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Conference explores new ground in Anabaptist-Mennonite history

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – When it comes to religious history, the standard college textbook for “Western Civilization” has a blank, one a recent conference at Bethel College was planned to help begin to fill in.

After more than 50 years of scholarly study of the Anabaptists, such a text nowadays will cover the beginnings of the Anabaptist movement in 16th-century Europe – with references to Menno Simons (from whom the name “Mennonite” is derived), the Kingdom of Münster and the Peasants’ War – says Mark Jantzen, Bethel associate professor of history. “But after 1550, [the Anabaptists] disappear.”

Jantzen and his colleague Mary Sprunger (both Bethel graduates, in 1985 and 1984, respectively), professor of history at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va., were co-planners for “Marginal or Mainstream? Anabaptists, Mennonites and Modernity in European Society,” a conference held on the Bethel campus June 25-26.

It isn’t that all topics related to 16th-century Anabaptism have been exhausted, says Sprunger. But “a new generation” of scholars has begun to look more closely at other time periods. Her own interest is in 17th-century Dutch history while Jantzen’s is in 19th-century German.

The thesis of the conference, in fact, was that Mennonites – far from retreating into obscurity as the textbooks suggest – were an important influence on European economics, politics, religion and other areas of society over the next centuries, the “modern era.”

“I want to mention how pleased we were to have well-known Reformation historian Thomas Brady, from the University of California-Berkeley, set the stage for us,” said Sprunger of the keynote speaker. Jantzen added, “Tom Brady [suggested that] Mennonites as a religious minority helped to create and spread modernity, especially in Eastern Europe. Mennonites introduced new models for doing business – capitalism – and new methods of agriculture and pushed the discussion of religious tolerance. In the Dutch setting, they [modeled] a radical liberal democracy.”

“I was interested in [Brady’s statement that] we need to be prepared for the consequences of putting Mennonites into the center of European history,” Sprunger says. “It might not always be what we expect or hope for. We need to be prepared for the stories to change.”

After two days of paper presentations by scholars about evenly divided between the United States and elsewhere – Canada, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Ukraine and Uzbekistan – and an afternoon bus tour that took conference participants to Mennonite museums in Goessel and Hillsboro, the conference wrapped up on Saturday afternoon with a time to state “initial conclusions,” which arose mostly in the form of questions, Sprunger says.

One of the most hotly debated was how to define “modernity.” “On purpose, we didn’t offer a definition of modernity,” Jantzen says. “The scholars who study the Dutch were particularly concerned about this, but Tom Brady noted in the final discussion that it was ‘a concept too big for definition.’ Mary and I thought of it as a descriptive or shorthand term, describing a set of social practices, or the institutionalization of Enlightenment practices.”

“The question was, Is modernity negative or positive?” Sprunger adds. “We [in the West are] all beneficiaries, in terms of educational opportunities and personal choice in many areas. On the other hand, there’s the fact of the secularization process and leaving behind of cherished traditions. There was a broad range of opinion [at the conference].”

Another issue raised in the wrap-up, she says, was that of “the role of the state, also in terms of positive or negative, which is a common theme in European history of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Mennonites benefited from growing tolerance but also lost much of their autonomy.”

Other questions included the negative and positive aspects of Mennonite participation in European economies as well as the growing need to face issues of wealth and privilege; the particular experience of Dutch Mennonites, who experienced societal tolerance much earlier and therefore assimilated faster; the complex relationship between theology and culture and whether to speak of theology was even appropriate; and the extent to which European Mennonites set their own agenda or had it set by the state or “the world.”

Both Jantzen and Sprunger were surprised and pleased by the number and diversity of conference attenders. “I was expecting 50 or so, 100 at the most,” Jantzen says. “We had 120 registered, with at least 30 more who dropped in at different times.”

“I enjoyed the audience cross-section of both scholars and laypeople,” Sprunger says. “It made for a bigger audience than you often get at these conferences. Bethel was well situated, near retirement communities and museums, with a lot of [local] people with a deep interest in Mennonite history.”

One of the conference funders was the Marpeck Fund, established by Robert Kreider and the late Gerald Kreider to foster interaction between Mennonite educational institutions, which stipulated (and financed) student involvement in the conference, so there was a special effort to get them there. Several attended from Bethel, Goshen (Ind.) College, Eastern Mennonite Seminary, EMU and Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary-Great Plains, as well as one student who came via Canadian Mennonite University.

“It was exciting to have students meeting scholars who are working in areas [they’ve studied],” Jantzen says. “We also had several graduate students as presenters.”

Both planners say they feel satisfied their goals for the conference were met. “We want to create awareness, particularly in North America, of European Mennonite history after the 16th century,” Sprunger says. “We also wanted to get scholars working in the period from different geographical areas together.”

“We had a goal of getting non-Mennonites to look at Mennonite history – and apparently, they are,” Jantzen says, and Sprunger adds, “The interaction between Mennonite and non-Mennonite scholars was another interesting aspect of the conference.”

“This kind of gathering is close to unprecedented at Bethel on this international level,” says Jantzen, noting that the last major conference at the college, Anabaptism for the New Millennium, took place in 2000.

The first goal will be further advanced with publication of the conference papers in book form, though that will likely not be for a couple of years.

“We’re finding better ways to understand European history by understanding Mennonite history,” Jantzen says, “and [adding to] Mennonite history by bringing in broader European history.”

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