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Historical Committee


Back to The Anabaptist Vision Page


History of The Anabaptist Vision
By Albert N. Keim


The Anabaptist Vision is legendary among North American Mennonites, as is its author, Harold S. Bender (1897-1962). The Vision gave Mennonites a respectable history and a useful theology during time of crisis. For all its formative influence, its creation and delivery were inauspicious-a small detail in Bender's frenetic schedule. Albert Keim, who has since written a major biography of Bender, describes the creation and presentation of the speech, which was later printed and read widely. jes

As the stout black-clad chairman opened the meeting with a brisk prayer, he gave the appearance of a middle-aged priest. His receding hairline, dark eyes, strong nose and a mouth that smiled easily conveyed a sense of congenial intelligence, the personality of a good parish priest. But the coat was Mennonite, and its wearer was Harold S. Bender, dean and acting president of Goshen College. At that moment he was the presiding president of the fifty-fifth meeting of the American Society of Church History.

The place of the meeting was Room 104 in Milbank Chapel at Columbia University in New York City. It was 3:20 in the afternoon on Tuesday, December 28, 1943. The meeting began twenty minutes late because the train Bender was traveling on from Indiana arrived late in New York, a not unusual occurrence under the conditions of wartime travel. Travel during that week after Christmas was even worse than usual because the railroad unions were threatening a strike to get higher overtime pay.

By the time Harold arrived in New York City, Roosevelt had ordered the army to take over the railroads. There would be no strike. Actually Bender was fortunate to be at the meeting. It was only at the last minute that a Pullman berth became available, and his twenty-hour rail journey to New York became possible.

As presiding officer, Bender's first order of business was the sad announcement of the death of Dr. Thomas Clinton Pears, Jr., just 48 hours earlier. Pears, from Philadelphia, had been the long-time secretary of the society. The 25 members present then elected Professor Matthew Spinka to be acting secretary. After several other items of business, two papers were read. The most engaging paper was by David M. Cory on "The Religious History of the Mohawk and Oneida Tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy." Interspersed during the reading of the paper were a number of songs in the Iroquois language sung by two members of the Iroquois tribe. It provided a colorful accent to the otherwise decorous proceedings of the society meeting.

At seven o'clock the Society held its annual dinner at the Columbia University Men's Faculty Club. The address of the outgoing president of the society followed the dinner. Harold Bender entitled his address The Anabaptist Vision. The 30-minute speech was followed by what the minutes described as "a very lively discussion which would have undoubtedly continued much longer were it not for lack of time, for President Bender had to leave soon afterwards by plane to attend a meeting in Chicago." [1]

As president, Bender also chaired the Council of the American Society of Church History. The council was the governing body of the church history society. At the conclusion of the presidential address the council retired to one of the Men's Faculty Club chambers for their annual meeting. Bender presided. Only six of the ten members of the Council were present. Acting secretary Spinka reported on memberships. During the year membership had declined slightly.

Total membership was 369. Included in the membership were Mennonites Cornelius Krahn, C. Henry Smith, and Harold's two colleagues on the Mennonite Quarterly Review editorial board, Robert Friedmann and Ernst Correll. The previous year John C. Wenger had resigned his membership and Guy Hershberger had been dropped from the rolls for failure to pay society dues.

New council members were elected, Harold being one of them. He was also appointed chair of the committee on program and local arrangements for the 1944 meeting in Chicago. The other members of his committee were University of Chicago Professors Sidney Mead and Wilhelm Pauck. In his last action as President Bender appointed his friend Roland Bainton to preside at the meeting of the society the next day.

That done he caught a taxi to LaGuardia Field and boarded a plane for Cleveland, where sometime after midnight he caught the train to Chicago. Just after lunch, at 12:30 he was at his place as secretary of the executive committee of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in one of the conference rooms at the Atlantic Hotel, ready for a day and a half of intense meetings dealing with the burgeoning Civilian Public Service program. [2]

In the busy, hectic life of Harold Bender in 1943, the 42-hour dash to New York City was a minor episode. During the Fall of 1943 he served as acting president of Goshen College in addition to being dean while the president of the college, Ernest Miller, attended Princeton Seminary.

As chair of the Mennonite Peace Problems Committee he was preoccupied with the growing criticism coming from conservatives in the church regarding the Civilian Public Service (CPS) program. He was also in charge of the educational program at the CPS camps, which required frequent travel to CPS locations. As secretary of MCC he carried on a huge correspondence. And he was editor of the Mennonite Quarterly Review. Somehow he also found time to teach two courses.

In the midst of such a maelstrom of activity it is no wonder that Bender was able to give very little time to the writing of The Anabaptist Vision. As late as December 16, less than two weeks before it was to be given, it had not been written. [3] When he finally got to the writing, he wrote it in just a few days. His wife Elizabeth Horsch Bender remembered that she "was just amazed how he got that whole thing done and ready to give ... in no time at all: two or three days." [4]

In the rush of preparation he did not take time to do the careful source citations the essay required. Because the annual presidential address was published in Church History, Bender had to go back and insert the necessary research apparatus. Sometime in January 1944 a Goshen College student saw Harold and Elizabeth and John C. Wenger sitting at the long table in the Historical Library at the college surrounded by great mounds of books, intently searching for references. The student remembered John C. Wenger's gleeful chuckle as he announced "I've found another one." [5] They were busy preparing The Anabaptist Vision for publication.

Thus the classic and seminal essay in Mennonite history was created. Written in haste, read to a tiny audience of less than 20 academicians, none of whom were Mennonite, in a richly paneled dining room at an Ivy League University in the heart of New York City, Harold Bender could not have imagined what his presidential address would ultimately become, nor guessed how powerful its influence would be, both on the world of Anabaptist scholarship and on the self-understanding of his own people, the Mennonites. He did not know that he had produced a classic.


Concepts of The Anabaptist Vision

Bender began the essay by acknowledging what most church historians accepted as true in 1943; the seeds of modem religious liberty were planted by the Anabaptists. But, he argued, religious liberty was not the true essence of Anabaptism. Rather "Anabaptism is the culmination of the Reformation, the fulfillment of the original vision of Luther and Zwingli, and thus makes it a consistent evangelical Protestantism seeking to recreate without compromise the original New Testament church." [6] The Anabaptists "retained the original vision of Luther and Zwingli, enlarged it, gave it body and form, and set out to achieve it in actual experience." [7]

The content of the Vision was three-fold, said Bender. The key element was discipleship, "a concept which meant the transformation of the entire way of life of the individual believer and of society so that it should be
fashioned after the teachings and example of Christ..." The focus of the Christian life was not so much the inward experience of the grace of God, as it was for Luther, but the outward application of that grace to all human conduct." [8]

Second, the Vision embodied a new concept of the church. Bender put it this way: "Voluntary church
membership based upon true conversion and involving a commitment to holy living and discipleship was the absolutely essential heart of this concept." [9] He contrasted this with the acceptance by the reformers of the medieval mass church.

The third element of the Vision was the ethic of love and nonresistance applied, as he put it "to all human relationships." [10] He ended the essay with an action statement: "The Anabaptist vision was not a detailed blueprint for the reconstruction of human society, but the Brethren did believe that Jesus intended that the Kingdom of God should be set in the midst of the earth, here and now, and this they proposed to do forthwith. We shall not believe, they said, that the Sermon on the Mount or any other vision that He had is only a heavenly vision meant but to keep his followers in tension until the last great day, but we shall practise what He taught, believing that where He walked we can by His grace follow His steps." [11]


Formative Influences on the Development of The Anabaptist Vision Essay

How did Bender arrive at the concepts in The Anabaptist Vision address? Since the original address is not available we cannot determine how much the original differed from the published version, which appeared first in the March, 1944, issue of Church History, and then in the April Mennonite Quarterly Review. But since he did not spend two months of
intensive research in preparation--it was "dashed off" as Elizabeth put it--it serves as an accurate guage of Harold Bender's understanding of Anabaptism at an intuitive level. He wrote what was in his understanding at the time: a kind of condensation of what he believed and knew.

By 1943 Harold Bender had been working in the field of Anabaptist studies for 20 years, In 1923-24 he and Elizabeth Horsch Bender spent a year on a Princeton-sponsored fellowship in Europe at the University of Tiibingen. During that year he discovered the fertile possibilities of European Anabaptist sources. Invited to join the faculty of newly reopened Goshen College, Harold and Elizabeth returned in the Fall of 1924 with Ernst Correll in tow. Correll had just completed a Ph.D at the University of Munich under Ernst Troeltsch, where he had written about the economic situation of eighteenth century Swiss Mennonites.

Within a few months the two young faculty members, (Harold was 27, Correll 30) had founded the
Mennonite Historical Society, and announced ambitious plans to publish
a two volume work on Conrad Grebel, the first volume to be completed in 1925 to celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of Grebel's baptism and the beginnings of the Swiss Brethren. (It would actually be 1950, 25 years later before Bender's Grebel biography would be published.) In 1927 the two founded the Mennonite Quarterly Review with Harold as editor. The journal quickly established itself as the premier publication in Anabaptist studies, helped greatly by the prolific research and writing of his father-in- law, John Horsch. During that time Harold was also beginning the collection of Anabaptist sources which would make Goshen College, by 1943, the best center for Anabaptist research in America.

In 1930 and again in 1935 Harold studied at the University of Heidelberg, completing his dissertation on Grebel in one of those frantic Harold Bender efforts. In less than six weeks during June and July of 1935, working day and night, he wrote and typed, in German, the dissertation which got him his Ph.D. During the 1930's, interspersed with his college dean duties (he became dean of Goshen College in 1931) Bender published a number of installments of his Grebel research in the Mennonite Quarterly Review.

No great work of any kind can ever be separated from the individual who produces it. When Bender produced The Anabaptist Vision, it was not the work of an esoteric academician, but of a busy administrator and church leader. In 1943 the 46-year-old Bender was at the height of his powers, both
as a scholar and as a church leader. He was surely the ablest of the contemporary church leaders. Only Orie Miller matched him, but Orie lacked the intellectual acumen of Bender. What they shared, however, was an ability to straddle conservative-liberal issues. By the 1940's Harold had developed that ability into something of an art form.

Built on a foundation of complete commitment to the Mennonite church, and a readiness to give ground on non-essentials for the sake of basics, Bender was nearly always able to outflank his critics. The crisis which World War II created pushed Bender and Miller to the front and center of Mennonite leadership. The two together, Miller with his administrative genius, and Bender with his theological and intellectual prowess, out-matched every one else. CPS and the war emergency gave them the
scope and challenge they needed. For two decades--the 1940s and 1950s--they dominated Mennonite church affairs. The Anabaptist Vision could thrive in that environment.

Bender was not an original thinker, but he had a formidable ability to organize and digest large and complex bodies of information. The Anabaptist Vision must be understood in those terms, for it distilled not only Bender's ideas, but the ideas of those around him. Four persons had significant influence on the content of the Vision.

Harold Bender could not have become Harold Bender, but for the work of Elizabeth Horsch Bender. Her influence on the Vision was quite direct. In the summer of 1942 Elizabeth began work on her Master's degree at the University of Minnesota. Her topic was "The Mennonites in German Literature." She completed
the work and the degree in 1944. Harold, busy as he was, interested himself in the details of the research, even writing letters to help with her search for sources. [12] Her research revealed an enormous amount of misinformation about Anabaptists and Mennonites in literary sources.

Since she was writing the thesis during the fall and winter of 1943, her findings were fresh in Harold's mind and no doubt helped focus his concern to delineate the character of Anabaptism. In fact, Harold quoted a passage in the Vision borrowed from Elizabeth's brilliant essay in the July 1943, Mennonite Quarterly
Review, entitled "The Portrayal of The Swiss Anabaptists In Gottfried Keller's URSALA," in which Keller vilifies the Anabaptists. Bender borrowed Elizabeth's quotation of Keller as a kind of negative example of the "spirit of the Anabaptists." [13]

Guy F. Hershberger was present at the creation of the Anabaptist research focus at Goshen. He came to Goshen to teach in the fall of 1925 and was one of the founders of the Mennonite Quarterly Review and the Mennonite Historical Society. His field was American history (his dissertation was on the Quakers in Pennsylvania in the Colonial period). In the 1930s Bender as chair of the Mennonite Church's Peace Problems Committee authorized Hershberger to prepare a manuscript on nonresistance. For a variety of reasons the work was not completed until late 1943 (Hershberger wrote the preface in February 1944).

It is significant that two Mennonite classics, Hershberger's War, Peace, and Nonresistance and Bender's "The Anabaptist Vision," were being written during the fall of 1943 at Goshen. Bender read Hershberger's manuscript during late 1943 in preparation for its printing under the auspices of the Peace Problems Committee. Almost certainly Harold borrowed his opening quotation in the Vision, not from the original source, (Rufus Jones, Studies In Mystical Religion, 1909), but from Hershberger's War, Peace, and
Nonresistance
, page 305. It is also interesting that before the book went to the printers in early 1944
Hershberger completed his notating by citing The Anabaptist Vision, (from Church History and the Mennonite Quarterly Review) five times as authority for his statements in the text and in his bibliographies. [14]

John Horsch was Harold Bender's father-in-law. In the 1920s and 1930s
it was helpful to Harold to be John Horsch's son-in-law. It was a thin cover from conservative criticism, but it was a cover, nontheless.  Harold and John Horsch had a congenial relationship. Harold had a high regard for Horsch's scholarship, while wincing sometimes at his father-in-law's use of rhetorical sledgehammers in the heat of theological and historical combat. John Horsch died in October 1941 leaving the almost completed manuscript for Mennonites In Europe. Edward Yoder completed the editing and prepared it for publication.

Bender, as secretary of the Historical Committee of the Mennonite Church, proofread the completed manuscript, probably early in 1942. In five instances he borrows quotations from Anabaptist sources quoted in Horsch. [15] He also uses Anabaptist source quotations from articles Horsch wrote for the Mennonite Quarterly Review during the 1930s. [16] But the key term in the Vision, discipleship, never appears in Mennonites In Europe. Harold Bender borrowed heavily from his father-in-law, but he was also forging ahead into a new framework. Comparing Mennonites In Europe and The Anabaptist Vision is to compare two eras, one representing the previous 30 years; the other the next 30 years.

Another formative influence on Bender's Anabaptist understandings arrived at Goshen College in July, 1940, in the person of Robert Friedmann. The 49-year-old Friedmann, a Jewish Christian refugee from Vienna, quickly became Harold's best friend and closest collaborator in Anabaptist studies and research. Harold Bender brought Friedmann to Goshen to help organize and catalog the Mennonite Historical Library collection. The roughly 2,500 volumes of the Historical Library had just been brought to the basement floor of the new Memorial library and piled on stacks all over the floor. It was Friedmann's task to identify and catalog the collection, something he was eminently capable of and eager to do. More than anyone else, Friedmann would turn Harold's mind toward the search for the essence of Anabaptism.

Formative for Bender's emerging Anabaptist Vision was Friedmann's writing. Before being forced out of Vienna by the Nazis, Friedmann had begun a study of the relationship
between Anabaptism and Pietism. In 1940 he published a two-part series in the Mennonite Quarterly Review which summarized his findings. Of necessity he had to determine the essence of Anabaptism in order to compare it with Pietism. The essential difference Friedmann believed to lie in the Anabaptist stress on "Nachfolge Christi," which he translated discipleship. "Following Christ (Nachfolge Christi) that is a central word of the Anabaptists...," he wrote. "...this concept of discipleship demands a great and voluntary obedience in thought and deed..." [17]

Even more important was Friedmann's essay published in Church History in 1940. The essay was entitled "Conception of The Anabaptists." [18] In The Anabaptist Vision essay, Bender followed that article more closely than any other. Friedmann began the article by describing what Anabaptists did not stand for. They were not "Schwarmer" as labelled by Luther. They were not eschatological rebels. They were not antitrinitarians. Nor could they be defined by what Roland Bainton called "Left Wing Protestantism." (Bainton was writing the article so captioned at the same time as Friedmann was writing his, and he let Friedmann see it before publication.) Bainton stressed adult baptism and separation of church and state as the key marks of the "Left Wing." [19]

At the center of Friedmann's essay was a review of Toleranze und Offenbarung by Johannes Kuhn published in 1923. Whether Bender read Kuhn during his year at Tubingen is not known, but there is evidence that he may have. Friedmann argued that Kuhn for the first time gave Anabaptism "equal rank" with other church movements in history, and Kuhn highlighted five types of Protestantism. The third type Kuhn identified as "tauferishe Nachfolge," Anabaptist discipleship.

"Nachfolge," Friedmann believed, means to live in the spirit of the Gospel. In essence discipleship means love and the cross. Love meant brotherhood, social community, and even as in the Hutterites, community of goods. But love often led to the cross. Suffering thus becomes the unavoidable fate of the true Christian on earth. Kuhn, claimed Friedmann, had delineated the essence of Anabaptism. Bender would have read this essay and certainly discussed it at length with Friedmann, who was laboring to get Goshen College's historical library organized.

In 1942 Friedmann read an address at the Mennonite Cultural Conference entitled "The Anabaptist Genius And Its Influence On Mennonites Today." The point of the article was that in the crisis of World War II, Mennonites could benefit from what he called the "old" spirit of the fathers. Friedmann's main point will become a key point in The Anabaptist Vision; that the reformers stopped, as Friedmann put it, "halfway."
They failed to follow their convictions to the end. Unlike the reformers, Friedmann argued, the Anabaptists pursued the intent of the Reformation to its conclusion and the results were what he called "a Christian revolution." [20]

                     
The Anabaptist Vision and History

The Anabaptist Vision has been criticized as a one-dimensional description of Anabaptism. Bender's mind liked sharply drawn silhouettes. So did his contemporary Mennonites. Searching for the essence of a thing is of necessity an exercise in simplification. Bender's Anabaptist Vision was such an exercise, and is both its strength and weakness.

Kenneth Davis has commented that Bender did not give much credence to other than religious factors as explanations for Anabaptism. To a large degree that was a product of his own research, focused as it was on Conrad Grebel and the Swiss Brethren. Economic, political and sociological phenomena were not in the range of his work. He was quite interested in such matters, but in his relatively narrow-focused research he had neither the time nor the training to pursue such concerns. The Swiss Brethren material he had mastered
was virtually all religious. Kenneth Davis believes Bender used the theological and historical material at his disposal with great skill. But he did not nuance the implications very successfully. [21]

Recent historians of Anabaptism have disputed Bender's assertion that Anabaptism was simply the "culmination" of the Reformation. Walter Klaassen's Anabaptism: Neither Catholic Nor Protestant
(1973) is a case in point. Bender found the "culmination of the Reformation" argument attractive for two reasons. It helped give Anabaptism legitimacy in the eyes of academic historians, and in the Vision Bender predicted that it was "destined to dominate the field."

In the second place, it pleased contemporary Mennonites, nonresistants uneasy in the midst of a world war. Being the heirs of principled reformers rather than religious heretics was good news. Mennonites were reassured; they were also Protestants, though with a difference.

Denny Weaver has helpfully pointed out that Bender believed in the popularly held "tripartite division of history." There was an original "golden" age, followed by a "dark" age. The third stage is the era of the "recovery" of the qualities of the original age. Bender's portrait of the Swiss Brethren in the Vision is of such a golden era. The Swiss Brethren were pristine biblicists and heroic martyrs (the Vision has a long section on their heroism as a persecuted minority).

The obvious point of the Vision for Bender's people is the need and the opportunity to recapture the original vitality of Anabaptism. [22] There is a vast amount of commentary on The Anabaptist Vision, much of if revisionist in nature. It is not possible in the scope of this essay to review that material. [23]


Concluding Comments

Where did Bender get his title? In his previous writing he hardly ever used the term "Vision." But the
success of the essay must have impressed him, for by October, 1944, in his brief inaugural address as the new dean of the Goshen College Bible School he will use the term vision frequently. The title of the essay, "The Anabaptist Vision," was certainly felicitous. Ponder such titles as "The Anabaptist Idea," or "The Essence of Anabaptism," or even "The Spirit Of Anabaptism." I doubt that Harold Bender spent much time searching for a "marketable" title. But the title captures, in a profound way, both the spirit and the content of the essay.

It has been the purpose of this paper to reenact the writing of The Anabaptist Vision essay. In 1943
Harold Bender was ready to write The Anabaptist Vision. But it might well have become just another forgotten American Society of Church History presidential address. It was not forgotten because the times were ripe for its message and meaning. Another paper will be needed to describe that fullness of time.


Albert N. Keirn, professor of history at Eastern Mennonite College in Virginia, was at this time writing a biography of Harold S. Bender. The above essay is the text of an address Keim gave to the Mennonite Church Historical Association meeting July 29, 1993, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


Mennonite Historical Bulletin, October 1993, pp. 1-7.

 
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