The Effects of an
MC-GC Merger on
Archives and Historical Activities
by John D. Thiesen
How would a Mennonite Church-General Conference Mennonite
Church merger affect historical activities? Given the impending
vote at Wichita 95, this is an important question. First I'll
describe the current situation in Mennonite historical activities,
then list some principles or axioms that could guide us in moving
toward a new structure for historical activities, and then describe
what I think a new historical network would look like and some
of the challenges facing it in the near future.
The current situation
The Mennonite Church has a denomination-wide, bi-national Historical
Committee with a fairly large budget. This committee reports
to the MC General Board and runs the archives in Goshen, in addition
to doing more general promotional and educational activities
concerning church history. There is also a "Mennonite Church
Historical Association" which operates out of the archives
in Goshen, a membership organization for those interested in
MC historical activities. It publishes the Mennonite Historical
The Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen is separate from the
archives and is not under the MC Historical Committee. Rather,
it is under the auspices of the college and seminary. There is
also a Mennonite Historical Society operating out of the seminary
and college context, whose purposes and membership seem to have
been somewhat unclear over the years. Certainly, it seems to
be in flux now.
On the General Conference side, there has been a denomination-wide
historical committee off and on over the years. The last one
was eliminated by budget cuts. I was appointed as the GC participant/observer
to the MC Historical Committee after the GC committee's demise.
The General Conference has its archives and historical library
combined in the Mennonite Library and Archives at Bethel College.
The college operates the Mennonite Library and Archives for the
General Conference under a memo of understanding. The budget
for the archives, and for the historical committee when it still
existed, came from the Commission on Education rather than the
GC General Board or Division of Administration.
The GCs in Canada, the Conference of Mennonites in Canada, has
a History/Archives Committee and their official archives at Canadian
Mennonite Bible College in Winnipeg. Their budget is about twice
as large as the budget for the binational GC archives at Bethel
College. The provincial area conferences generally don't have
To turn away from denominational bureaucracies, we are seeing
an explosion of local and regional Mennonite historical organizations.
A quick check of the Mennonite Yearbook shows that about
half of all the historical societies, archives, and museums listed
have originated in the last 20 years. The Yearbook listing
is by no means complete, either. The last 4 or 5 years have seen
a real spate of such new organizations: Nebraska, Michiana, Cumberland
Valley. There have also been reorganizations and revitalizations;
in California, the Mennonite Brethren Historical Society of the
West Coast was reformed into the California Mennonite Historical
This last example illustrates the fact that many such local and
regional organizations are inter-Mennonite, sometimes aggressively
so. At the denominational level, the GC and MC committees worked
on several cooperative projects and tried to organize some exchange
of committee members and attendance at each other's meetings.
I'm the remnant of that intention. There has also been such interaction
with the Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission. I think there
was even a 3-way meeting in Goshen once, GC, MC, and MB. The
MC committee plans to meet with the MB committee on the West
Coast in May.
Now I want to propose several principles or axioms that could
guide the planning of historical activities in the merger era.
Principles for Historical Activities in the Merger
First of all, we want to have a historical committee and
archives. I don't know if I should comment on this, but I've
heard an oral tradition among MCs that in 1971, with the change
from a "general conference" to a "general assembly,"
the historical committee was deliberately left out of the plan
of the new organization; it was put back in by floor action at
the conference that approved the reorganization. Whether or not
this is really true, we don't want something like that to happen
now. Furthermore, we don't want to have a historical committee
and archives without a budget.
I don't know exactly how we go about impressing on the denominational
bureaucracies what we want. We certainly haven't been successful
on the GC side. I think the big push is going to have to come
from the MC side and from the MC Historical Committee in particular.
Second, I think we want to rock the boat as little as possible.
We don't want to throw all the papers in the archives up in the
air and see where they come down, so to speak. This principle
has consequences mostly for the archives: I don't think it's
a good use of resources to move archival records around geographically
as a result of integration; I don't think we want to close any
archives; and I don't think we want to reduce the budget of the
historical committee or any of the archives. Indeed, to reduce
the current budgets of the archives would be equivalent to closing
A New Historical Network
So what would a merged Mennonite historical system look like
and what things -- both new and old -- would it do?
First, from the denominational bureaucracy viewpoint, I think
historical activities will end up at the national rather than
the binational or continental level. I think the trend toward
nationalization is pretty much inevitable. What I'm going to
say here is fairly generic, so it could apply to both the U.S.
and Canada, but since the dominant Canadian Mennonite denomination
already has an active history/Archives committee, what I'm going
to say is mostly directed at the U.S. situation.
We should have a historical committee that reports to the General
Board at the national level. It should be placed under the General
Board rather than elsewhere in the organization chart (remember
the GC committee was under the Commission on Education) because
the Historical Committee has two functions, or major groups of
functions. They are 1) records management and 2) history education.
Neither of these two functions should overshadow the other. In
MC and GC historical committees in the past, for example, the
records management function -- developing archival and library
holdings, gathering obscure 16th-century sources for the scholars
to use -- was the dominant activity. In the present, I think
the temptation is the opposite. Both functions are necessary
and interdependent. Without some kind of interpretation to a
wider audience, the records in the archives are not of much use;
but the foundation of such history interpretation to the church
at large is the documents in the archives. You can't really have
one without the other.
Now some more detail about what I foresee for each of these two
functions: I think we can plan for a regionalization of archives;
we, in fact, already have it. Certain archives would be officially
sponsored by the historical committee; initially these would
be at Goshen and Bethel, although I think in the long run there
would be others, especially farther to the East and West. The
archives that officially relate to the historical committee would
receive part of their budget from the committee; in effect, this
is a continuation of the situation we have now. I envision these
archives as each being located at one of the Mennonite schools
(not necessarily at the colleges, since in Oregon, for example,
we might eventually have a committee-funded archives at Western
Mennonite School) and would receive additional funding from the
school and be operated by the school. The schools are used to
hiring academic, professional personnel and could easily manage
each of the archives in connection with their existing libraries.
Such local management would be easier than trying to manage regional
archives by long-distance from a centrally located historical
committee office. Each archives/historical library would be governed
by a board representing three constituencies: the historical
committee, the school where it is located, and local users (such
as local historical societies and area conferences). I would
expect that each archives would get funding from all three of
these constituencies, with a major emphasis on endowment-based
There will probably be some policies that would apply to all
of the archives sponsored by the historical committee. Certainly
the effort to maintain professional archival and library standards
and practices will be enforced by the committee; but each archives
will need to be responsive to local conditions. For example,
at Bethel we have acquired a number of local records that are
not particularly Mennonite (for example, the papers of a local
non-Mennonite poet), simply because there is no active non-Mennonite
archives in our area to take responsibility. If we didn't keep
these records, they would simply be destroyed. A governing board
like I have described could balance the universal and local interests
and funding sources.
There are certain tasks and challenges the various archives could
face together, coordinated by the Historical Committee. For example,
we need to be more active with the various Mennonite organizations,
to offer a service to them in keeping their records of long-term
value, and to challenge them to good stewardship of their records.
We need to do some common advertising to educate the public --
individuals and families -- about what archives do and how we
can help them -- to challenge families to preserve the many significant
documents they have. We need to create a way to help train and
educate persons who are archivists for regional and local historical
societies, for congregations, or for Mennonite agencies who choose
to keep their own records. We all will face a serious challenge
in the next couple of decades with the growing use of electronic
documents -- even by individuals -- and the growing expectation
of archives users that everything -- no matter how obscure--should
be available instantaneously on-line. The archives are beginning
to be connected via the Internet already. There is also a Mennonite
listserver or discussion group on the Internet. These are some
of the things we could do together.
The second major function of the historical committee is and
will be education. This is the hard one. How do we do this successfully?
This is not a problem just for educating people about history,
but for other subjects as well. It seems to me that there is
a general decline of interest in Mennonite churches in all sorts
of things, not just church history, but doctrine, ethics, and
Bible knowledge. It sometimes seems that there are fewer and
fewer people in the church who are literate enough or educated
enough to have an interest in learning about anything.
In spite of being pessimistic, there are a couple of comments
I want to make about our educational task. First, I think we
should be concerned about teaching church history generally,
not just Mennonite history, certainly not just 16th century Anabaptist
history, but the whole story of the church from the first century
down through the stories of the church in non-European countries
today, encompassing the whole spectrum of Orthodox, Catholic,
Protestant, and other versions of Christianity.
Second, we probably need to move more aggressively and creatively
into new media: video, computer-based multimedia, and the like.
These things get a lot of totally unjustified hype these days,
and they have their definite weaknesses, but this is an area
that history education needs to be more aware of.
Third, we need to have history education linked closely to Christian
education generally. What we often have now is history education
in its own little box, and then Christian education about the
Bible and so on is a whole separate world. These things need
to be together, which means that the Historical Committee in
its education activities needs to work closely with whatever
agency is developing educational resources for the church on
these other subjects.
I've noted the two tasks of the historical committee: records
management and education, but there is one other area I want
to mention. Most of the local and regional Mennonite history
organizations are broadly inter-Mennonite; they include everyone
interested in Mennonite history. They are pointing the direction
for the future. A new Historical Committee after an MC-GC merger
will not exist in isolation. It will need to work consciously
on cooperation with other persons and organizations interested
in Mennonite history.
One model that comes to mind is something called the Lutheran
Historical Conference. I don't know a great deal about it, but
I do know that this is a group that brings Lutherans together
across their intra-Lutheran divisions (which are much more bitter
than Mennonite divisions) in the interests of historical activity.
They have, I think, an annual meeting, and some on-going programs.
We probably need to move toward some kind of well-organized inter-Mennonite
historical activity. There is currently no national or binational,
inter-Mennonite historical society. This is a direction we need
to explore further.
I'm somewhat nervous about the Mennonite future. The example
of the Dutch Mennonites is perhaps a warning. In 1700 there 160,000
Mennonites in the Netherlands; in 1808 there were only 27,000,
a decline of 83 percent. In other words, Mennonites almost disappeared
from that country in the course of one century. Sometimes I wonder
if we are just on the verge of a similar kind of experience.
Do we have so much assimilation to society at large that we are
getting collective amnesia, that we're forgetting who we are?
I don't mean assimilation in externals, but in mental attitudes
and beliefs. Collective amnesia is common to society at large;
many Americans are completely ignorant of their history, whether
it be personal or national. Mennonites are becoming much the
Our challenge is to maintain some kind of identity that reaches
beyond mere external signs to attitudes and beliefs.
--John Thiesen presented this paper at the conference on
"The Experience of Mennonite Women" in Harleysville,
PA, Oct. 22, 1994. He is archivist of the Mennonite Library and
Archives, Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, July, 1995