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Lectures will examine Mennonite movement from relative seclusion to society

September 11th, 2017

by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Depending on what side of the upcoming election you pay attention to, “economic inequality” may or may not be key – but it’s one of the issues at the heart of the upcoming Menno Simons Lectures at Bethel College.

Perry Bush, professor of history at Bluffton (Ohio) University, will speak on the overall theme “American Mennonites, History and the Common Good” Oct. 30-31 on the Bethel campus.

For most of Mennonites’ 300-plus-year history in the United States, they have lived “relatively cloistered,” Bush noted. “Religious and family life were at the center. They kept that social distance by, especially in the East, branding the outside ‘worldly’ and ‘sinful’ and, more in the Great Plains, by holding to the German language and German-Russian culture.”

This began to change after World War II, when young Mennonite men and a few young women entered alternative service.

“The red-letter phrase, the lightning-rod phrase, became ‘social responsibility,’” Bush said. “Paraphrasing the late Robert Kreider, we began lobbying – for Civilian Public Service – when it was to save our own necks. So when do we as Mennonites start to take responsibility for issues outside of our cloistered walls?”

Mennonites have been discussing – and disagreeing on – the answer to that question ever since.

The first of Bush’s three lectures, “Grasping the Hand of Politics: Mennonites and the Common Good,” will be at 8 p.m. Oct. 30 (note the time change from previously printed calendars).

This lecture will give “a greater sense of how Mennonites engaged with society over time,” Bush said.

The second and third lectures will be Oct. 31. “Saying Yes and No to the State: Mennonites, History and Social Responsibility” will be the convocation presentation at 11 a.m.

“This focuses on the critical decades of the mid-20 century, the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, when the posture of ‘separation’ was being challenged, between ‘Our necks only?’ or a larger common good to which we owe some responsibility.”

The final lecture, “Guy Hershberger, Unions and the Challenge of Kermit Eby,” will be given at 7 p.m., and reflects some of Bush’s most recent research.

He has been exploring how Mennonites and Church of the Brethren have understood and interacted with labor unions in some critical periods in the 20th century, reading Mennonite scholar Guy F. Hershberger and Church of the Brethren minister and union leader Kermit Eby, who both wrote extensively on unions.

“Eby seems to offer a very different take on labor unions in particular and political involvement in general than what many Mennonites were voicing at the time,” Bush said.

In this lecture in particular, but running throughout, is “what Mennonites have had to say – or not say – about the chasm of economic inequality in our society that has been widening over the past half century.”

All three Menno Simos Lectures will be presented in Krehbiel Auditorium in Bethel’s Luyken Fine Arts Center.

Opportunity for questions and discussion will follow each lecture, which are free and open to the public.

Faith & Life Bookstore of Newton will have a book table set up that will include copies of Bush’s books for purchase.

Bush has taught at Bluffton University since 1994. A native of Pasadena, California, he received his BA degree in 1981 (with highest honors) from the University of California, Berkeley, and MA and Ph.D. in U.S. social history from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University in 1987 and 1990, respectively.

In his doctoral work, Bush explored the historical changes occurring in Mennonite pacifism against the backdrop of extensive Mennonite socio-economic change in 20th-century America. This work was later published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1988 as Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America.

Bush is also the author of Dancing with the Kobzar: Bluffton College and Mennonite Higher Education (Pandora Press, 2000), Rust Belt Resistance: How a Small Community Took on Big Oil and Won (Kent State University Press, 2012) and, most recently, Peace, Progress and the Professor: The Mennonite History of C. Henry Smith (Herald Press, 2015).

In addition, Bush has published in both popular and scholarly journals such as Sojourners, Peace and Change, Mennonite Quarterly Review, Journal of Mennonite Studies and Fides et Historia.

He has taught U.S. history as a Fulbright Scholar in Ukraine, served in elected leadership roles in the Allen County (Ohio) Democratic Party, and managed two local political campaigns.

Bush lives in Bluffton, where he is a member of First Mennonite Church. He and his wife Elysia are parents of three grown children.

The John P. and Carolina Schrag Kaufman family established the Menno Simons Lectureship Endowment to promote research and public lectures by recognized scholars relating to Anabaptist-Mennonite history, thought, life and culture, past and present. Since 1997, the family of William E. and Meta Goering Juhnke has also contributed substantially to the endowment. Both families have their roots in the Moundridge area.

Bethel College is the only private college in Kansas listed in the analysis of top colleges and universities, the Washington Monthly National Universities-Liberal Arts section and the National Liberal Arts College category of U.S. News & World Report, all for 2016–17. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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