us who come later and look at the documents, this establishes
a bias against them. We look at them as not very educated if
they could not articulate or write down what they believed.
However, I offer a third comment, in which I am more critical
of the humility era thinkers. I believe that one major charge
against the humility period of Mennonite history is true. That
is, it did not take seriously enough the idea of proclamation.
The advocates of humility did not take seriously enough the Great
Commission or the understanding that Jesus came to proclaim the
coming Kingdom of God, and that Christ left us, his followers,
with the task of carrying through in that proclamation. They
did not take seriously enough the mandate to be prophetic.
These people did have a message that American society needed.
The United States was an aggressive and bragging society. It
got into the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, and
it pushed back the Indians. It needed the message of humility
and the idea that Christ offered another way. So my assumption
is that the humility message had great possibilities for being
prophetic. A prophetic message of humility was needed in the
society where the advocates of humility lived.
But there is a built-in dilemma in proclaiming a humility
theology. How can we actively preach a humility theology? For
the humble, the temptation is to be self-effacing and to draw
inward. I fear the humility generation did not solve that dilemma.
They grabbed one horn of the dilemma by being personally humble
and even making a great virtue of it. Personally, I agree that
this is important. Still, they almost entirely let go the other
horn of proclaiming.
Even John M. Brenneman never brought the two together.
He was interested in missions and in humility theology, but he
did not integrate the two into a complementary whole. Neither
did the next generation of Mennonite Church reformers of the
nineteenth century. An example of this failure is John S. Coffman,
the great revivalist of the "Quickening" generation.
I think that in his own personal life he brought them together
very well. I have great admiration for what I see when I read
John S. Coffman's letters and diaries or when I read what other
people wrote to him, especially how he gave advice to young people.
He had a great deal of humility and integrity. Yet, he did not
get it built into his message or his theology. He did not know
how to bring a vigorous evangelistic message and have the humility
emphasis built into it. Instead, he and his generation to a great
extent borrowed from Protestant concepts of what the gospel and
salvation were. They grafted them onto Mennonitism in certain
ways but did not really build on the foundation of the humility
theology that they had inherited.
This dilemma was the great challenge. This is what I meant when
I said I could have given this lecture the title of "What
Might Have Been." What if the reformers of the "Quickening"
generation had met the challenge and had worked out the dilemma?
Humility theology had a message that American culture needed
- one very relevant for proclaiming the values of the gospel
and the Kingdom of God in the American context. It intertwined
with and reinforced very well Mennonite nonresistance and Mennonite
insistence on practical applications of faith to life. I am not
saying the "Quickening" generation lost the emphasis
entirely. Yet, they did not get their gospel message and how
to live put into one way of thinking. Suppose they had built
a more activist, outreaching, proclaiming version of the faith,
but on a foundation that still remembered the humility theology.
I do believe that they would have put the Mennonite Church on
a better footing for the twentieth century. That was the dilemma.
What of our present generation at the turn of the twenty-first
century? Is humility theology even worth talking about? It seems
quite foreign to our day and age. But then it was foreign also
to the spirit of the America that took up the War of 1812, that
ruthlessly pushed back the American Indians, and that embraced
Moreover, today we have one further obstacle to overcome: the
personality theories of current pop psychology books found even
in many Christian bookstores. From pop psychology's point of
view humility theology is very bad. A strong idea of pop psychology
is to not suppress the individual spirit. The assumption is that
we violate the personality if we ask persons to be humble or
submissive. Pop psychology says we should encourage people to
assert themselves. Well, I do believe that an emphasis on humility
can be very damaging. This is especially true if it is imposed
unjustly from the outside by some people who have power on other
people who do not. It can easily be misused. In those cases it
can be devastating to the human spirit and to the kind of shalom
that God wills for each of us. This misuse is what gives pop
psychology its appeal.
So if our generation wants to take humility theology seriously,
we face some real roadblocks. First, we live in a culture which
has another model of what persons ought to be. We still have
the old dilemma the Mennonite reformers of exactly a hundred
years ago faced. How do we express humility and at the same time
be active and assertive in proclaiming the gospel? It is a challenge,
but one I suggest is well worth taking up. I would be most happy
if in 2004 (200 years after the publication of Burkholder's book)
a new Christian Burkholder would arise, or maybe if some Italian-American
or Hispanic-American Mennonite, or even better yet a third-world
Mennonite would write a new humility address and get a new humility
discussion going. §
Schlabach is retired from teaching American
history at Goshen College. Burrowed in at the archives, he is
currently writing a biography of Guy Hershberger.
This article is an edited transcript of Schlabach's address given
at the annual meeting of the Mennonite Historical Association
of the Cumberland Valley, November 19, 1996. It was originally
published in the Conococheague Mennonist, the association's newsletter
(Vol. V, No. 1, January 1997).