Book Review: Harold
By Stanley Shenk
Albert N. Keim has written a
quality biography of the major Mennonite Church leader of the
20th century. Its subject, Harold S. Bender, was outsized. Bender
was "an event--a human phenomenon of unique dimension,"
to quote Robert Friedmann. He had great intellectual power, earnest
commitment to Christ and the Church, thorough study under some
of the best theologians of his era, unusual ability to work with
(or around) a variety of personalities, practical committee skills,
special loyalty to his Anabaptist heritage, vast physical energy
and capacity for work, and an intense drive to achieve and excel.
These are power phrases, of course, but I am writing of an astonishing
Before going farther, let us look at Harold Bender, the man.
What kind of person was he? Yes, he was gifted, a bear for work,
an achiever. But what else? Perhaps the question can best be
answered by a mix of anecdote and assertion.
The five-year-old son of Joe Richards had a problem. He had just
left kindergarten at the College Mennonite Church (Goshen) and
was heading home. Before him was a busy highway, and his father
was late in meeting him. The boy got across safely. Later Joe
asked him how he had managed it. The answer was immediate: "That
man who lives in the corner house .. . . he knew my name and
helped me across the street." That man? H.S. Bender.
To write more personally: when a well-meaning Christian brother
learned in 1943 that I was going to Goshen College, he advised
me pointedly: "You look out for Harold Bender. He's slick!"
That fall and winter I had five courses under Bender. I watched
. . . and listened . . . and decided he was the greatest teacher
I had ever had. Nor did I find him "slick."
Harold Bender was not famous for public expressions of humor.
But there were exceptions. One April 1st he suddenly announced
a quiz to a startled class, but then followed with "April
In 1944 I was a student in his General Church History class,
and he was lecturing on the concept of eternal punishment, as
held by the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. He spoke
of Limbo I, Limbo II, Purgatory, and Hell. Innocently and with
real curiosity, I raised my hand and asked, "Brother Bender,
according to the Roman Catholic view in the Middle Ages, where
would I, as a non-Catholic, go--to Limbo I or Limbo II?"
Bender's instant answer: "You go to Hell."
Bedlam ensued. Students rocked and bellowed with laughter, held
their sides, blew their noses, and then started laughing again.
H.S. just looked on and grinned. It was not typical language
for our professor, but I had given him an opening wider than
a barn door. He couldn't resist, and walked right in.
Twenty-five years later, I told the story to Elizabeth Horsch
Bender, the wonderful woman and scholarly collaborator who was
his widow. She laughed richly, and then said, "Harold had
a great sense of humor." She probably knew--better than
The biography reveals Bender as a man of simple, unashamed, warm
piety. Peter Dyck, who traveled with him in relief work in post-World
War II Europe, recalled that "each evening, without fail,
Bender read a passage of Scripture and kneeled by his bedside
for audible prayer." Probably no one who was at the final
session of the 1962 Mennonite World Conference in Kitchner, Ontario,
has forgotten Bender's closing prayer: "Yes, Great Jehovah,
guide us, lead us, until some day we shall hear the welcome applaud:
'Come home, thou beloved of the Lord, thou servant of mine, and
dwell in the house of the Lord forever.'" At the time, Bender
was struggling with cancer of the pancreas; less than seven weeks
later, he was dead.
In the book's first 200 pages, Keim skillfully handles Bender's
early experiences--invaluable background for understanding his
super-busy later years. The key elements include Bender's childhood
and youth in the Prairie Street Congregation in Elkhart, Indiana;
his achievements in high school and at Goshen College (Class
of 1918); meeting at Goshen his future wife, Elizabeth Horsch;
and early teaching. Perhaps essential in this portion of the
biography is the account of Bender's formulation of what turned
out to be lifelong goals.
While engaged in graduate theological studies at Princeton in
1922, Bender received a letter from his friend, Noah Oyer. In
it was a question: "What are the present urgent needs for
In his reply, Bender listed seven: "A sense of mission,
a genuine vital and normal religious experience, a sense of stewardship
of life and talents, and a deeper sense of the simple NT gospel,
a simple piety, the doctrine of love in all affairs of men and
nations, and an absolute loyalty to all the teachings of Christ."
The primary way to meet these seven needs, Bender added, was
"a trained leadership and a trained ministry." Keim's
incisive next two sentences: "The 26-year-old Bender had
found his life calling. He would devote the next forty years
to carrying out the basic program he described to Noah Oyer in
Keim proceeds to describe Harold and Elizabeth Bender's considered
acceptance in 1924 of a call to teach at the re-opened Goshen
College, despite the conservative-progressive disputes that had
caused its closing for one year. "Easing Harold's difficulties,"
Keim relates, "was the fact that he was predisposed to be
cautious: he received no satisfaction from rocking the boat.
He was in fact theologically orthodox and conservative."
On Sept. 17, 1924, Harold Bender began his 38 years of service
at Goshen, and, as Keim illustrates, his pivotal leadership through
all the changes in Mennonite, American, and world culture that
marked the ensuing decades. As Keim has well said, "Bender
became a leader . . . because the times demanded a leader and
because his particular qualities of personality and character
commended him to his people."
What were Harold Bender's main achievements? Even an incomplete
answer would have to include at least the nine points listed
- As dean of Goshen College (1931-44),
Bender stimulated and presided over changes that included new
curricula, accreditation, a greater emphasis on our heritage,
and an expanded enrollment.
- Just prior to and during World
War II, he was the key figure in planning and bringing to fruition
an alternative service program.
- Beginning in the 1920s he was
the chief stimulus of a tremendous increase in Anabaptist studies.
- His "Anabaptist Vision"
address, given in 1943 to the American Society of Church History
and later issued as a booklet, expressed the essence (or something
close to it) of 16th-century Anabaptism. It constituted a dynamic
statement of Mennonite belief and action--and became a rallying
cry for his people.
- His leadership of the Goshen
College Biblical Seminary from 1944 until his death in 1962 was
perhaps the most important single element in the Mennonite (MC)
shift toward a trained ministry.
- Through his unique worldwide
acquaintance with Mennonite leaders and his involvement in Mennonite
World Conferences from 1936 to 1962, he was our greatest exponent
of Mennonite ecumenicitity.
- He founded in 1927 The Mennonite
Quarterly Review, and later conceived and carried through
the enormous Mennonite Encyclopedia project--two scholarly
undertakings that have received high praise from a variety of
- He redefined the core of contemporary
Mennonitism from a somewhat stationary or inactive faith in Christ
combined with obedience or holiness of life, to the Anabaptist
dynamism of "Nachfolge Christi" (earnest discipleship,
- To quote Keim, "Harold
Bender helped to create the institutions and the theology which
carried Mennonites through perhaps their most pervasive transformation
since the sixteenth century," the transition from the 1920s
through the early 1960s.
Harold Bender also had his share
of minus factors. Perhaps the biggest was that he never really
learned the important managerial skill of delegating authority.
He tended to micromanage.
He could be impatient and arrogant. In the mid-'20s, via a book
review, he made "a devastating and intemperate attack on
a fellow Mennonite scholar," J.E. Hartzler.
He freely dispensed advice to a number of his students on a great
variety of things--from social graces (he once mentioned to me,
while in my living room, that when seated one should always have
at least one foot flat on the floor), to where to do graduate
work, to where to serve, to, on occasion, who would be a good
date partner. Much of the above was insightful and appreciated.
Some, however, was resented.
He tried to do too much; his workload was almost unbelievable.
At one point in 1957, he had no fewer than 14 major assignments.
While he did significant writing, both scholarly and popular,
he made manuscript promises that he couldn't fulfill. But what
Bender did achieve was phenomenal. It has been wryly noted that
he tried to do the work of five men, but failed; he could only
do as much as four and a half.
Keim praises Bender at many points, but like the good historian
and writer that he is, avoids idolizing him. The appeal and achievements
of H.S.B. are here. So are the warts--perhaps too many for a
few readers, perhaps not enough for others.
Any critical comments? A few. The book's index is incomplete.
C.F. Klassen, "a near-legendary figure in the Mennonite
world," receives six page references; I counted 15 in the
book. The great Christian Neff has five page index references;
I saw at least 13. Orie O. Miller is given 13 index citations;
I counted nearly 50 throughout the text. J.R. Mumaw and George
H. Williams do not appear in the index at all.
Bender is emphasized (and rightly so) in relation to the great
Mennonite World Conferences of Basel (1952) and Kitchener (1962),
but only three or four passing references are made to the 1957
Karlsruhe World Conference. There, too, Bender was a prominent
Perhaps the chief criticism is that too little is said about
Bender's personal or private life. In fact, in Keim's splendid
six-page epilogue, it is stated that "his public life became
all-consuming. It is thus no accident that a biography of Harold
Bender is almost entirely the life of a public man." But
this was only partly true. Many allusions (and, yes, some good
descriptions) are given of his family life, trips, friends, and
other special interests. I wish more such detail had been included.
But it is easy to criticize omissions. No book can say it all.
As it is, the text of this volume runs to 528 pages, and these
are both scholarly and readable. Albert Keim, a longtime history
teacher at Eastern Mennonite University, has written on a variety
of subjects; with this volume, he steps to the forefront of Mennonite
biographical writing, giving us, in Harold S. Bender,
Harold Bender is available from Herald Press,
Scottdale, PA, 1998, $23.99 (paper).
Stanley Shenk is
retired from teaching Bible at Goshen College.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, January 1999
and maintained by John E. Sharp
updated 7 September 1999