| Historical Committee
Matters: Attending to our Church’s History
by John E. Sharp
"We learn from the past, as we prepare for the future. We cannot
see God's direction for tomorrow without the indicators of God's
providence in the past." This quotation from Jim Schrag,
executive director of Mennonite Church USA, expresses the churches
historical committment to its corporate memory. Both the
Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church founded
historical committees in the same year, 1911—93 years ago. GCs founded
a Mennonite Historical Association at their triennial session in
Bluffton, Ohio. C.H. Wedel, who died just the year before, had inspired
its formation. H.R. Voth, former missionary to the Hopi in Arizona (and
collector of Indian artifacts for the Smithsonian), and H. P. Krehbiel,
publisher of Herald Publishing Company in Newton, were the most active
proponents of the new historical work..1
Conference, in 1964, officially designated the archives at Bethel
College the official denominational archival repository. The North
Newton archives under the Historical Committee’s administration is
housed with the historical library, which operated by Bethel College.
Credit: John E. Sharp
MC delegates, metting in biennial session near Johnstown, Pa.,
appointed a committee of "ten brethren" to produce "an authentic Church
History."2 Had no history of Mennonites been written?
Indeed, C. H. Wedel, first president of Bethel College in North Newton,
Kansas, had written a four-volume, German-language Summary of the history of the Mennonites,
published 1900-1904. C. Henry Smith’s prolific pen produced The Mennonites of America in 1909.
Though James Juhnke has described Smith’s work as “the first thoroughly
Americanized study of Anabaptist-Mennonite history,” MCs called for an
“authentic” history as a “handbook for ordinary use rather than a
reference book for library use.”3
Clearly, MCs wanted a more sectarian treatment of history, in addition
to Smith’s inter-Mennonite overview. Thirty-one years later, in 1942,
Scottdale published John Horsch’s Mennonites
in Europe. Harold Bender was to write the companion volume, Mennonites in America, but Bender
died before the book was completed. Instead, Bender’s colleague, J. C.
Wenger, wrote The Mennonite Church
in America 20 years later, in 1966. Wenger used Bender’s
introduction written in 1947(!), and credited Bender for four of the 14
|The archives were first
housed in the new Memorial
Library built at Goshen College in 1940, seen here in a proposed
sketch. The library was named in recognition of the former witnesses of
the Mennonite Church and their devoted service to the cause of Christ.
Today this building serves as the Visual Arts Building for the college.
Source: Goshen College
Bender, who introduced the second volume, noted Smith’s “excellent
book” which covered all Mennonite groups, but made a case for a history
of the “Mennonite Church” which “has been channeled deeply into its own
traditions and organizations . . . separated somewhat from the
remaining Mennonite bodies.”4
While the GC committee began collecting historical treasures of all
kinds, the MCs collected mainly books, which they housed at Scottdale.
The Mennonite Publishing House subsidized the library and John Horsch
became its custodian. When the committee acquired Elkhart publisher
John F. Funk’s extensive library, they pronounced their collection “the
most valuable library on Mennonite history in America.” It is not
likely that the MC committee compared their library with the GC
collection, housed at Krehbill’s Herald Publishing House in Newton.
The GC committee became less active when H.R. Voth died in 1931.
Activity on the MC side picked up when by 1931 when Harold Bender
replaced his father-in-law, John Horsch, as the leader of the
committee’s work, and consequently Goshen replaced Scottdale as the hub
of historical activity. Reporting to the 1933 MC general assembly,
gathered in Hesston, Kansas, just seven miles from Newton, Bender
articulated the committee’s hope for a “central building” to house “a
historical library, museum archives building, and possible a meeting
place for boards and committees.”5
Too many records were being discarded. Alice Kauffman Gingerich told
the story of her father, foremost MC leader in the first half of the
20th century, burning letters in the fire built to heat the “wash
water” because, “No one should ever read these letters.”6 Dennis
Stoesz, Goshen archivist, has often lamented that before 1950 too
little was saved; after 1950 too much has been saved. The preservation
efforts of the committee were rewarded—and exceeded!
In 1939 the MC general assembly authorized the establishment of an
archives to preserve the records of the church, with the Historical
Committee serving as custodian. S. F. Coffman, who served as chairman
for 37 years (1911-1948) reported that the Historical Committee would
raise $5,000 for the use of two rooms in the basement of the new Goshen
College Memorial Library to be built the following year.7
Abraham Warkentin, a 1920s refugee from Russia became professor of
German at Bethel College and pastor at First Mennonite Church of
Newton. His interest in the work of historical preservation influenced
the relocation of some of the GC collections to Bethel College in 1939,
where they are presently located. When Warkentin went to Chicago to
become the first president of the GC seminary, he took part of the
collection with him, which North Newton archivist, John D. Thiesen has
called “an egregious violation” of current archival practices.8
In April 1940 MCs published the first issue of the Mennonite Historical Bulletin.
Editor J.C. Wenger said the purpose of the magazine was to inform
readers of historical study, publish articles, review current
publications, answer questions about “congregational, church and family
history”, and to serve as a channel for “historical workers.” The
mailing list targeted pastors and “prospective supporters.”9
|The archives were moved in
1959 from Memorial Library
to the seminary building, now Newcomer Center, on the south end of the
campus. The archives were located in the southwest wing of the
building—shown on the photograph by the six windows and the stack area
on the left. Today the archives have taken over the entire west end of
the building, occupying about 4,000 square feet. Additional materials
occupy another 1,500 square feet on the second floor of Westlawn.
In 1944 the GCs gained their “most well-known promoter,” when Russian
refugee, Cornelius Krahn arrived at Bethel College. Krahn had completed
a dissertation on the life of Menno Simons at the University of
Heidelberg. He developed the GC historical collection into a major
library rich in Dutch, Prussian and Russian Mennonite materials. In
addition to his numerous publications, he founded Mennonite Life in 1946, and was an
assistant editor of the four-volume Mennonite
The monumental Mennonite Encyclopedia
was the first inter-Mennonite publishing venture, a harbinger of things
to come. Mennonite Brethren joined MCs and GCs in producing the
reference work, released from 1955-1959. Krahn, Harold Bender, Orlando
Harms, and Melvin Gingerich were the editors. The historical
committees and the archives of both MCs and GCs were reorganized at
various times. In 1959 the Goshen archives relocated to the newly built
Goshen Biblical Seminary building. The office was named in honor of its
first and long-time chairman, S. F. Coffman. The General Conference, in
1964, officially designated the archives at Bethel College the official
denominational archival repository. John F. Schmidt complemented Krahn
by becoming the “internal face” of the archives, organizing collections
and serving researchers.
|Melvin Gingerich, served
as executive secretary and
archivist for the committee 1957-70. Earlier he had been worked for the
Mennonite Research Foundation, Mennonite Central Committee and
Mennonite Encyclopedia, and Goshen College, 1947-57. Source: Historical
While Cornelius Krahn was still director of the Mennonite Library and
Archives at North Newton, Leonard Gross, in 1970, replaced Melvin
Gingerich as director of the MC historical committee and the archives.
Gross, who retired in 1997 brought a particular focus on faith as
history and Christianity. "Through the centruies we who stand in the
Anabaptist tradition have understood the essence of Christianity as
faith and histoy," Gross said. "Our faith resides in the living
Jesus of History and Christ of faith whome we follow as disciples, and
indeed whom we actually become- as individual "Christs'" endeavoring to
live our his gospel of peace, whithin his spiritual Body and
kinddom of love."
John Thiesen became the new face at North Newton, beginning as a
student in the late 1970s. He has since become archivist and
co-director of libraries. Dennis Stoesz came to Goshen in 1989, and
serves as archivist and operations manager. Most assuredly, no one
knows the treasures of these archives as well as Thiesen and Stoesz.
They have plumbed their depths while organizing hundreds of collections
and serving thousands of researchers.
Levi Miller of Scottdale, Pa., was hired as Goshen’s director in 1990
and served until 1994. He implemented the MC Historical Committee's New Directions, which strengthened
the focus of the committee’s work "to transmit church history and
heritage to the church at the grassroots level". This included
"networking and communicating" activities with the regional archives,
congregations, conferences, and new members of the church.
Both historical groups have published books and articles, sponsored
workshops and conferences, and told the essential stories of the church
countless times in order to “promote heritage understanding and
identity throughout the church.”
In 1995 John Sharp became the MC director, and was appointed in 2001 to
serve in that capacity for the newly formed Mennonite Church USA. His
focus on nurturing the corporste memory through storytelling is
ullustrated by his Herald Press publication, Gathering at the Hearth, Stories
Mennonites Tell. Ron Byler, associate executive director
of Mennonite Church USA, commented on the importance of the Historical
Committee. “As we understand where God has led us in the past, we can
be prepared for where God will lead us in the future. The Historical
Committee maintains our historical records and interprets them for the
generations to come.”
Since 2001 the archives at North newton has been under the Historical
Committee's administration, while the library remains with Bethel
College. This change mirrors the structure of Goshen, where the
Mennonite Historical Library is under the administration of Goshen
College, apart from the archives.
The North Newton staff includes James Lynch, archives assistant since
2000. At Goshen, Ruth Schrock began as a volunteer in 1992 and is now
archives assistant and office manager. Cathy Hochstetler joined the
staff as archives assistant in 2001. Volunteers and students round out
the staff at both locations.
The mission of the Historical Committee and the two archives is to
serve Mennonite Church USA in “preserving our faith heritage,
interpreting our stories, and proclaiming God’s work among us.”
John D., “From Cereal Boxes to Web Pages: Introducing our North Newton
Archives,” Mennonite Historical
Bulletin, October 2002, pp. 7-8.
2 Proceedings of the Mennonite General Conference, held at the Blough
Church near Johnstown, Pa., Oct. 25, 1911, p. 152.
3 Juhnke, James C., Vision,
Doctrine, War, Mennonite Identity and Organization in America, 1890-1930,
Herald Press, 1989, p.173.
4 Bender, Harold S., “Introduction,” Wenger, J. C., The Mennonites in North America,
Herald Press, 1966, “p. 9.
5 Minutes of the Mennonite General Conference, Hesston, Kansas, August
6 Alice Kauffman Gingerich interview with John E. Sharp, Scottdale,
7 Report to the Mennonite General Conference, Allensville, Pa., August
23-25, 1939, p. 28.
8 Thiesen, John D., Mennonite
Historical Bulletin, October 2002, p. 8.
9 Wenger, J.C. editor, Mennonite
Historical Bulletin, April 1949, p. 1.
"God calls us to preserve our faith heritage, to interpret our stories,
and to proclaim God's work among us."