Historical Writing

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Mennonites have developed a new interest in things historical since World War II. This interest has ranged from the writing of personal memoirs, genealogies, and family histories, to biographies and congregational and conference histories. Volumes on special themes and regions, e.g., the role of women among Mennonites, peace issues past and present, the experiences of Mennonites in Canada, the United States, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and even a handbook of essays and statistics for Mennonite World Conference (MWH [1978]) have also appeared. Historical novels are also making a significant contribution.

This explosion of literature has made it almost impossible, even for a library, to remain fully informed and supplied. Many writers do their own publishing and have no clear channels for distribution and promotion of their books. While oral history and other projects are also in process, Mennonites seem to be quite print-oriented. Total sales of any given volume are normally not large.

Considerable impetus is given to historical interest through the work of historical committees. In Canada and the United States most major national conferences, as well as most regional, district, state, and provincial conferences have active historical committees (historical societies). These arrange conferences, sponsor libraries and museums, commission manuscripts, and facilitate book distribution. Random illustrations of these would he the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada which sponsored the two volumes on Mennonites in Canada by Frank H. Epp (1974, 1982) and continued with a third volume in 1996; the Illinois Mennonite Historical and Genealogical Society which commissioned Willard H. Smith's Mennonites in Illinois (1983); the Historical Committee of the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCM) which sponsored S. F. Pannabecker's Open Doors: The History of the General Conference Mennonite Church (1975).

Conference educational institutions also play a major role in encouraging historical studies through the development and support of libraries, archives, and research ventures. This is true of most Mennonite colleges and seminaries. Goshen College, for example, later joined by the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries (AMBS), founded the Mennonite Historical Society in 1924, which became the sponsor of Mennonite Quarterly Review (1927-) and of the monograph series, "Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite History" (30 volumes, 1929-1989). A similar "Mennonite Historical Series," with fewer volumes thus far, is being carried on by the General Conference Mennonite Church. An Anabaptist Mennonite Time Line has been prepared by Robert S. Kreider of Bethel College (1986).

Several regional and private library collections have also been established. An illustration of the former would be the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, which has built up a significant library, and publishes the Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage journal. An illustration of a major private library would be that of Amos B. Hoover of Denver, PA, who published the 1536 Froschauer Bibel (1975) among other items. Some publishers concentrate on production and distribution but usually also maintain a research collection. Plough Publishing House, Rifton, NY, and its journal The Plough would be an example of this, as would Pathway Publishers, Inc., of Aylmer, ON, and Festival Quarterly published by Good Books, Lancaster, PA, which also serves as distributor of other Mennonites writings.

The Institute of Mennonite Studies (IMS), Elkhart, IN, has published and is facilitating publication of a number of series, both theological and historical, since 1962. These include the Mennonite Missionary Study Fellowship, in which no. 11 appeared in 1985; MCC Story, 5 vols., 1980-88; the "Classics Of The Radical Reformation" (CRR), a series of English translations of 16th century Anabaptist writings, 5 vols., 1973-89; "Mennonite Experience in America" (MEA), 3 vols., 1985-89, a fourth projected for 1990; Text-Reader series designed for graduate classroom use, begun in 1984; "IMS Occasional Papers," 12 vols., 1981-88; the IMS "Faith and Life" series begun in 1961, and other serial and single volume publications.

Similar series are being sponsored by the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Fresno, CA, beginning with "Perspectives On Mennonite Life And Thought" in 1977. In 1987 Bethel College (Kansas) published the first two volumes in a new "Cornelius H. Wedel Historical Series." Mennonite Life (1946-), published by Bethel College, normally publishes an annual report of historical research in progress. The Mennonite Historical Bulletin (1939-), published by the Historical Committee of the Mennonite Church, and the Mennonite Historian (1976-), published by the History-Archives Committee of the Conference of Mennonites in Canada and the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Winnipeg, are both quarterlies filled with articles, book notes,and reviews. A similar service is rendered by the Journal of Mennonite Studies, an annual publication (1983-) of the Chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg, and by Brethren in Christ History and Life, published by the Brethren in Christ Historical Society.

Many privately published books, and others, are announced in a small catalog by Mennonite Books of Winnipeg, and by CMBC Publications (Canadian Mennonite Bible College), Winnipeg. Der Bote, a German weekly of the General Conference Mennonite Church, normally prints a column "Das neue Buch," where such titles as Storm Tossed and Mia by Gerhard Lohrenz; Waffen der Wehrlosen, by Hans Rempel; Immer Weiter Nach Osten, by A. J. Loewen; The Diary Of Anna Baerg, 1916-1924, ed. by Gerald Peters, are found. The list seems endless.

Interest in family histories and genealogy continues strong among Mennonites. The most ambitious recent publication in this field may well be Amos B. Hoover's monumental 1,128-page The Jonas Martin Era (1982). There are many others: Willis Herr, ed., The Sprunger Family: The Descendents of the Peter Sprunger Family, born 1757 (1975); The House Of Heinrich, edited by Anna Epp Ens (1980); Klassen: A Family Heritage (J. J. Klassen), edited by P. D. Zacharias, 528 pages (1980); A Pilgrim People, edited by Cornelius J. and Wilma L. Dyck (1987). The Mennonite Family History journal is one of numerous resources for this kind of writing. Closely related to these are biographies: Cornelius J. Dyck, Twelve Becoming (1973); J. C. Wenger, Faithfully, Geo. R.: The Life and Thought of George R. Brunk (1871-1938) (1978); Mary Lou Cummings, ed., Full Circle (1978); Katie Funk Wiebe, ed., Women Among The Brethren (1979); Elaine S. Rich, Mennonite Women (1983); Ruth Unrau, ed., Encircled (1986); H.-J. Goertz, ed., Profiles Of Radical Reformers, edited in English by Walter Klaassen (1982). These again are a few among many.

Novels have become another form of historical writing among Mennonites. A story still in print in 1988 is Henry's Red Sea by Barbara Claassen Smucker (1955). Ernst Behrend's six volumes are only available in German. Herta Funk has written a dissertation analyzing them ("Die religioese Weltanschauung in Ernst Behrend's Romanreihe 'Das Volk der Wanderschaft' [1981]). Rudy Wiebe's The Blue Mountain Of China (1970) and other volumes by him have become well known. Al Reimer's My Harp Has Turned To Mourning (1985) reflects on the demise of the golden age among Mennonites in Russia.

Non-North American writings are less voluminous, but no less significant. Gan Sakakibara of Japan has written A Historical Study of the Classical Age of the Anabaptist Church (in Japanese [1972]) and also translated many volumes on Anabaptism from English into Japanese. An Anabaptist Center in Tokyo includes major library holdings.

Sheldon Sawatzky has written The Body of Christ Metaphor: An Interpretation to Stimulate Taiwanese Reflection on the Nature and Task of the Church Within Chinese Society (1980). "The Church of the Muria: A History of the Muria Christian Church of Indonesia" (ThM thesis, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1981; published in Javanese in 1985) has been written by Lawrence M. Yoder. Peter Falk wrote A History of the Church in Africa (1979). David W. Shenk wrote "A Study of Missionary Presence and Church Development in Somalia From 1950-1970" (diss., 1972), and later Mennonite Safari, describing the work of the (MC) in East Africa. Anni Dyck described the Mennonite pastors' response to violence in Ils n'ont pas resisté (1977). David A. Shank wrote "A Prophet of Modern Times: The Thought of William W. Harris" (diss., 1980).

In South America historical libraries have been established in Paraguay at Filadelfia and Loma Plata and in Brazil at Witmarsum Colony. Monthly periodicals carry historical items. Kaputi Mennonita is a discussion of the 1930s Chaco War by Peter P. Klassen (1976), while Walter Regehr discusses the agricultural situation among Chaco Indians in Die lebensräumliche Situation der Indianer im paraguayischen Chaco (1979). Martin W. Friesen wrote Kanadische Mennoniten bezwingen eine Wildnis for the 50th anniversary celebrations of Menno Colony in 1977, and later Neue Heimat in der Chaco Wildnis (1987). Hans Duerksen and Jacob Harder edited Fernheim, 1930-1980 (1980). Similarly Peter Pauls, Jr., edited Mennoniten in Brasilien, 1930-1980 (1980). Gerhard S. Koop wrote Pionier Jahre in British Honduras (Belize) (n.d.). Materials in Spanish and Portuguese are becoming more numerous, including translations of Anabaptist writings.

In Europe historical societies are active in Switzerland, France, Germany, Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and The Netherlands. In Germany the Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter are in their 42nd year, and the Mennonitisches Jahrbuch, which also carries historical articles, is in its 88th year in 1988. A major library and research center is located at the Weierhof in the Palatinate. The second volume on Prussian Mennonite history, Die ost-und westpreussischen Mennoniten was published by Horst Penner in 1987. H.-J. Goertz has published a series of volumes on Anabaptism, including Die Täufer (1980) and edited Umstrittenes Taufertum 1525-1975 (1975). Diether Goetz Lichdi has published a general Mennonite history (1983) as well as Mennoniten im Dritten Reich (1977).

Two major volumes on Anabaptists and Mennonites were published in France; Jean Séguy, Les Assemblées Anabaptistes-Mennonites de France (1970), and Neal Blough, Christologie Anabaptiste (1984). Marc Lienhard of the Protestant faculty at the University of Strasbourg encourages Anabaptist studies, as did the late Richard Stauffer at the Sorbonne.

Dutch Mennonites have long had an active historical society, the Doopsgezinde Historische Kring (DHK). An annual journal, the Doopsgezinde Bijdragen, published from 1861-1919, was revived in 1975. Numerous monographs appear under the society's sponsorship in the series "Doperse Stemmen" (no. 6 appeared in 1986). The preparation of a critical edition of the writings of Menno Simons is being undertaken. The DHK is also responsible for the publication of primary documents through its Commissie tot de Uitgave van de Documenta Anabaptistica Neerlandica (CUDAN) agency. A chair in

Anabaptist-Mennonite studies has long been an established part of the Amsterdam Mennonite Theological Seminary program in Amsterdam.

This brief overview is intended to be more illustrative than exhaustive. While it offers guidance to major areas of writing it is not a definitive bibliography. It does, however, point up the variety of historical writings available and coming. Poetry and fiction, as well as writings on the arts and other fields might have been added. For post-16th-century Mennonite writings in general see Menn. Bibliography. Since 1977 a bibliography of Anabaptist, Mennonite, and Radical Reformation publications has appeared annually in Mennonite Life. The indexes and book reviews of Mennonite Quarterly Review, Sixteenth Century Journal, Journal of Mennonite Studies, Conrad Grebel Review, and other relevant publications, including publishers' catalogs, especially those of Herald Press and Faith and Life Press, are also helpful. For peace issues see Bibliography on War and Peace (1987). Many of the writers and editors identified in the present article are not professional historians, but there is also a clear trend to increasing professionalization. The number of "freelance" writers has grown substantially since the 1950s. The wide global interest in Anabaptist and Mennonite historical issues by Mennonites themselves is amazing, not to speak of the many non-Mennonite participants who are not listed here. 

See also Historiography (Anabaptist, 16th century); Historiography: France; Historiography: North America; Historiography: Netherlands;  Historiography: North Germany including West and East Prussia, and Poland; Historiography: Russia; Historiography: Switzerland; Mennonite Studies; Publishing.


Epp, Frank H. Stories with Meaning: A Guide for the Writing of Congregational Histories. Winnipeg, MB: Mennonite Historical Society of Canada, 1978: 32.

Gingerich, Melvin. The Work of the Local Church Historian. Goshen, IN: Mennonite Historical and Research Committee, 1962.

Schrag, Dale. John D. Thiesen, David A. Haury. The Mennonites: A Brief Guide to Information. Newton, KS, 1967.

Author(s) Cornelius J Dyck
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Dyck, Cornelius J. "Historical Writing." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 18 May 2022. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Historical_Writing&oldid=163118.

APA style

Dyck, Cornelius J. (1989). Historical Writing. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 May 2022, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Historical_Writing&oldid=163118.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 375-377. All rights reserved.

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