The Mennonite Church and Homosexuality

In the late 1960s and 1970s the question of the appropriate response to homosexuality arose among Christian denominations in North America, including the Mennonites. Prior to that era it was accepted with little discussion that homosexual people were to be excluded from the church community. In 1969 same-sex sexual activity was decriminalized in Canada through legislation introduced in 1967 by then justice minister Pierre Trudeau. By 1982 Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms protected homosexual persons against legal discrimination, and this was even more explicitly stated by the Canadian Supreme Court in 1995. In 2005 the Canadian Parliament legalized same-sex marriage. These and other national legal changes forced all religious groups to clarify and restate, or modify, their previous understanding on homosexuality. Mennonites were no different.

For conservative and Old Order Mennonite and Amish groups in Ontario and elsewhere these legal changes did not alter their previous understandings. Homosexual behavior continued to be punished as contrary to teachings in the Bible, and homosexual persons were expelled from congregations. Most typically, homosexual persons would “voluntarily” leave the community, often with great pain. Some conservative denominations permitted membership for a person with a homosexual orientation if the individual lived a celibate life.

Brethen Mennonite Council symbolConversations about homosexuality within the more assimilated (i.e. “mainline”) Mennonite denominations like Mennonite Church Canada and the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches began in the 1970s. This also occurred in the USA. The Brethren/Mennonite Council for Lesbian and Gay Concerns (BMC, now Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests) formed in 1976 to advocate for gay and lesbian persons in the Mennonite and Church of the Brethren denominations and to encourage greater dialogue within the church. More recently, beginning in 2008, a Pink Menno campaign was launched, primarily focused on Mennonite Church USA in an effort to create more openness.

Martin Rock

Martin Rock, founder of BMC. Source: BMC oral history project

BMC did not have a regional chapter in Ontario until 1984. Its first overt activity in Ontario took place at the Mennonite Church’s 1979 biannual general assembly held at the University of Waterloo and known as Waterloo ’79. On the BMC representative’s first day at the conference he discovered an “assembly line” at Conrad Grebel College tearing a page out of a large stack of songbooks. It was #91 in Sing and Rejoice!, which was to be the hymnbook for the conference. The third verse of that hymn said “Praising God is the privilege of all; Black and white, straight and gay, old and young, short and tall.” An

Sing-and-Rejoice

The offending line in Sing and Rejoice!

Ontario Mennonite had complained about the verse, followed by pressure from congregational leaders. Rough censorship was the immediate solution for the general assembly, and the third verse was omitted in later printings of the songbook. Later in the meetings a BMC member was prevented from circulating a small brochure on What is the appropriate Christian Response to Homosexuality. This was the beginning of a decades-long series of unsuccessful BMC attempts to have exhibit space or formal recognition at Mennonite Church delegate sessions.

By the early 1980s Mennonite and other Protestant church bodies began to issue formal statements, sometimes after lengthy study processes. A number of works by Mennonite academics also appeared for use by congregations. The debate, as with the earlier issue of accepting divorced and remarried members, was over how to interpret key biblical passages, especially the New Testament passages of Romans 1:24–27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10.

Those pleading for welcoming gays and lesbians argued these passages addressed cultural issues faced by Christians in the first century that were not equivalent to late 20th-century sexuality issues. Those who wished to retain barriers against homosexual behavior said these Biblical passages were timeless in application and self-evident in meaning. People on both sides also expressed strongly held contrary views on the causes of an individual’s homosexual orientation and whether that orientation could be changed through therapy.

The earliest Mennonite statement explicitly on homosexuality and the church, by the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (1981), suggested that homosexual activity was sinful, but that homosexual orientation was not. All subsequent resolutions by Mennonite denominational bodies took essentially the same stance, including those by the General Conference Mennonite Church (1986), Mennonite Church (1987), Conservative Mennonite Conference (1995), Conference of Mennonites in Canada (1998), and the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (2004). The confessions of faith of all Mennonite denominations have continued to support this view up to 2017.

Notwithstanding the official denominational positions, a growing number of voices advocated the acceptance into the church of gay and lesbian Christians who were living in same-sex relationships. These calls primarily occurred within the binational Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church. These denominational bodies eventually restructured as Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada between 1999 and 2001. Sometimes these growing voices of acceptance included entire congregations that publicly welcomed gay and lesbian persons in relationships to full participation in the church, and identified as publicly “welcoming” congregations. Two MCEC congregations that joined the Supporting Congregations Network quite early were the Warden Woods (Toronto) and the Olive Branch (Kitchener-Waterloo) congregations, though both of these congregations later closed.

One Ontario example of welcoming ministry to the LGBTQ community concerned Ron Lentz, a nurse and Mennonite from Pennsylvania. He came to Canada in the 1970s and contracted AIDS in 1982. He was fired from the Toronto Western Hospital for having AIDS, but later won reinstatement through a legal challenge. He helped to found an AIDS drop in center in 1987 described as “a blend of Alcoholics Anonymous and Mennonite Community principles.” His December 1988 death was remembered in a January 1989 service at the Danforth Mennonite Church in Toronto.

Welcoming congregational initiatives generated several, sometimes contradictory, types of response within denominations. In a number of Mennonite Church USA area conferences it resulted in the expulsion of the congregations from the area conference (and the denomination). Expulsion occurred also in Canada, but less frequently. No Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC) congregations in Ontario were expelled for their openness to full membership and participation by gays and lesbians, partly because of a concerted effort of Mennonite Church Canada and MCEC leadership to maintain  dialogue between the interpretive factions. The dialogue approach by these leaders, however, caused some more conservative Mennonite Church Canada congregations, particularly in western Canada, to withdraw from the denomination.

Since 2000 there has been acceleration, both in the pace of interpretive change and theological tension,  within both Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada. Two Mennonite Church USA area conferences have authorized ministerial credentials for gay or lesbian pastors who were in a same-sex relationship. At the same time, a number of congregations and three area conferences, including the large Lancaster Mennonite Conference, have withdrawn from Mennonite Church USA. This turmoil has had a devastating impact on the denomination, threatening the financial viability of some of its programs and diverting attention from other issues.

Being a Faithful ChurchFor its part, Mennonite Church Canada went through a multi-year discernment process from 2007 to 2016 called “Being a Faithful Church.” It encouraged each member congregation to undertake a study of Biblical interpretation, especially in the area of human sexuality, and to provide feedback to the denomination on possible ways to move forward on the issue. The delegates at the denomination’s annual meeting in 2016 approved a resolution that stated the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective continued to serve the church, while acknowledging there were different understandings within MC Canada on committed same-sex relationships. It called for the denomination to create/leave room “to test alternative understandings from that of the larger Body to see if they are a prophetic nudging of the Spirit of God.”

This compromise was unsatisfactory for many on both sides of the issue. More congregations on the conservative side withdrew from Mennonite Church Canada, especially in western Canada. Others felt the action was much too cautious, and called for explicit acceptance of LGBTQ people. The impact on Mennonite Church Canada has been similar to that in Mennonite Church USA. A reduction and decentralization of denominational programming in Mennonite Church Canada is underway, in part because of increasingly reduced financial support from its congregations. A reduction in financial support has been common in many Protestant denominations, including other Mennonite groups. Controversy over issues of human sexuality has not been the only factor in this reduced congregational giving, but it has been a significant factor within Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada.

As evidence of the distance Mennonite Church Canada has travelled on this issue in recent years, on September 28, 2017 the General Board of MC Canada issued an apology to its LGBTQ members. In this apology, the General Board confessed it had not permitted the continuing loving dialogue called for in its predecessor denominations’ human sexuality statements in 1986 and 1987, and confessed that many LGBTQ persons had felt silenced even during the “Being a Faithful Church” process.

Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC), an area conference of Mennonite Church Canada, is located primarily in Ontario. To this point in 2017 no congregations in MCEC have withdrawn over the issue of sexuality, though it appears several congregations are contemplating such an action.

Nonetheless there has been deep pain within Ontario MCEC congregations over the issue. One of the most visible cases was that of an associate pastor at the Toronto United Mennonite Church (TUMC). She began serving on the two-person pastoral team in January 1999. In April 2002 she declared to the congregation her lesbian sexual orientation and revealed that she was in a dating relationship with a Mennonite woman from another congregation. This disclosure led both TUMC, and MCEC, which oversees ministerial credentials, into long discernment processes. Two congregational votes on June 21, 2003 resulted in inadequate support for the associate pastor’s continued employment in the congregation. Meanwhile, MCEC immediately ended  a process that would have led to her full ordination. This painful story received much visibility in the church press within and beyond the Ontario Mennonite community.

The leadership of MCEC then took a deliberate decision in 2004 to not exclude congregations who were welcoming to LGBTQ persons. This was outlined in a document, “Pointing a Direction on Homosexuality.” Since that time a number of MCEC congregations have self-identified as welcoming to LGBTQ persons. This was done through formal statements, including statements on congregational websites, as well as inclusion of the rainbow symbol on their websites.

At the time of writing, after a quick search of MCEC congregational websites, I had identified ten mostly urban MCEC congregations that self-identified as welcoming to LGBTQ persons on their websites. These included Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church (Kitchener), Erb Street Mennonite Church (Waterloo), Waterloo North Mennonite Church, Rockway Mennonite Church (Kitchener), St. Jacobs Mennonite Church, Breslau Mennonite Church, Community Mennonite Church of Stouffville, Toronto United Mennonite Church, Hamilton Mennonite Church and Ottawa Mennonite Church. I believe there are other congregations with welcoming statements that could be listed. I may have missed some. I would appreciate updates that could be added to this page. Congregational statements can be sent to me at steiner.sam [at] gmail.com.

Stirling Statement

Stirling Ave. Mennonite Church’s statement on their website, 2017. See also their Litany of Lament and Confession

I was prompted to reflect historically on Mennonites and homosexuality in this blog by a controversy occasioned by the inclusion of a paid supplement sponsored by the Maple View Mennonite Church of Wellesley, Ontario in the September 25, 2017 issue of Canadian Mennonite. The supplement adapted a statement by the Evangelical Free Church of America on human sexuality that was an uncompromising restatement of the traditional exclusionary view on homosexuality. I engaged in the social media discussion on the Mennonite Church Canada Facebook group by defending the right of Maple View Mennonite Church to place such an ad, though I questioned whether it would be effective. A vast majority of social media voices felt the supplement should not have been included by Canadian Mennonite because it did not invite dialogue and was harmful to the LGBTQ community that had already suffered much from the church. The response of the Canadian Mennonite at time of posting the blog was incomplete. On its Facebook page it said it “acknowledges the deep pain and anger that was caused by the Maple View supplement,” but would make a fuller statement the following week. The formal response came in this statement (also published in the print edition of October 23), though the statement was not well-received by most of the early responses to it.

The consequences of this controversy within Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada will remain unclear for many years. Certainly denominational structures are changing and shrinking. The reasons include aging demographics, a desire for more localized programming, a fading interest in the institutional church, along with weariness and dismay over painful controversies. The matter of relating to its LGBTQ communities has been one such controversy in the Mennonite community.

To learn more about Ontario Mennonite history, read In Search of Promised Lands.

I obtained some of my information on the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests from its periodical, Dialogue.

Missions in Québec–Janet Mills Martin

Richard-Lougheed

Richard Lougheed, 2014

In recent days I’ve been reading a manuscript by Richard Lougheed, a church history professor at the École de Théologie Évangélique de Montréal. in Québec. The manuscript is about the history of Anabaptist mission efforts in Québec, including those of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario (now Mennonite Church Eastern Canada), the Mennonite Brethren, the Church of God in Christ, Mennonites (Holdeman Mennonites) and the Brethren in Christ (now Be in Christ). Richard is a church leader who came to know the Mennonites well while serving as an Anglican-United Church pastor in Rouyn-Noranda during the years that Robert Witmer was the leader of a small Mennonite congregation there. Richard became a Mennonite, and has done much to gather the history of Mennonites in that province.

His manuscript will hopefully soon become a book, covering an oft-neglected part of Canadian Mennonite history.

It brought to mind the efforts within the Mennonite Conference of Ontario in the 1950s to launch a mission effort in Québec. Two of the pioneers in this effort were Janet and Tilman Martin. They were a bit of an odd couple — Tilman was born an Old Order Mennonite, but ended up at St. Jacobs Mennonite Church and Ontario Mennonite Bible School. He went on to study at Toronto Bible College where he met Janet, an woman born in London, England.

Janet died in 2002; Richard Lougheed wrote a short article on her for the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO), which is reproduced below.


Janet Martin, 1982

Janet and Tilman Martin, 1982. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo

Janet  Martin: Quebec missionary, born as Janet Madeleine Mills in London, England on 18 June 1933 to Basil Mills and Margery Roland. After being raised in a secular setting she was introduced to the idea of Christian faith when evacuated to Wales. After World War II she immigrated to Canada with her parents. Janet came to personal faith in the Harrow Associated Gospel Church and was baptized by them in Lake Erie, Ontario. She later attended Toronto Bible College, where she met fellow student Tilman Martin. They married in Harrow on 6 June 1953. Janet Martin became a member of the St. Jacob’s congregation of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario. She and Tilman continued their education at Ontario Mennonite Bible Institute.

From 1954 on Janet Martin was in full-time service for the church with Tilman — one year in Waters, Ontario and 46 years in Quebec. She and Tilman were the pioneer missionaries for Quebec along with Harold and Pauline Reesor, sent by the Mennonite Board of Missions (Elkhart) and later the Mennonite Mission Board of Ontario. The Martin and Reesor couples arrived in Quebec in August 1956. Janet Martin participated fully in ministries in Montréal-Nord (1957-1973), Joliette, the Camp Le Sablier and in the prisons where Tilman served as chaplain for 15 years. She often opened their home to prisoners on parole or on visits. In fact through their home base Janet Martin provided radical hospitality for children, grandchildren, those revolving around the church and others in need. Janet Martin spent her retirement actively engaged in the Ottawa Mennonite congregation. She had five children, one of whom died young. Janet Martin died in Gatineau, Quebec on 29 July 2002.

Martin was a pioneer missionary, musician (particularly solo vocals), and correspondent in French for l’Aurore newspaper and in English for The Canadian Mennonite. Janet Martin served as longtime liaison between Mennonite Church Eastern Canada and the Quebec churches. As a historian she collected enough documents to provide a beginning for the archives of the Société historique Mennonite du Québec.

Reflections on Menno-Pause

This post accompanies The 50th Anniversary of Menno-Pause, and includes reflections by Lowell Miller, Tom Harley, Verlin Miller and Sue Clemmer Steiner.

Lowell Miller

Fifty Years Later

There once were five guys at GC
Who wrote what they wanted to see
They tried a new style
But just a short while
And the Pres put them all out to sea.

We went separate ways
For most of our days
After what we did write
Was considered a blight
And an insult to Mennonite ways

It’s been fifty years
Since we left GC in tears
We’ve lived normal lives
With children and wives
Have wrestled and overcome fears.

We still like to think
Some with paper and ink
Some by fishing
Some by wishing
And look for a good way to link.

— Lowell Miller, September 2017


Tom Harley

I am now 71 going on 102.  I was then 21 going on 14.

My memory is notoriously unreliable. But if I remember correctly, I wrote two satiric pieces for Menno-pause. One was the article about dancing. It was bitingly satiric. But it was far more ironic than it was satiric. I had never danced. I had no interest in dancing. I couldn’t dance. I wouldn’t dance. I was afraid of dancing. If Goshen College had sponsored a dance, I would have been too shy to go, too scared of women to participate, and too ashamed of my body to make it do anything even remotely akin to dancing. But hey, such is the life of a revolutionary satirist.

But I think I also wrote the “deleted words” summary. I liked it then and still do. It too is ironic. I actually got thrown out of college for deleting the word fuck 37 times. That is a remarkable feat. We had the common decency and social sensitivity to remove obscenities from our writing, and they still chucked us out. In retrospect, I wish we had left those words in. It certainly did us no good to take them out. And it was such hard work – they had been so strategically placed and artfully deployed.

Long live satire. Long live free speech. Long live gay rights. Long live progressive politics. Farewell uptight institutions and quaint Moralism. Farewell homophobia. Farewell coverings.

— Tom Harley, September 2017


Verlin Miller

Post Menno-Pause Reflections Fifty years later

This week watching the PBS Vietnam War series of Ken Burns and Lyn Novick brought back to me the angst, anger and fear during the 60’s. The impulse for Menno-Pause cannot be understood without the experience of the immediacy of a world gone crazy with violence. The Vietnam series is required viewing for anyone wanting to understand. My “coming of age” maybe began with the rude awakening of John Kennedy’s assassination, news of the civil rights movement in the South, the Vietnam war and the draft, and the broader student peace movement of the 60’s.   Our story [my story] can’t be told without folk and blues roots music, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and of course Sargent Pepper. We listened to them together. I also learned to appreciate Tom’s collection of Hayden and more [having not had Mary Oyer was my loss]. And I still have memories of Pete Seeger’s “Waist deep in the big muddy and the big fool says push on” and The Smothers Brothers sarcasm.

We were five young men from rather conservative churches and sheltered cultural backgrounds exploring dissent in a time when leadership was fearful of losing control. We felt that we had been “sold a bill of goods’ –both theologically in our churches and politically/socially by our conservative cultures– which demanded fresh responses. We were not really activists like some people we knew, but felt compelled to speak somehow.

There was a kind of meanness in the suspensions, since all would immediately lose their student deferment and be subject to the draft. Any Girardian or reader of James Alison would recognize right away the dynamics involved in a large majority of Goshen College students standing and applauding President Mininger’s speech justifying the abrupt suspension. “The many righteous have to stand up to the wicked few”. We were not heroes, though in the aftermath, I think Sam and Tom’s resistance to the draft was heroic. But it was clear that for some Menno-Pause was “dangerous” and many of you reading this decided you were on “the other side”-siding with President Mininger’s call for “family values” and exclusion- standing and applauding with approval for removing and punishing the “audacity of a visible danger on campus”. I still don’t understand that need to make a stand against. It was a fearful time. Some no doubt had little idea how to respond or which side they were on.  For the editors there was a personal urgency to call for a sane world. During my years in college I read all I could of the Anabaptist history of dissent, followed John Howard Yoder and the Concern movement as they wrote and spoke.

I have been asked in more recent years if I had “survivors guilt”.  I’m sure I felt some of that, but what I remember is the devastation and anger at the loss of my closest friends. I felt deeply the pain and disruption in their lives.  I kept contact in the transition and I knew the time was volatile. I didn’t feel the college administrators were on our side and felt betrayed by the acquiescence of some professors. Today I’m grateful and highly value my time, friendship and shared hilarity with the other four editors.

As far as my own journey, I was heavily influenced by the student house church movement that began on campus and later became a part of the Mennonite “fringe” communal movement of the Atlanta Fellowship, Reba Place Fellowship and the Fellowship of Hope.

The success of Jon Stewart, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, also the Marginal Mennonite Society and the Daily Bonnet on Facebook stem from similar impulses. I am shocked but maybe not surprised at the current absurdities of today’s political situation. Fifty years later, dissent and resistance is needed now as much as any time in our history.

— Verlin Miller September 29, 2017


Sue Clemmer Steiner

Navigating Churning Waters

There’s a spot in Indiana where the leafy maple grows;
Tis our dear and glorious Parkside where the Elkhart River flows…[1]

Thus begins the official Goshen College song. Yet in my four years as a Goshen undergrad in the late 1960’s, I ignored the Elkhart River completely. It was a mile away, over by the College Cabin and the dam, and was probably the most beautiful spot in Goshen. Yet I never once canoed on it or even got my pant legs wet from the banks.

But at Goshen College I did get my pant legs wet in another way. I steered a venerable but fragile craft through churning waters, avoiding rocks, trying not to take on too much water or capsize my little boat. The craft I steered was the college’s official student newspaper—The Goshen College Record—housed “across the tracks” in a non-descript cement block building.[2] During my stint as Record editor during the tumultuous 1967-68 school year, I claimed a voice I still own. I also began to imagine myself as a leader.

Thirteen years later I wrote in a commissioned article in the Goshen College Bulletin:[3]

To recall the late 60’s at Goshen College takes almost more energy than
I can muster. The times were heady, frantic, larger than life. It seems to me now that they must have run on sheer energy.

As editor of the Record, I had the job of analyzing the times while they happened. During that era, it seems to me, both the idealism and the disillusionment of the age impinged upon our sheltered institution—and our sheltered psyches—with a force which caught everyone off guard.

That year the war in Vietnam heated up, spreading dis-ease, threatening to keep us coming-of-age folks from the good life we thought was our due. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, spurring a distressed Record reporter to write: “Today the American Dream looks like it is nothing but a gargoyled vision of another time.”[4]

And early in the year, while the Record staff was still finding its way, four male members of our “publications Brüderhof”—including photographer Sam Steiner—distributed two mimeographed issues of an underground newspaper they called Menno-Pause.[5] While I had no part in creating the content, I did unlock an office door so the guys could make page stencils. The “M-P boys” saw their irreverent little rag as “a gadfly…a watchdog…a critic…an extended student opinion board…and general all-around crap.” They assumed it would be officially ignored.

We at the Record struggled with whether and how to officially respond. We were not of one mind. After much discussion, we agreed on a staff editorial stating our hope that Menno-Pause would survive beyond its initial issues.[6] To do so, we suggested, the paper would need to get beyond “immature sarcasm” and crude language and “choose more significant subject matter.”[7] Perhaps we showed our true colours by including in that issue of the Record three photos by Sam Steiner, as well as an innocuous signed news article or column by each of the other M-P boys. Privately, we enjoyed the unscientific stats on the rise and fall of the head covering in Menno-Pause, based on photos from the college yearbook from 1953-67.

None of us foresaw the degree to which Menno-Pause could be interpreted as a political act against the institution and its value system. The suspension of the M-P boys, applauded by a large bloc of the student body at a Presidential Forum, sparked a crisis for campus opinion leaders. The applause took us completely by surprise. It hit me smack in the face. It felt thunderous and endless and directed at me too.

We had dimly realized that some students considered us Record and yearbook folks to be a “self-styled elite.” Certainly some members of our loosely-connected Brüderhof were part of campus subgroups focusing on the arts or on popular music or on left-leaning politics. We tended to inhabit the English department or one of the social sciences. And our religious expressions were less conventional than the campus norm. But we hadn’t grasped how suspect these various associations and inclinations made us to some students.

From time to time we claimed to want to know what the “silent majority” thought. Yet we were unprepared when we found out. I and other campus leaders with mildly left-wing leanings wondered if we any longer had a mandate to do our jobs. We felt like a rejected minority.

During those dark days when I felt very unsure of myself, I had two invaluable guides. John Fisher, for whom I graded freshman English essays, advised: the important thing is to stay cool until tomorrow. He informed me that I was not going to even think of resigning. We need your leadership now more than ever, he asserted.

Meanwhile a beleaguered Dan Hess, the young faculty advisor we claimed as almost one of us, called a soul-searching meeting of the Record staff. We talked about the minimum requirement for campus publications to continue—the ability to be able to discern the main body of campus opinion and to present it at face value.

Over the next days and weeks, I glimpsed a way forward. I felt determination rising within me. We’d show those students who applauded. We were going to be darn good journalists!

With Dan’s support, we set ourselves to it. We began with a double-page spread on Menno-Pause which gave due voice to all varieties of campus opinion. Our features on the meaning of Vietnam and of Martin Luther King’s death for Goshen students followed the same pattern. I’m still proud of them.

My editorials took on a tone and angle of approach I still recognize and own. My confidence grew as various people—including a few administrators—wrote notes to me in campus mail, thanking me for my editorials and expressing the opinion that we were doing good journalism.

That year at Goshen, I sorted out how to honour my own views while endeavouring to represent the whole student body, and to some degree those things important to the institution itself. Somehow I figured out how to do this while staying connected with the M-P boys and other friends who expressed little use for “the establishment.” Weekdays I studied and edited the Record. Some weekends I visited two of the M-P boys in Chicago. Less than two years later, I married one of them.

That Record year also afforded me the chance to try my wings as a staff leader, team builder and encourager. Forging a team spirit, making space for others to shine, but also knowing when my own voice needs to be clearly heard—this has always been my best leadership stance. I learned it at Goshen College, navigating a small craft called the Record during that tumultuous year.[8]

[1] “Goshen College ever singing” was adopted as Goshen’s alma mater in 1911. After falling into disuse, it has  recently enjoyed a modest revival.

[2] Previously, caged mice occupied the space as part of a psychology experiment.

[3] Sue Clemmer Steiner, “1967-68: The Way They Were” in Goshen College Bulletin, March 1981 (Vol. 66, No. 2), 4-5.

[4] Dan Kauffman, “A Nation Divided—Will There Be A Sane Answer?” in The Goshen College Record, April 12, 1968 (Vol. 69, No. 12), 4.

[5] Copies of Menno-Pause are on deposit at the Mennonite Historical Library (Goshen, IN) and at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario at Conrad Grebel University College (Waterloo, ON).

[6] We adapted a pro-M-P piece submitted by columnist Steve Kreider, reworking it with his participation.

[7] “On Campus Gadflies,” in The Goshen College Record, October 6, 1967 (Vol. 69, No. 2), 2.

[8] In spring 1968, I wrote an 11-page piece for myself and a few others, chronicling what had happened and my reactions.  It was invaluable to me as I wrote this essay.

— Sue Clemmer Steiner, extracted from Flowing with the River: Soundings from my Life and Ministry (2013; no longer in print)


If you have memories of the Menno-Pause affair at Goshen College, please share them in the comment section (“Leave a Reply” at the bottom of this blog.)

See also The 50th Anniversary of Menno-Pause, with historical review and comments by Sam Steiner See also Menno Pause Revisited by Dan Hess, first published in CMW Journal in 2009

The 50th Anniversary of Menno-Pause

Sam-Steiner-68

Sam Steiner, 1966. Maple Leaf photo

Today (September 29, 2017) marks the 50th anniversary of the first issue of Menno-Pause, an underground newspaper, at Goshen College, a Mennonite College in Indiana. It can fairly be said that my move to Canada in October 1968 as a draft dodger partially resulted from this publication, though the experience was shared with other students at Goshen College in September/October 1967. Menno-Pause was an experiment that lasted one month.

I hope regular readers of this Ontario Mennonite History blog will forgive this personal intrusion into the series. This account is primarily a re-issue of a post I made two years ago, with additional comments and photographs.

Jim-Wenger

Jim Wenger, ca. 1967

The five editors during our experiment included James S. “Jim” Wenger, a brilliant English major we all assumed would become a university professor. He was a voracious reader, a lover of ideas, as well as being a gifted pianist. Lowell Miller, a farm boy from Ohio, was another English major who enjoyed theological debate. In September 1967 Jim and Lowell roomed together at one end of Yoder Hall, the largest men’s dorm at the College.

Tom-Harley

Tom Harley, ca. 1967

Tom Harley was a political science major with an incisive wit, a love for both Joseph Haydn and the Beatles, and a passion for trout fishing. I was a political science major, a photographer, and a lover of urban blues. Some thought that I was also a faux rebel because I had been suspended from the college twice previously for illegally entering a campus building and for refusing to hand in attendance cards at thrice-weekly mandatory “convocations”/chapels. In fall 1967 Tom and I were roommates at the other end of Yoder Hall in Room 201, after Tom made a last-minute decision to live in the dorm instead of his home, which was in Goshen.

Verlin Miller, another English major with a rich curiosity for people and ideas, was a staff assistant on another floor in Yoder Hall.

Sam-and-Verlin-1965

Sam Steiner and Verlin Miller, 1965

The five editors were friends before Menno-Pause started. I had been the photographer for the Maple Leaf yearbook in 1966/67 when Jim was its editor. Tom and I were the only political science majors at the college, and had spent a lot of time with the College’s sole political science prof, Dan Leatherman. Verlin and I roomed together part of the summer of 1967 with a shared interest in blues and underground newspapers. Lowell Miller was the only editor I didn’t know before our adventure began.

Maple-Leaf

Sam & Jim with Phyllis Detweiler and Carolyn Mullet of Maple Leaf staff, Maple Leaf photo

We were all young, naive Mennonites from rural areas or small towns (except for Tom, who was just young and naive and came from a small city). We were part of a “publications Brüderhof” at the college, loosely connected to The Record (the official student newspaper), the Maple Leaf (the annual student yearbook), and Foolscap (the student literary publication). In September 1967 I was the photographer and Tom was a regular columnist for the Record, while Jim and Lowell also wrote for the Record.

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Sue Clemmer, Record editor, 1967. Maple Leaf photo

Sue Clemmer, the Record editor, was part of the Brüderhof, as was Phyllis Detweiler, the Maple Leaf editor. Jim and Lowell were both on staff for Foolscap.

Jim Wenger was the intellectual leader of our little band.  He had studied the growing phenomenon of underground newspapers in spring 1967 for the English department’s Communication and Society course. In this course he analyzed the East Village Other, a New York City alternative publication. He was a convinced adherent of the free speech movement, and wished for a living example at Goshen College. He also wanted to shake his “egghead” academic reputation because he had a near 4.0 grade average, except for lower marks in Physical Education (which sometimes earned him the nickname of “Volleyball”).

339px-Port-huron-statementJim and I, and possibly a few other Goshen students, were also adherents of the New Left movement through individual memberships in the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). SDS’s philosophy was articulated in its Port Huron statement. It emphasized the buzzword “participatory democracy” (which stated students should truly participate in shaping their own education). SDS was extremely appealing to students restive about a college that they believed listened to its conservative Mennonite “constituency” more than it did to its students.

The summer of 1967 Verlin and I saw a modest underground newspaper published by two Mennonite Voluntary Service workers who lived in the south side of Chicago, Steve Stucky and Mark Wagler. We mused about the possibilities at the college, and took inspiration from their work.

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Doug Swartzentruber, 1968. Maple Leaf photo

Bill-Horrisberger

Bill Horrisberger, 1968. Maple Leaf photo

In early September the five of us began to plan, mostly in Yoder 201, often against the backdrop of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” By September 10 we were serious about producing an underground paper. Tom came up with the name of the paper. We co-opted others to help. They included Carol Beechy (for a women’s perspective column), Doug Swartzendruber (designed the cover), Eric Yoder, and Bill Horrisberger.  We delegated Jim and Lowell to give Record editor Sue Clemmer a “head’s up” that our alternative publication was coming.

Cover of Menno-Pause, issue one.

Menno-Pause, issues 1 & 2. Click on the image to download a pdf copy. My apologies for the poor quality of issue #1

Since our work on the paper was an open secret, four of us decided to sign the masthead of Menno-Pause issue #1. We encouraged Verlin to leave his name off the masthead, since he had an official role that might be jeopardized by a visible connection to the paper. For reasons I no longer explicitly recall, the individual articles were all unsigned, though it was probably to prevent one writer from being singled out for sanction because of a specific article.

Jim drafted our purpose statement: “The Menno-Pause is a gadfly (poking and prodding the GC sacred cows), a watchdog (checking and analysing disciplinary action), a critic (positive or negative analysis of GC education), an extended student opinion board-and general all-around crap.” We characterized ourselves as the “campus underground newspaper team.”

On the evening of September 28, Sue Clemmer provided us access to the English department’s stencil cutting and mimeograph machines. Verlin frantically typed the stencils. We had a blank space that needed filling, so we added a list of unacceptable words that been “deleted,” including shucks, goodness gracious, and fuck (37 times). Peg Mullet and Kathy Helmuth assisted us in printing the two-sheet, four page paper. Lenny Preheim agreed to circulate issues in the dining hall the next morning. He showed up late, so I gave away almost all of the 400 copies in less than 30 minutes in the breakfast lineup.

Record-editorial

Record editorial, October 6, p. 2

The reaction was mixed, but there were many requests for leftover copies. Critical comments suggested we had come closest to meeting the last phrase of our purpose statement (“general all-around crap”). Even our friends at the Record later editorialized: “Unfortunately, the first issue was cruder than it was funny.”

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Dan Hess, 1967. Maple Leaf photo

We delivered a personal copy to Dan Hess, the faculty adviser for student publications. (Dan Leatherman, our political science prof, was on leave, living in Chicago that year working on a PhD degree, and wasn’t available for counsel during these days.) Hess was soon asked if he could provide the administration a copy of our paper. By Saturday afternoon we had received our first letter to the editor–a critical analysis by Delmar Good, a young Economics professor, of Lowell Miller’s graph and analysis on “the decline and fall of the covering [prayer veil]” in the student yearbook over the years.

By Monday (October 2), it was clear that President Paul Mininger and other administrators were very unhappy. Dan Hess advised Jim Wenger, based on his earlier research, to gather a folder of articles that would provide background on the underground press movement for President Mininger. Hess also advised us to prepare a second issue as quickly as possible to provide a better example of our intent.

Paul-Mininger

Paul Mininger, 1967. Maple Leaf photo

We thought this advice was good, and immediately began work on the next issue. There was one conflict within the editorial board. Should we pursue the use of “obscene” language? Tom said it was not crucial to the paper. Jim was not sure. I thought we should not go out of our way to use it, but that we should claim the right to use it as the situation demanded.

We finally decided to discuss the issue of obscene language in the second issue, and delegated the task for the primary article to Tom, since he would probably have the coolest head in writing it. Jim found a quote from Eberhard Kronhausen (who wrote learned books on pornography) that seemed to fit the front page nicely, and we also found a little piece by Episcopal rabble-rouser Malcolm Boyd that addressed the issue.

We also wanted to present something explicitly positive. So Jim wrote a short article about Prof. Mary Oyer, a real academic hero of Jim’s in the area of Fine Arts and Music. I opposed this, probably because she once publicly lectured me for falling asleep in her class, but was overruled by the other editors.

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Dean of Students Russ Liechty, 1968. Maple Leaf photo

That Thursday we were pulled out of class for a meeting “in ten minutes” with President Mininger and Dean of Students Russ Liechty. They expressed concern about “the word on the back page,”  the combination of letters in the name of our team, and the name of the paper. We talked about the nature of underground papers and satire, that this was a first effort. I defended our use of the language.

After the meeting with the four of us, Jim and I were kept for individual meetings with President Mininger and Dean Liechty. In my meeting they expressed great disappointment because of my earlier infractions at the college. I claimed that in my re-admission from a previous suspension I had specifically retained the right to speak to issues at the college. I suspect I was fairly defensive.

None of the rest of us editors knew that Jim Wenger was in the process of sorting out his sexual identity. That summer he had placed an personal ad in the Berkeley Barb soliciting a male partner. An alumnus of the college had seen the ad, and had sent a copy to the Goshen College administration. Despite this act, however, Jim was also then tentatively exploring a romantic relationship with a female member of our publications Brüderhof. I assume the administrators discussed the ad with Jim, though I don’t know that as a fact. I have searched for this ad in in the online archives of the Berkeley Barb and East Village Other (the paper he had studied in his research) on several occasions, but I’ve never been able to find the ad.

Our second issue came out on Monday, October 9. Copies created with a slightly more sophisticated process in downtown Goshen at a Mennonite agency, again were snapped up in short order. In the aftermath Jim and I were invited to participate in the campus church on the following Sunday to talk about dissent on Christian campuses.

As it happened, all the decisions we had made about content in issue #2 were used against us in the ensuing decisions. Even the article about Mary Oyer was interpreted as being destructive to the integrity of the college community.

Wednesday night, October 11, the four publicly-identified editors meet individually with the Faculty Discipline Committee. In my meeting President Mininger read a lengthy statement on the goals and purposes of Goshen College. I was then asked why I should be allowed to remain at Goshen College. I responded, likely with limited coherence, that I thought I could make a contribution to the life of the college. When asked if I had regrets, I said I regretted that we had failed to properly communicate our goals. The three other publicly identified editors had similar experiences.

A Presidential Forum for all students was announced for Thursday evening, October 12, in the church-chapel. The meeting was scheduled for 8:30 pm. Since a faculty meeting had gone on most of the day, we did not learn our personal fates until 7:30 that evening. It was harsher than we expected. All four public editors were suspended for the remainder of the academic year. We had speculated that I might be disciplined because of my prior “record” at the College. This disciplinary action changed all our lives in varying ways.

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The Record‘s summary of events. October 27, p. 6

The administration asked us not to attend the Presidential Forum. For reasons I don’t recall, we agreed. At the forum a large majority of the students supported the suspension with a round of applause. Verlin, and other members of the publications Brüderhof in attendance at the meeting, were surprised by the intensity of the student support for the administration, and felt it was directed against them as well.

The next days found the four of us contacting family, sorting out logistics and making plans. Some of the editors had a debriefing at Dan Hess’ home. Sunday afternoon the editors were interviewed by Sue Clemmer as part of a two-page spread in the Record. After a “last [spaghetti] supper” prepared by Forreyce Lewis for the editors and their friends on Sunday night, the four of us left for Chicago.

Menno-Pause editors, October 1967

Menno-Pause editors, October 15, 1967. L-R: Jim Wenger, Tom Harley, Sam Steiner, Lowell Miller. Goshen College Record photo, October 27, pp. 6-7

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Quotes in the Record’s two page spread, October 27, p. 6

Two things attracted us to Chicago. The Voluntary Service (VS) unit on Chicago’s south side housed Steve Stucky and Mark Wagler, the two guys, who had shown us an underground paper the previous summer, as well as Mark’s wife and infant son. Also, Dan Leatherman, our political science prof, lived with his family near the VS unit.

Tom and Lowell soon left Chicago and returned to their homes. Jim and I moved to the northern edge of Chicago and got jobs at the Evanston Hospital–Jim in the kitchen, I as a supply clerk in the general stores area. Jim was able to use his work to fulfill his alternative service obligation to the Selective Service System. He remained working in the hospital kitchen for the rest of his life. I worked at the hospital for about six months until I destroyed my draft card, returned it to my local draft board, and was dismissed from the hospital.

Sometime in late 1967 or early 1968 Jim confirmed his sexual orientation as a gay man, and came out to me and other close friends. Within a half a year or so he had begun a life-long committed relationship with Peter Johnsen. They shared almost 30 years together. Jim died May 31, 1997 after initially contracting non-HIV pneumonia, and finally succumbing from a superbug he caught while in the hospital.

Sue and Sam wedding

Wedding party L-R: Sara Freed (former Record editor), Sue Clemmer, J. R. Burkholder (minister), Sam Steiner, Tom Harley. Verlin Miller was an usher. 

During this tumultuous time in Chicago (1967/68), Jim and I were periodically visited by various friends from the Goshen publication Brüderhof. As my legal and living situation worsened, they expressed growing concern for my psychological well-being. One friend from the Brüderhof in particular, Sue Clemmer, persuaded me that Canada was a healthier alternative for me than prison. I left for Canada during the last week of October 1968. Our courtship deepened, and we were married in Canada on August 2, 1969.

People have asked if there was ever reconciliation with the administrative leaders at Goshen College. Tom returned to Goshen and Lowell ended up following another educational path; I finished my undergraduate degree in Canada.

Jim Wenger, ca. 1992

Jim Wenger, ca. 1992. Photo by Peter Johnsen. Used as a publicity photo for his musical performances.

Jim Wenger never returned to academia, and stopped playing the piano for almost 20 years. He eventually healed enough to begin to play the piano again in the late 1980s and  to create tapes of his piano music for friends as Christmas presents. He began to perform as a piano soloist in the early 1990s, including at the Art Association of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, near his home community of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Jim and Peter returned to the Goshen College for the first (and only?) time for a weekend in October 1993 as a guest of Dan and Joy Hess. Jim later described it as cathartic for himself–“many positive and negative memories flowed.” He also had what he described as a “joyful reunion” with Mary Oyer. In 1995, as recounted by Dan Hess, Jim had one meeting with then former President Mininger, though we don’t know what was said in that encounter.

I first encountered Paul Mininger after my suspension around 1980 in the home of Richard Detweiler, then pastor of the Souderton Mennonite Church. Mininger was the preacher at the Souderton Church one Sunday when Sue and I were visiting her family in Souderton. Richard Detweiler was Sue’s first cousin. Richard and his wife, Mary Jane, invited us to Sunday lunch and Richard forced me to sit next to Mininger at the dining room table. We had a cordial conversation.

Paul Mininger and I later had several longer conversations. In 1991 I made a presentation about my college and draft experience to a Mennonite Historical Society meeting at the Mennonite Church Assembly in Eugene, Oregon. Paul Mininger asked if I would mind if he came to the presentation. He exhibited a warmth in our conversations then that I had not experienced when a student. I felt we ended on good terms.

On reflection, the four of us were naive in estimating what a small Mennonite college, still shaking off the traditions of the 1950s and early 1960s, was capable of absorbing. The applause of the student body at our dismissal forced the editorial staff at the Record and the Maple Leaf to reassess whether their left-leaning “self-styled” elite was able to serve the full spectrum of the student community. They worked hard at it in the subsequent months.

Nonetheless I’ve always felt the college administration’s reaction was excessive, exhibiting greater fear of our power to disrupt the college community than was reality in 1967. In addition to the profanity, and the perceived attack on community, our loose association with SDS and Jim Wenger’s working out of his sexual orientation  seemed to be held against us in formulating the level of discipline imposed on us.

For me, the events were life-changing as with the loss of my student deferment I launched into conflict with the U.S.’s Selective Service System. I also had to come to grips with my own response to Jim’s homosexuality at a time when I had not ever considered the issue. I refused induction in spring 1968 and went to Canada in October 1968. I worked as a grocery clerk and a computer programmer for several years, and completed my BA at Conrad Grebel College at the University of Waterloo in 1973. In that study I also came to embrace the Mennonite Church, and became passionately interested in its history. I worked in the library and archives at Conrad Grebel College from September 1974 to December 2008.

Over the years Menno-Pause made its way into the folklore of Goshen College’s history. However, I believe the only published reflections on this publication are in Susan Fisher Miller’s Culture for service: A history of Goshen College, 1894-1994, J. Daniel Hess’s memoir reflection, “Menno Pause Revisited” and two chapters in Sue Clemmer Steiner’s Flowing with the River: soundings from my life and ministry (2013)

In 2014 the surviving editors held a reunion at the home of Verlin and Elaine Miller. It was a time to laugh and remember; it was a time to mourn the loss of our friend, Jim Wenger.

After our reunion, Lowell Miller wrote the following limerick that he sent to each of us:

There once were four guys who wrote stuff
They were tired of flimflam and fluff
They twice went to press
But suffered redress
And were kicked out of school in a huff.

Menno-Pause editors, 2014

Surviving Menno-Pause editors, June 2014. Back (L-R): Tom Harley, Lowell Miller; Front: Sam Steiner, Verlin Miller

My own experience with the U.S. draft in 1967/1968 has appeared in Melissa Miller and Phil Shenk, The Path of Most Resistance: Stories of Mennonite Conscientious Objectors Who Did Not Cooperate with the Vietnam War Draft. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1982: 95–114 and Samuel J. Steiner,  “Alternative Service or Alternative Resistance? A Vietnam War Draft Resister in Canada.” Journal of Mennonite Studies 25 (2007): 195–204. https://jms.uwinnipeg.ca/index.php/jms/article/viewFile/1234/1226. It has also been interpreted in a drama authored by Rebecca Steiner, Gadfly: Sam Steiner Dodges the Draft, and put on in fringe festivals across Canada in 2012, and at Goshen College in 2013 by Theatre of the Beat.

This reflection on Menno-Pause is enormously undergirded by three unpublished typescripts on the Menno-Pause event written in late 1967 and early 1968. These were by myself, Jim Wenger and Sue Clemmer. Copies of these reflections are available at the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College and in the Mennonite Archives of Ontario in Waterloo, Ontario.

See also Reflections on Menno-Pause by Lowell Miller, Tom Harley, Verlin Miller and Sue Clemmer Steiner See also Menno Pause Revisited by Dan Hess, first published in CMW Journal in 2009

This extended blog, and the accompanying “Reflections” replace the blog that would normally be posted next Monday.

Winfield Fretz, the Innovator

One individual who had a profound impact on Ontario Mennonites in the second half of the 20th century was Joseph Winfield Fretz, a native Pennsylvanian, who taught for many years at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, before serving as the founding president of Conrad Grebel University College.

Winfield also was a driving force in beginning the Kindred Credit Union, the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario and MCC’s New Hamburg Relief Sale. Winfield engaged the Old Order Mennonite community in Ontario like no scholar had done previously.

He was a gregarious man, who seemed to never forget anyone’s name, and would pick up a conversation from a decade ago as if little time had passed.

As it happens, Winfield’s wife, Marguerite, was also my second cousin once-removed. Below is the GAMEO article I wrote in 2013. For the full bibliography and other links, see the article in GAMEO.


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Marguerite 

Joseph Winfield Fretz: sociologist, college president, and institutional innovator, was born 29 September 1910 in Bedminster Township, Bucks CountyPennsylvania to John Clarence Fretz (15 August 1878-27 May 1963) and Ella Landis Fretz (19 March 1873-10 June 1963). “Winfield” was the ninth of 11 children. His three oldest siblings were from his mother’s first unhappy marriage to Christian Gross (3 August 1869-17 July 1895). On 9 September 1936 Winfield married Marguerite Irene Geiger (2 July 1913-17 March 2002). They had three sons and one daughter. J. Winfield Fretz died 24 January 2005 in North NewtonKansas. He and Marguerite were cremated and their remains interned at the Deep Run Mennonite cemetery in Lansdale, Pennsylvania.

Winfield had a happy childhood on the family farm where he was born. The family attended the Deep Run Mennonite Church-West, a General Conference Mennonite congregation where his uncle, Allen Fretz, was the pastor. However, life in the country ended in 1922 due to the farm’s bankruptcy resulting from over expansion and the the loss of several livestock herds to disease. The family moved into the town of Lansdale, where his father worked for a pretzel bakery. Winfield, who had previously attended a one-room school, was thrust into a larger urban educational system. He was put back a year in order to catch up on some basic courses, but he soon thrived in the Lansdale high school of 300 students where he graduated in 1930. He was class president his last two years, and was captain of the basketball team.

Against the advice of his pastor at the new Grace Mennonite Church in Lansdale, Winfield declined attending Moody Bible Institute, and chose rather to study at Bluffton College, a Mennonite school. He majored in history, and was deeply influenced by C. Henry Smith, his major professor. Another influence was a fellow student of Methodist background and socialist political leanings who questioned how the teachings of Jesus and the principles of capitalism could be reconciled. Through these conversations Fretz became aware of the co-operative movement associated with the Ohio Farm Bureau. This was the beginning of his life-long interest in mutual aid organizations. Fretz graduated from Bluffton with a B.A. in 1934, but had difficulty finding work due to the Depression. For a time he was employed by Bluffton College as a student recruiter.

Fretz’s courtship with Marguerite Geiger took place during the two years following his graduation. Immediately after their 1936 marriage, they moved to Chicago where Winfield began graduate studies at the University of Chicago where his mentor, C. Henry Smith, had also studied. He completed his M.A. with a dissertation on “Christian Mutual Aid among Mennonites” in 1938. Mennonite Quarterly Review (MQR) editor Harold Bender was so impressed, he published two chapters of the dissertation in MQR in 1939. In 1940 Fretz completed a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Chicago Theological Seminary, and in 1941 he completed his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago on “Mennonite Mutual Aid: a Contribution Toward the Establishment of a Christian Community.”

Winfield and Marguerite Fretz moved to Kansas where he accepted a position as Assistant Professor of Economics at Bethel College in fall 1942; he served on the Bethel faculty until 1963. Soon after arriving at Bethel, in order to help the College’s tight financial situation during the war, he accepted a two-year assignment with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). In this assignment he visited Russian Mennonite immigrant communities in Canada from British Columbia to Ontario. His report on this study was also published in MQR, and solidified his strong relationship with Mennonite Church academics at Goshen College and further enhanced activity within the inter-Mennonite scholarly community. One result was the formation of the Conference on Mennonite Cultural Problems, a gathering that met annually from 1942 to 1947, and then biennially until 1967. This inter-Mennonite gathering encouraged a myriad of research projects. In 1951-1952 Fretz took another leave sponsored by MCC to study 25 years of Mennonite colonization in Latin America; this resulted in the book, Pilgrims in Paraguay (1953). He did another immigration study in 1958 that produced Immigrant Group Settlements in Paraguay (1962). During the 1950s, partly to supplement the family income and partly as an experiment in “real world” economics, he opened “The Guest House” restaurant in Newton, together with his sister, Ethel. This enterprise continued until after his move to Canada, and was the first to break racial segregation customs in Newton and serve black and Hispanic customers through the front door rather than the back door.

Fretz’s interest in mutual aid extended to his volunteer board work. He served as chair of MCC’s Aid Section, and was the executive secretary of the General Conference Mennonite Church’s Board of Mutual Aid in the 1940s and 1950s. Although not a founder, he was active in the Mennonite Community Association formed in 1947.

Following an administrative crisis at Bethel College, Fretz agreed to serve as Acting President of the College for 1959-1960. The experience was not a good one, and he decided it was time to seek a new position outside the college. In 1962 he considered an offer that would have seen him become a country director for CARE, a leading international relief organization. However this changed after a conversation he had with Harvey Taves, the MCC Ontario director, at an MCC meeting in Manitoba. During a break during the meetings, Taves asked Fretz if he would like to become a college president in Canada. Followup conversations with the presidential search committee soon followed. In 1963 Winfield and Marguerite Fretz, with their youngest two children, Thomas and Sara, moved to Waterloo, Ontario to help found the new Conrad Grebel College affiliated with the University of Waterloo. For the first year Fretz taught on the university campus as Conrad Grebel College was built; the residence facility opened in fall 1964.

Fretz served as the College’s president until 1973, and continued on the faculty until his retirement in 1979. In the 1963/64 year Fretz taught a total of 38 students. By the time he ended his service as president, the College was teaching over 1750 “course-students” per year with a full-time faculty of seven.

Winfield and Marguerite Fretz joined Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church within a year of arriving in Canada, and Winfield served actively as a lay leader on the Board of Deacons and the Missions Committee. His innovation continued as a founding board member of the Mennonite Savings & Credit Union in 1964; it utillized the mutual aid concepts he had articulated for years. Fretz was also the founding president of the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario in 1965 and founding president of the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada in 1968. In addition he was a key promoter of Mennonite Relief Sales in Ontario.

In 1989, during retirement back in North Newton, Kansas, Fretz completed his book, The Waterloo Mennonites: a Community in Paradox, based on research he had done in the 1970s. He also found time to serve as Acting President of Mennonite Biblical Seminary inElkhartIndiana in 1983-1984. He received two honorary doctorates–from the University of Waterloo in 1982 and from Bluffton College in 1988.

Winfield Fretz had boundless energy and enthusiasm; he was known for routinely sleeping only four or five hours a night. He had a remarkable memory for names and details of a person’s life; he would ask about family members after years of no contact. He was able to relate to Mennonites of every stripe and theology; he garnered the trust of Old Order Mennonites, as well as leading business persons and academics. His ecumenical spirit served to draw Mennonites together in cooperation, not in division or rancor.

–Sam Steiner

Fundamentalism and the Mennonite Conference of Ontario

Last week this blog reflected on the origins of fundamentalism. This blog looks more directly at the impact of fundamentalism on the Mennonite Conference of Ontario in the early 20th century.

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T. T. Shields. Photo from Wikipedia

The modernist-fundamentalist conflicts appeared in most Protestant denominations after World War I, though the temperature of the debate was lower in Canada than it was in the United States, especially within the Presbyterian Church. The formation of the United Church of Canada in 1925, which brought most of the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational churches together, preoccupied the attention of those groups in Canada.

The primary Canadian conflict took place within the Baptist community, when popular preacher Thomas T. Shields of the large Jarvis Street Baptist Church in Toronto attacked McMaster University, then a Baptist school, for it theology. Several divisions among Baptists followed.

Most of the modernist-fundamentalist battles within the Mennonite Church took place in the United States, and involved a number of purges of leaders thought to be tinged with modernism, partly because of where they had done graduate theological study (typically Union Theological Seminary in New York or the University of Chicago). However, the resignation of John E. Hartzler as president of Goshen College in 1918 and his subsequent departure from the binational Mennonite Church as part of this purge, reverberated in Ontario. Hartzler was a good friend of Bishop S. F. Coffman in Vineland, and when Hartzler lost his Goshen position Coffman invited him to itinerate in Ontario until he settled on something else.

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J.B. Smith. GAMEO photo

Helping to define the new theological terrain in Ontario were the eighteen “Christian Fundamentals” approved by the binational Mennonite Church’s General Conference in 1921. These tenets had originated in the Virginia Mennonite Conference and were drafted primarily by Jacob B. Smith, originally from Ontario, and then president of the new Eastern Mennonite School at Harrisonburg, Virginia.

One of the features of Mennonite fundamentalism, which accepted the virgin birth, scriptural inerrancy, and other tenets of fundamentalism, was the addition of an emphasis on separation from the world, especially in dress. This included the prayer veil for women, wearing bonnets instead of hats (women), modest dress, lack of jewelry, along with non-participation in war, non-swearing of oaths, etc. This emphasis on separation added a layer of meaning not common to other fundamentalists.

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S. F. Coffman

Ontario Bishop S. F. Coffman was the editor who prepared the final text for the 1921 Mennonite Church delegates. Coffman agreed with the fundamentals in spirit but had been unsure whether an additional formal confession was required alongside the traditional Dordrecht Confession of 1632. He would not have been comfortable with the confrontational style of J. B. Smith or George R. Brunk, who actively tried to cleanse the Mennonite Church of leaders not in sympathy with their view.

Eventually the larger theological storm in the Mennonite Church took its toll in Ontario as well. The Mennonite mission workers in Toronto were very uncomfortable with dress regulations that were part of the symbols of “separation” that accompanied the Mennonite take on fundamentalist theology.

Congregations, too, were affected in various ways, as illustrated by the experiences of Wanner Mennonite Church in Hespeler (now part of Cambridge) and First Mennonite Church in Kitchener. Each found a different path through the conflict; the former survived intact, the second was split in two.

Bonnets and prayer veils

Bonnets and prayer veils recommended for women in first half of 20th century. GAMEO photo

Wanner was much smaller than First Mennonite (in 1924 Wanner had 47 members to First Mennonite’s 293), and was located on the edge of the Mennonite community. Minister Absalom B. Snyder was a plain man himself who wore the bow tie and clerical coat with tails that he had worn before the uniform plain coat was heavily promoted. He was not comfortable refusing communion to persons over clothing issues, and bishop Jonas Snider, the Waterloo County bishop who usually served Wanner’s communion, would not have resisted Snyder’s milder approach. Snyder’s wife was one of only two women in the congregation to wear a cape dress (the other woman still wore her earrings along with the cape!). Many years later older members could only remember one time that communion was refused to women who did not wear the bonnet—when bishop Manasseh Hallman from the Wilmot District announced before serving that women who wore hats could not receive communion. Some young men also stayed back from communion in sympathetic protest on that occasion.

The First Mennonite approach was to challenge the conference. At the April 1921 semiannual conference of Waterloo County ministers and deacons, delegates approved a resolution that insisted the bonnet be worn in public at all times and directed that communion be withheld from women who continued to wear hats in public. Bonnets reflected appropriate separation from the world, fashionable hats did not.

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Urias K. Weber. GAMEO photo

The conference said the resolution should be read before communion was served at churches. For reasons that later became contentious, Local bishops E. S. Hallman and Jonas Snider did not offer communion at First Mennonite Church that spring. In the fall First Mennonite minister Urias K. Weber had the resolution read as requested, but followed the reading by stating his opposition to it. In the fall Manasseh Hallman did serve communion at First Mennonite, though only a small percentage of the congregation took part.

Before the conference’s annual meeting in June 1922, 139 members of First Mennonite Church petitioned in protest of the bonnet resolution passed by the Ministers Meeting. Although an effort was made to table the First Mennonite petition, the delegates decided to appoint an investigating committee.

The committee’s three-page report to a special session of the conference in December 1922 reviewed twelve charges by the petitioners. It responded to each charge, then noted seven general findings and made four recommendations, none of which related directly to the bonnet worn by women. Rather, it was more generally critical of attempts “for the removal of conference regulations regarding the matter of dress,” a disregard for the baptismal vow, unfavorable parental influence, unharmonious spiritual oversight by leaders, and confusion about authority.

No legitimacy was given to a complaint about the inherent contradiction of the unenforced plain coat for men or the history of uneven discipline in the previous thirty years. The recommendations were vague, except for the one calling for greater clarity in defining bishop districts, and calling for a “solemn pledge of loyalty to the Church and her standards.” The special conference approved the findings and recommendations, and S. F. Coffman duly reported these to the Kitchener congregation in February 1923.

In Coffman’s report to the conference executive committee of the February congregational meeting, he noted there was significant resistance to the investigating committee’s report. When Coffman had asked the congregation for an expression of “loyalty to the principles of the Church and confidence in the work of the Church,” it naturally led to a “considerable discussion” on whether this implied acceptance of the conference resolutions. When Coffman asked the congregation to give its “expression of confidence” by standing, “a considerable number did not rise, especially among the young sisters, it being evident that the discussions were confusing to the minds of some, who, otherwise would have given loyal assent to the work of the Church and conference.”

The conflict was not resolved, and eventually led to a division and the formation of the Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church, whose back property line virtually touched that of First Mennonite Church.

There were later divisions, including a division that saw the formation of the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario, a topic mentioned in an earlier blog.

For more discussion on fundamentalism and Mennonites, read In Search of Promised Lands.

The Lure of Fundamentalism

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Charles Darwin and his son in 1841. Public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons

In the latter part of the 19th century theological tension arose in the Protestant evangelical churches in North America. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution created strong reactions.

Many Protestant leaders in “mainline denominations,” in their belief in historical progress, thought evolution was one of God’s ways of working. With an emphasis on truth and reason, they maintained the kingdom of God could be achieved on earth. They emphasized Jesus’ humanity more than his divinity and began to reframe the conversion experience from an instantaneous emotional experience to a gradual quickening of one’s moral life.

Perhaps even more divisive within the churches was the beginning use of historical-critical methods in studying the Bible. This approach led many to challenge the historical reality of some events recorded in scripture. Large segments of the Presbyterian, Anglican, and Methodist denominations incorporated this new thinking by the first decades of the 20th century. Opponents called this path liberalism or modernism.

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James Orr, one of the authors of The Fundamentals. Photo by George Eyre-Todd (1862-1937) via Wikimedia Commons

The opposition to the modernist direction in Protestant circles came to be known as fundamentalism after the publication in 1909 of a series of booklets called The Fundamentals that endorsed shared Christian beliefs on things like the nature of Jesus and the historical reliability of the Bible.

In the years prior to and after World War I, late 19th-century holiness theology and early 20th-century fundamentalism, but not modernism, influenced the two most culturally comfortable Ontario Mennonite groups: the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and the Mennonite Brethren in Christ. The influence of Moody Bible Institute and Toronto Bible College on these groups through the training of men and women who became leaders has already been noted.

The more separated Mennonite groups, however, remained outside the doctrinal debates that began to consume these two more assimilated groups. The Amish Mennonites did begin to invite Mennonite preachers with a fundamentalist theology into their pulpits, and a few Amish Mennonite young people began to attend the Ontario Mennonite Bible School in Kitchener, which had a fundamentalist orientation.

Amish Mennonites who moved into Kitchener for employment began to join churches like First Mennonite Church. Even so, in this time period most Amish Mennonites remained focused on the local church community and the extended network of family relationships. As for the Old Order Amish, Old Order Mennonites, and the Reformed Mennonites, they had explicitly rejected assimilation, and this included theological assimilation with either modernists or fundamentalists.

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William Jennings Bryan. Photo by James E. Purdy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The fundamentalism that took shape in North American Protestantism before and during the first part of World War I was attractive to Mennonites on another score—it was not especially patriotic, particularly among fundamentalists with a strong dispensational position. Dispensationalists believed World War I signaled the rapidly approaching return of Christ, and they were generally anti-political in their views. William Jennings Bryan, a strong fundamentalist generally appreciated by Mennonites for his anti-evolutionary stance, resigned from Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet as secretary of state over war policy. Even the Moody Bible Institute magazine published a defense of nonresistance in 1917, though it stated it disagreed with the position.

Fundamentalist patriotism increased markedly in 1918, but Mennonites remained attracted to the “two kingdom” implication of dispensational theology, with its heavenly and earthly kingdoms and its emphasis on not being unequally yoked with the world.

The holiness (and later fundamentalist) influences took the Ontario Mennonite Brethren in Christ and Mennonite Conference of Ontario in quite different directions. The former group markedly decreased its emphasis on separation from the world, while the latter group enforced a new emphasis on separation through implementation of uniform dress codes.

This melding of visible separation with fundamentalist theology was a unique Mennonite hybrid response to the lure of fundamentalism.

Next week we’ll look at how this hybrid found the Mennonite Conference of Ontario focused on seemingly (in today’s world) narrow issues of how women dressed.

You can learn more about these themes in In Search of Promised Lands.

Ontario Mennonites and Genealogy

In my over 30+ years of work in the Mennonite Archives of Ontario one ongoing request was for assistance in working on a family history.

Resources have certainly changed since the print-based 1970s, and the amount of material available on the Internet at no or minimal cost is phenomenal.

Online Family History Programs

Ancestry

Home page of Ancestry.ca

For convenience, one can join one of the genealogy sites that help build your family tree. I belonged to Ancestry.ca for about a year. If you are comfortable with $180-$240 a year, that’s actually a decent way to go. Ancestry makes it easy to build your family tree, and gives smooth access to original sources like census records, marriage records, death records, and the like. You also get access to family trees of other researchers who may be working on the same family lines. Of course you’ve also seen Ancestry’s ads for having your DNA checked (for an additional fee). However because of privacy concerns, Ancestry and other sites of this sort, do not include searchable records for living persons. This can be frustrating  when you are trying to add second or third cousins and more distant aunts and uncles into your tree.

A cheaper alternative to Ancestry is FamilySearch, a family history site operated by the Mormons. It’s free, but is clunkier to operate, though it includes some of the same original sources at no cost. Both services allow you to add photographs, and to include documentation that you’ve used in building the tree.

I left Ancestry.ca after a year because I found that their most useful original resources for me could be obtained freely elsewhere, though with a bit more work.

Computer-based Genealogy Software

If you don’t want to keep your family data online, you’ll probably purchase one of the genealogy software packages for your home computer. I use Brother’s Keeper, mostly because it was bundled with the GRANDMA database I use and will describe below. It costs $45 U.S. for the registered version, which is usually a good a idea because it provides some support, and helps ongoing development of the software. A popular alternative is Legacy Family Tree which costs $40 US for the basic registered version. As with Brother’s Keeper there is a free version with fewer bells and whistles. If you have built a family tree on one of the online services, you can download them to your computer if you install some of this software later.

Big Online Databases of Family Information

GRANDMA

Login page for GRANDMA Online

But where can you get a lot of family information in one place, you ask. This depends on the Mennonite historical stream from which you descend. If you are from the Dutch-North German-Russian line, your best sources are the GRANDMA database, and the Mennonite Genealogical Resources maintained by the Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society.

GRANDMA includes information on 1.3 million persons, primarily of “Russian Mennonite” background. An online subscription for two years costs $20 U.S. The online version does not include date or place information on living people. To download the full database to your computer to use with your own software, the cost is $40 U.S., and includes more complete information. GRANDMA tries to reconcile entries so that an individual is included once, though not always successfully. Mennonite Genealogical Resources includes a wide variety of specialized databases that may be helpful in your search, including church records, local municipality records, etc.

If you descend from the South German-Swiss-Pennsylvania line, you have one large option. This is the Swiss Anabaptist Genealogical Association (SAGA). The database in 2017 included 5.2 million records, but the difference from GRANDMA is that no attempt is made to merge records. SAGA is a collection of dozens of genealogical files loaded by volunteers. Your online search covers all the databases, so that when you find your grandmother, you may see that she is listed in five different databases with varying amounts of detail provided in each. You need to discern which is most accurate, and over time you get to know which databases are most reliable on family lines of interest to you. The cost to be a member of SAGA is $10/year or $20 for four years. You’re on your own to discern quality, but a vast amount of information is available.

Ezra-Eby

Ezra Eby Revived! website

If you are more Ontario focused, you have some smaller options. The two best are Waterloo Region Generations and Ezra Eby Revived!. Generations is hosted by the Region of Waterloo and is based on Ezra Eby’s 1895 Biographical History of Waterloo Township, with additions into the current generation. In 2017 it included 300,000 names with 1 million source citations and some images. Most names will have some connection with Waterloo County. Ezra Eby Revived is a project of Allan Dettweiler, a longtime local Mennonite genealogist. The database includes 250,000 names, and follows Mennonite family lines with less emphasis on local connections. So the information varies between the two sites; use them both. Ezra Eby Revived? is presently not closely maintained because of health issues.

If you do not descend from one of the two large streams, your genealogical research will take you to genealogical resources more related to your own ethnic heritage. The Ontario Genealogical Society and its branches, or the local history department of the public library might be helpful.

Mennonite Archives of Ontario

The Mennonite Archives of Ontario holds many resources for Mennonite genealogists. These include hundreds of published genealogies that might be of interest, some unpublished genealogies, personal manuscript collection of prominent and not-so-prominent Ontario Mennonites, Bibles with family listings, cemetery listings, some birth and death records, photographs, Mennonite periodicals in paper and microform (some of which include extensive obituaries), and good advice. Making an appointment with Archivist Laureen Harder-Gissing would be a good idea. This may be a place to visit after you have already begun your project with one of the online services.

Family history can be fun and addictive. It can also be frustrating. Be kind to those in your extended family who are willing to take this role upon themselves.

Steiner-Genealogy

Sam Steiner’s ancestor chart for five generations

Mennonites and White Supremacy

The recent conflict in Charlottesville, Virginia over a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee prompted me to think about Mennonites and race. There were Mennonites among the counter-protesters to the “alt-right” groups assembled in Charlottesville, including Christian Peacemaker Teams and members of the local Mennonite church.

51LhIc+qLNL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_But Mennonite hands have not always been been on the side of racial equality. There have been many stories of Mennonites in Russia who have looked down on, or been paternalistic towards, their indigenous neighbors. There were Mennonite slave-owners in the U.S. prior to the Civil War, it remains a bit hazy just how many. I recall that some members of my home church in Ohio were opposed to allowing any African-Americans to live in our lily-white town. Mennonite colleges, like Eastern Mennonite University, did not admit African-American students until 1948. I have confessed in writing that in the early 1960s when my family visited my brother doing alternative service in inner city Chicago, I was a white racist going to the zoo in my attitude towards the black people I saw there. Even the Fresh Air program of the mid-20th century that brought many African-American children into Mennonite homes for two weeks in the summer, has been exposed for its implicit paternalism.

Racism has also been deeply imbedded in Canada, including amongst Mennonites, particularly in our attitudes and responses to the indigenous communities. Mennonites have settled land, including in Southern Ontario, with little thought of who lived on the land previously, or why they left.

But in this blog I want to look at more extreme forms of racism found in white supremacy movements, and the role that two former Canadian Mennonites played in the shaping of these movements.

Robert G. Millar

Robert Grant Millar (1925-2001) was the middle child in a large family born to Fred and Ida Millar, who were charter members in the Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ontario. He married Elsie Fisher as a teenager in 1944. The New York Times reported in 1995 that in 1948 Millar had a life-changing spiritual experience, with riveting visions of world events like the widespread, bloody rioting that accompanied India’s independence that year. He also saw vast destruction in the United States, and said “I saw missiles coming out of the water before there were any Polaris submarines.”

According to the Los Angeles Times Millar moved to the United States in the 1950s from Kitchener, Ontario, after God told him, “Thou shalt go to the state called Oklahoma.” He followed God’s voice to Oklahoma City, he said, then to Baltimore, where he ran a youth camp. In 1973, Millar returned to Oklahoma with about 18 family members and bought the property near the Arkansas border that he established as Elohim City (City of God), and served as the pastoral leader of the group that never exceeded about 100 people.

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Robert Millar in 1973. Oklahoma Gazette file photo

Robert Millar became a leading figure in the Christian Identity movement, that holds that European Caucasians are the true descendents of the twelve tribes of Israel. They believe Caucasians were the last created race, and implicitly superior to the others, especially Jews and those of African origin. It is a very racialized interpretation of Christianity. Christian Identity adherents do not allow any inter-marriage between races.

Elohim City was essentially a pacifist group until 1982 when Millar encountered a separatist movement called the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, led by its founder, James Ellison, a militant white supremacist. Millar became Ellison’s spiritual advisor, and eventually Ellison married Millar’s granddaughter. Millar also became an advisor to other members of the extreme right.

The Elohim community became most notorious when it was learned that Timothy McVeigh, the perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombings in April 1995, was linked to persons who had lived at Elohim City, and that he may have called Elohim City two weeks before the bombing. No connection between McVeigh and Millar was ever found, and Millar cooperated with FBI investigations of the bombing, but the suspicions continued for years and is still reflected in literature about Elohim City.

Elohim City still continues today, with John Millar, one of Robert’s sons, as the pastoral leader of the group. One recent observer described them as having “a passive form of modern white supremacy.”

Ben Klassen

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Ben Klassen. Wikipedia photo

A second Canadian Mennonite connection to White Supremacy has been Bernhard “Ben” Klassen (1918-1993). He was born in Russia. In 1923 or 24 the family escaped to Mexico, and in 1925 moved to Herschel, Saskatchewan. Here Klassen grew up and attended the Mennonite German-English Academy (now Rosthern Junior College) in the late 1930s. He went on to an engineering degree at the University of Saskatchewan in the early 1940s. According to his autobiography, Klassen’s anti-Semitism and pro-Hitler perspective were already well in place during these years.

Klassen moved to the United States where he saw more job opportunities. His right-wing views continued, and he joined the John Birch Society for six years, and worked on George Wallace’s presidential campaign in 1968, though he ended up feeling both movements were too compromised.

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Ben Klassen’s tombstone. Rightpedia photo.

Ben Klassen dismissed Christianity as a Jewish religion designed to subjugate white people, and desired a “fully structured racial religion” for Caucasians. He self-published a book in 1973 called Nature’s Eternal Religion in which he set out the structure for a pagan Caucasian religion called the Church of the Creator. He was called the Pontifex Maximus (High Priest) of the church. Klassen established central offices for the church in North Carolina. A minister in his church was convicted of killing a African-American sailor in 1991. Ben Klassen committed suicide in 1993.

Millar and Klassen are two examples of Mennonites who have embraced explicit white supremacy. In both cases it seems to have been embraced as a younger adult.

What factors have shaped your understanding of racial relationships?

For me it was a “conversion experience,” being present at the last part of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march in March 1965.

Bibliography

Chapman, Lee Roy and Joshua Kline. “Who’s afraid of Elohim City?” This Land. 12 April 2012. Web. 19 August 2017. http://thislandpress.com/2012/04/15/whos-afraid-of-elohim-city/ .

Gazette Staff. “Making America hate again? Hate and extremist group activity on the rise.” Oklahoma Gazette. 15 April 2016. Web. 19 August 2017. http://okgazette.com/2016/04/15/cover-story-making-america-hate-again-hate-and-extremist-group-activity-on-the-rise/ .

Hastings, Deborah. “Elohim City on extremists’ underground railroad.” Los Angeles Times. 23 February 1997. Web. 19 August 2017. http://articles.latimes.com/1997-02-23/news/mn-31595_1_elohim-city.

Klassen, Ben. Against the Evil Tide. Creativity Book Publisher, 1991. Web. 19 August 2017. https://archive.org/details/AgainstTheEvilTide.

Niebuhr, Gustav. “A Vision of an Apocalypse: The Religion of the Far Right. New York Times. 22 May 1995. Web. 19 August 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/1995/05/22/us/a-vision-of-an-apocalypse-the-religion-of-the-far-right.html?mcubz=0.

Rightpedia contributors. “Ben Klassen.” Rightpedia. 3 September 2016. Web. 19 August 2017. http://en.rightpedia.info/w/Ben_Klassen

Wikipedia contributors. “Ben Klassen.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 17 Jul. 2017. Web. 19 Aug. 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Klassen.

Wikipedia contributors. “Christian Identity.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 15 Aug. 2017. Web. 19 Aug. 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Identity.

A more detailed description of Christian Identity can be found in Rightpedia, an alt-right encyclopedia at http://en.rightpedia.info/w/Christian_Identity.

 

Mennonites and the Blues

In my high school years in Ohio in the early 1960s, I became a fan of folk music, including Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Joan Baez and the Chad Mitchell Trio. It was not until I got to Goshen College in Indiana that I discovered the blues.

Paul-Butterfield-Blues-BandThe album that triggered the passion of a directionless university student was the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and their “Chicago Blues” sound. This soon led to performers closer to the original, like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Dave van Ronk, Etta James and more. The blues seemed to connect with the pain of feeling disconnected from my roots while facing an uncertain future.

The Kitchener Blues Festival was held last weekend, and it lead me to wonder about Mennonites who have links to the blues.

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Job (Mark McKechnie) refuses to be convinced by Sonny (Dan Bieman), the fundamentalist Christian, while the “High and Mighty” house band play in the background. Canadian Mennonite photo, November 21, 2012

I have two stories from Ontario. The first is about a Blues Opera, “Job’s Blues,” produced by Ross Muir, managing editor of the Canadian Mennonite since January 2005, and a member of First Mennonite Church in Kitchener. Muir wrote the lyrics in 1988, long before he had any connection with Mennonites (he has a Fellowship Baptist background), but the play was not produced until 2012 when it was performed by the Grey Wellington Theatre Guild, in conjunction with The Grand River Blues Society, in six performances at Harriston Town Hall Theatre north of Waterloo Region. The opera is set in a bar and features God, Satan, Job (a blues singer), and Job’s “friends” — Eric a “new age” Christian; Gregg a prosperity gospel Christian; and Sonny a fundamentalist Christian, who each chastise Job about his sin.

“Job’s Blues” is the best combination of faith and blues I’ve ever seen. Ross has had a few nibbles since 2012, but none have come to completion.

Scrap-Metal-BluesThe second story is about a Toronto-based blues singer named Diana Braithwaite, who performed at the Kitchener Blues Festival with her partner Chris Whitely, to a very appreciative audience. She is a direct descendant of an African-American slave who settled in Wellington County, Ontario, part of the Queen’s Bush settlement. Her mother, Rella Braithwaite, was born near Wallenstein, Ontario, and her grandparents lived near Mennonites in that community, and went to school with them. The farm families helped each other with threshing, and shared farm equipment.

In June 2013 Diana Braithwaite spoke to the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario about stories she had heard about her ancestors and their Mennonite neighbors. Although it doesn’t mention Mennonites, her song, “Wellington County,” on her Scrap Metal Blues album of 2013 honors the early African-American settlers. This link of Mennonites and blues may be thin, but blues are clearly rooted in the African-American experience. And Black-Mennonite links in Canada is a historical topic that Timothy Epp’s scholarly work has significantly advanced.

Finding Mennonite musicians who sing the blues has proved difficult for me. An internet search led to only two — The Good Friday Blues Band in B.C.’s Fraser Valley, which performs only occasionally, and Bush Wiebe and the Mennonite Blues Experiment, based in Steinbach, Manitoba.

The Mennofolk website lists 94 performers. A few of them mention blues along with a variety of other genres, e.g. folk, rock, and bluegrass. If some of them have recorded serious blues, I would be happy to learn about them. I’ll add them to this blog, and try out some of their music!

I also wondered about blues written “about” Mennonites. One interesting song is “Mennonite Blues” by James “Super Chikan” Johnson, a Mississippi blues singer who clearly encountered Mennonites in his journey, mostly as a laborer on their farms. Less interesting is “Mennonite Blues” by The Electric Amish on their Barn to be Wild album.

What is your experience with the blues? Do you still listen to them? Why or why not?

You’ll learn nothing about the blues in my book, In Search of Promised Lands.