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Mennonites and modernity to be topic of June historical conference

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Historians and scholars from across Europe and North America will gather at Bethel College in June for a conference that will shine a light on a heretofore neglected area in Anabaptist and Mennonite historical study.

“Marginal or Mainstream?: Anabaptists, Mennonites and Modernity in European Society” will take place on the Bethel campus June 25-26.

While earlier general surveys of 16th-century European history ignored Anabaptists – at most mentioning the horrors of Münster without much context – today the history of Anabaptism in the second and third decades of the 1500s has made its way out of the confines of denominational history and into all the standard textbooks of the era. Once chronological surveys arrive at the 1540s, however, the lights go dim and Anabaptist/Mennonite historiography retreats back to its corner, a deficiency this conference is designed to address.

Starting in the 16th century, Mennonites in Europe presented an example of an alternative, cohesive community that was Christian, pacifist and non-state, forcing the societies and states where they lived to grapple with recurrent exceptions to the laws and to assumptions about the proper behaviors of subjects and citizens.

The Bethel conference, therefore, will look at such questions as: Over five centuries of Anabaptist and Mennonite history, to what extent did this often-marginalized community nonetheless provide models or stimuli for important developments in European economics, politics, religious practice, gender relations or other areas? What did Mennonites have to offer that interested, aided or offended the world? How did Mennonites experience and help to shape industrialization, urbanization, capitalism, imperialism, feminism, republicanism, nationalism, institutionalization and Enlightenment rationality? Or were most Mennonites happy to stay on the margins of European modernity?

The “Mennonites and Modernity” conference will open Friday morning, June 25, with a keynote address by Thomas Brady, professor of the graduate school, University of California-Berkeley, speaking on “The Upper Hand: Majorities and Minorities in Post-Reformation Europe.” This event will be held in Krehbiel Auditorium of the Fine Arts Center while most other plenary sessions will be in the sanctuary of Bethel College Mennonite Church nearby.

There will be two concurrent paper sessions on Friday, June 25, Contemporary Applications of Anabaptist Theology, and Creating and Responding to German Developments in the Long Nineteenth Century, in the morning, and Never Rural, Always Urban – Congregational Microhistories, and Issues in Dutch Mennonite History, in the early afternoon.

Friday afternoon beginning at 3, a bus tour focused on Russian Mennonite immigration to south central Kansas will leave from the Kauffman Museum parking lot, with stops at Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church and the Immigrant House in Goessel and the Peter Paul Loewen Adobe House in Hillsboro.

That evening, there will be a Russian Mennonite buffet, catered by the Breadbasket of Newton, in Kauffman Museum, followed by Keith Sprunger, professor emeritus of history at Bethel, speaking on “Light in the West: The International Educational Mission of Bethel College.”

The paper sessions will run consecutively on Saturday, June 26, and will take place in Bethel College Mennonite Church. In the morning, Mennonites and the Dutch Enlightenment will be followed by Mennonite Interactions with Russian Society. The afternoon sessions will be Mennonites and Modernization in Central Asia, followed by Mennonites and the Third Reich.

The conference will wrap up with a plenary session on “initial conclusions.”

Presenters for the conference include Andrea Borella, University of Turin; Brian Brewer, Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University; Michael Driedger, Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario; Johannes Dyck, Bibelseminar Bonn; Ernie Hamm, York University, Toronto; Dilaram Inoyatova, National University of Uzbekistan; Andrey Ivanov, Yale University; Mark Jantzen, Bethel College; Rainer Kobe, University of Trier; Marion Kobelt-Groch, University of Hamburg; Frank Konersman, University of Bielefeld; Jeremy Koop, York University; Karl Koop, Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba; Yme Kuiper, University of Groningen; Troy Osborne, Bluffton (Ohio) University; Walter Ratliff, Associated Press, Washington, D.C.; James Regier, University of Notre Dame; Mary S. Sprunger, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va.; John D. Thiesen, Bethel College; Nataliya Venger, Dnipropetrovsk (Ukraine) University; Piet Visser, Free University, Amsterdam; and Christoph Wiebe, Krefeld, Germany.

Mark Jantzen and Mary Sprunger are the conference co-organizers. They plan to collect and publish the papers presented at the conference.

Funders for “Marginal or Mainstream?: Anabaptists, Mennonites and Modernity in Eastern Europe” are Hamburgische Stiftung für Wissenschaftern, Entwicklung und Kultur Helmut und Hannelore Grave, the Marpeck Fund, the Fransen Family Foundation, Bethel College, the D.F. Plett Research Foundation, Herb and Mary Fransen and Eric and Joelle Jantzen.

Registration for the entire conference or individual events is due by June 14. Registration forms may be downloaded at, or obtained at Thresher Bookstore in Schultz Student Center on the Bethel campus, phone 316-284-5205, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2009 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at

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