A New Responsibility: The Awakening of the Mennonite Social Conscience During the Civil Rights Era, 1950-1965

Issue 2019, vol. 73


In 1959, while in Atlanta for a meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Mennonites Guy F. Hershberger and Elmer Neufeld arrived at a crossroads of faith and social conscience. On their way to the airport, Hershberger and Neufeld shared a ride with another white man and two black men. They decided to dine at the Dobbs House in the Atlanta International Airport – a restaurant chain that only a few weeks earlier had refused to serve Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. After they were seated, the manager informed the group that the black men in their party would not be served. Instead of leaving, the three white men ordered large meals and divided the food equally among the entire group.1

Thinking back on this spontaneous demonstration, Hershberger reflected that they “did the right thing.”2 Their protest did not stop at the dinner table, however, as Hershberger wrote letters recounting this incident to executives of Dobbs House and the airlines serving the Atlanta airport, and to the Atlanta Constitution.3 These letters expressed Christian convictions and a deep social conscience, steps on the path to a more activist Anabaptist vision. Participating in their own civil rights demonstration through nonviolent action made its mark on Hershberger and Neufeld, who continued to stir Mennonites’ social conscience and advocate for their prophetic witness with an urgency that only grew throughout the early 1960s.

However mild this demonstration may seem within the context of the mainstream civil rights movement, the actions of Hershberger and Neufeld would have been nearly unfathomable for most American Mennonites prior to World War II – especially because of their strong theological underpinnings. In the post-war period, young Mennonite thinkers, influenced by contemporary Christian ethics and theology, began to depart from the traditional Anabaptist-Mennonite convictions of a strict two-kingdom theology and biblical nonresistance. As this new generation of Mennonites began to redefine their role in the modern world, the cry for racial equality in the United States was becoming deafening – so much so that not even these historically separatist people could ignore it. At this historic intersection of a changing Mennonite theology and a changing American society, the issue of race relations tested the strength of these new theological commitments still in their infancy. As they struggled to find their place in a changing world, General Conference Mennonites and “Old” Mennonites found new ways to make their prophetic voice heard –ways that did not always align with their traditional denominational identities. Be it on the street or in the sanctuary, in a letter to Congress or a letter to the editor, in the deep South or in their hometowns, American Mennonites were pushed by their changing theological commitments to take a decidedly progressive step into the worldly kingdom and make their newfound prophetic voice heard during the civil rights era.

Early American Mennonites and the state, nonresistance, and race

The traditional Mennonite positions on peace, nonresistance, and the state are founded in the 16th-century Anabaptist commitment to two-kingdom theology. In this paradigm, it is understood that God created two orders: the kingdom of the world and the Kingdom of God. It establishes the will of God and the fulfillment of God’s kingdom as the primary concerns of Christians while leaving little regard for society. While Christians are residents of both kingdoms, their first allegiance is to God and the Kingdom of Christ. Nevertheless, secular authority is to be respected and adhered to, as its power and authority are ordained by God. However, the state is still an institution of the worldly kingdom, so engagement with society and the state is discouraged. Separation from the state rather than cooperation with it was very much a product of the hostile and persecutory relationship between the first Anabaptists and the state.4

Although early Anabaptists held a fervent commitment to mission and evangelism and were engaged with both church and state authorities, this fervor quickly faded with the second and third generations. As they receded into their own communities, European Mennonites became die Stillen im Lande, or “the quiet in the land,” an identity that was integral to Mennonites in North America. Mennonite historian Perry Bush described die Stillen im Lande as “quiet, backroads farmers who neither gambled, swore, nor drank; who avoided legal issues, paid their taxes, refrained from proselytizing their neighbors, and asked only to be left alone to serve their God in their own way.”5

The two Mennonite denominations examined in this study are the “Old” Mennonite Church (MC) and the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCMC or GC). Influenced by their unique heritages and experiences in Europe, these two groups of Mennonites each held a distinct ethos that deeply influenced their self-understanding, especially as it related to American society. The Swiss-South German Mennonites arrived in Pennsylvania in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and eventually became organized as the “Old” Mennonite Church. Their European past was one of persecution, which fostered their separatism and distain for the state. Although not persecuted with such vigor in North America, Swiss-South German Mennonites continued to remain on the periphery of society.6

The first Dutch-Russian Mennonites arrived in the United States by way of the Russian Empire in the 1870s. These Mennonites found toleration in the Netherlands as early as the 1570s. From there, they migrated to Prussia and then Ukraine, where they experienced cultural, political, and economic autonomy. This produced a community that built institutions, accepted responsibility in society, and challenged their separatist theology. These characteristics came to define the GCMC, the small denomination the Dutch-Russian Mennonites joined upon their arrival to the United States. While this group still claimed their citizenship in the Kingdom of God, they simultaneously affirmed participation in the kingdom of the world.7 Mennonite historian James Juhnke remarked that “while the Swiss-South Germans learned to hold their heads down and to avert their eyes in the face of authority, the Dutch-Russians learned to take charge of the turf they controlled, limited though it may have been, to hold their heads higher, and to engage vigorously in the give and take of local public policy formation and institution building.”8

Until the 20th century, die Stillen im Lande encapsulated the American Mennonite lifestyle. Remaining virtually separated from the rest of society, Mennonites only ventured beyond their rural communities when war threatened their theological convictions. Despite this increased engagement with the state during the 20th century, American Mennonites retained their commitment to nonresistance, a doctrine that upheld both a two-kingdom theology and pacifism. MC leader John Mumaw identified that nonresistance “holds that violence should not be resisted by force. It forbids taking vengeance, prescribes peaceable living with people, advocates the suffering for wrongdoing, and practices the submission to the powers that be within the limits of conscience.”9 In American civic life, nonresistance manifested itself as the refusal to protest, vote, hold office, or engage in coercive activities, such as the courts, labor unions, and law enforcement.10

In the area of race relations, American Mennonites practiced a muddled mixture of quiet progressivism and quiet racism until the post-war period. While the narrative of the Mennonite experience in America is largely one of acculturation, historian Tobin Miller Shearer observed that “in the area of race relations, Mennonites did not become more acculturated during the twentieth century; they already were.”11 Interracial encounters in the MC were almost exclusively in the interest of evangelism and mission – activities that were mostly segregated and thus created strong lines of racial separation. GC Mennonites, on the other hand, did not begin mission work in black communities until after World War II. Although the church was fraught with racist theology, policy, and practice, this went largely unnoticed or ignored, as Mennonites used their separation from the world to absolve themselves from the worldly sin of racism. Moreover, some clung to a historic anti-slavery resolution passed by Mennonites and Quakers in 1688 in order to avoid contemporary issues of racism in the church. In reality, these separatist communities were deeply acculturated in the area of race relations, adopting the racist norms of their surroundings.12 By the mid-20th century, these contradictions were becoming glaringly obvious to black Mennonites (numbering only 290 members and 1,081 weekly attendees in the MC in 1953) and to some white Mennonites as well.13

In the 1940s, evidence of slow progress began to emerge. James Lark was ordained as the first black MC pastor; Hershberger called the church to rid itself of notions of white superiority; and the denominational papers – the GCMC’s the Mennonite and the MC’s Gospel Herald – printed articles encouraging tolerance, acceptance, and self-reflection. Interracial evangelism and mission in both denominations surged after World War II, but while some mission work fostered egalitarianism and meaningful relationships, others did quite the opposite. Pastor Rondo Horton described the primary tone of mission work to be that “the solution to the sin of racial discrimination lay in saving the souls and improving the physical condition of the African-American community.”14 Instances of more open racism also continued, with the most glaring example being the policy of the MC’s Virginia Conference banning mixed-race foot-washing and communion, practices that were upheld until 1955. In the post-war period, the progressivism and racism on issues of race relations that had been quiet for over a century were now growing louder.

Rethinking the state and nonresistance

For most of their time in the United States, Mennonites only engaged with the state over strictly Mennonite issues, namely conscription. By 1950, however, American Mennonites were realizing the democracy they were living in was entirely different than the authoritarian and persecutory state that shaped their ancestors’ theology. This welfare state could act in alignment with Anabaptist-Mennonite values, and therefore fulfill the will of God, even if that was not the intention of the state. At the same time, Mennonites engaged in the global ecumenical discussion of Christian social ethics and wrestled with the criticisms of mainstream Christian ethicists. Reinhold Niebuhr attacked their “pacifist social irresponsibility” and accused them of being “parasites of the state,” while John C. Bennett described nonresistance as a “strategy of withdrawal.”15

In November 1950, 87 Mennonites representing 14 denominations and 16 organizations gathered at the historic Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Peace Section Study Conference in Winona Lake, Ind. Here, Mennonites began confronting the reality that the state they were living in was not only a warfare state – as their Anabaptist ancestors had faced – but also a welfare state as well. In light of this reality, the pastors, scholars, and church administrators in attendance sought to find their new place in post-war American society while upholding the core tenets of their theology. Though the delegates did not know it at the time, their conversations at Winona Lake would come to guide the conversation about social responsibility, prophetic witness, and peacemaking for the rest of the century.16

At its core, “A Declaration of Faith and Commitment,” the statement of the Winona Lake conference, was an affirmation of the main tenets of the Mennonite faith. There were, however, a number of new ideas that became the foundation for the theological transformation that would unfold in the coming decades, especially in light of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. Most importantly, the concept of “the lordship of Christ” was introduced. Whereas two-kingdom theology assumes there are two moral standards – one within the perfection of Christ and one beyond it – the lordship of Christ acts as a canopy under which all people exist. This theological worldview asserts that all people and institutions – the government included – are called to fulfill and uphold God’s moral expectation, and that it is the responsibility of Christians to call the world to do so. Thus, Mennonites were placed within the social order rather than set apart from it. This new understanding brought with it a responsibility to witness to the state and the entire social order to meet the moral standard that God calls all people to uphold. Although only introduced at Winona Lake, this initial departure from the traditional die Stillen im Lande lifestyle and the new commitment to witness to the state and society would become a central feature for Mennonites for the rest of the 20th century.17

In 1957, GC scholar and activist Neufeld presented “Christian Responsibility in the Political Situation,” a paper that attempted to bridge the historical divide between MCs and GCs over engagement with the state while continuing the conversations of the Winona Lake conference. Although Neufeld affirmed two-kingdom theology, he was critical of what it had become, even citing Niebuhr’s critiques. “Perhaps after all in practice we have used a legitimate and important teaching (separation from the world) to escape responsibilities that are clearly ours within the gospel of Christ.”18 Neufeld declared that Mennonites, whether they chose to believe it or not, were living in a political society and their actions (or inactions) had political relevance.

Using the lordship of Christ paradigm, Neufeld emphasized “witnessing to the state” and called Mennonites to look to the Gospel when engaging with the state and society. “When we are thoroughly motivated by the love of Christ of the cross – when we all actually take our neighbors’ interests as seriously as our own – our concerns will appropriately find expression in actions that do have political relevance.”19 Neufeld affirmed social and political actions such as non-participation, disobedience, nonviolent direct action, voting, and influencing public policy, all of which were becoming increasingly relevant as the civil rights movement gained national attention. While Neufeld’s views resonated most strongly with activists, he gave Mennonites of all postures something to embrace. Although old guard scholars Harold S. Bender and Hershberger were critical of Neufeld’s “radical” ideas, greater attention was turning towards prophetic witness to the state and society.20

Denominational statements on race relations

On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision Brown v. Board of Education, an outcome that shook the American social conscience to its core. As the civil rights movement gained momentum, Mennonites were challenged to uphold their new theological commitments to the social order of which they were a part. Four days after the Supreme Court decision, Hershberger and the MC Committee on Economic and Social Relations (CESR) began preparing for a conference to address issues of race relations in the church. For Hershberger, an established MC scholar, issues of race would come to define the final years of his career within the church and reshape his own faith.21 The Conference on Christian Community Relations, held in April 1955, marked the start of the MC’s experience with issues of race relations during the civil rights era. Although it was difficult for some of them to accept, the conference attendees (mostly pastors, scholars, and administrators) affirmed the teaching of the New Testament “that there is no difference” among the races of the world. Furthermore, those at the conference found “occasion for rejoicing” over the work the small non-white minority was doing in the MC – perhaps a premature celebration considering the next decade would reveal deep-seated racism within the church.22

The most important product of this conference was “The Way of the Cross in Race Relations,” a statement drafted by Hershberger and passed by those in attendance. Confessing that they had accepted “social patterns of segregation and discrimination” and had been influenced by social and public forces rather than following “the way of the cross,” these “Old” Mennonites made clear the importance of the traditional doctrines of nonresistance and nonconformity. Despite this appearance of a strong two-kingdom theology, influences of the Winona Lake conference were equally clear. While much of the statement focused inwardly on correcting racism within the church, it boldly declared the “duty” of Mennonites to “witness against the evils of prejudice and discrimination wherever they may be found.”23 How this witness was to manifest itself, however, became the contested issue. Dedicated to a gospel of redemption and reconciliation, these leaders realized that “only as we rise above differences of race and class are we truly engaged in the Christian witness.” In this statement, the themes of witness and responsibility surfaced, reflective of Winona Lake. Furthermore, racism was addressed in more secular terms and Mennonites were called to extinguish prejudice and follow the way of the cross in all aspects of their lives. In these ways, the CESR found a way to comfortably balance two-kingdom nonconformity with their new commitment to a certain degree of social responsibility.24

By June, the conference statement had been published in the Gospel Herald. In August, the MC General Conference (churchwide assembly) readily adopted the statement themselves, now under the title “The Way of Christian Love in Race Relations.” Neither the Gospel Herald publication nor the General Conference meeting stimulated much debate on the issue, leading Hershberger and the CESR to believe that the MC membership was supportive of the new position.25

GC and MC leaders gathered together at Woodlawn Mennonite Church in Chicago in April 1959 to address “the too great silence of the Mennonite church on the race issue.”26 At this Seminar on Christ, the Mennonite Churches, and Race Relations, Mennonites struggled with a question that would never be resolved: “Should Mennonites be concerned with activism or evangelism in this time of political, social, and spiritual strife?” In general, GCs, along with Hershberger, advanced it was a “minimum essential” that Mennonites fulfill their “mission as the conscience of society, giving a witness against every form of injustice.”27 On the other hand, most MCs agreed that they had little to do with the problems of the world, and that were called to bring more souls into the Kingdom of God. This debate would continue throughout the era.

In the fall of 1959, the GCMC released its own corporate statement, “The Christian and Race Relations.” Witnessing the “closed schools, riotous mobs, restricted housing, and segregated churches,” GCs asked, “How shall we seek a society where people of all races and nations enjoy equal privileges and responsibilities?”28 The confession of guilt in this statement critically examined the presence of racial discrimination in themselves and their institutions, the absence of speaking out against discrimination in society, and the “spirit of exclusivity,” reflected in their desire to protect their own Mennonite culture and customs. While MCs were focused on nonconformity to the world, GC Mennonites were concerned with the sins of racism among their own ranks and addressed society much more directly.29

“The Christian and Race Relations” also laid out a number of commitments, including efforts to purge themselves and their institutions of pride and discrimination, to love and serve all people regardless of race, and to fulfill their role as peacemakers on issues of race relations. The GCMC called its members, congregations, and institutions – existing under the lordship of Christ – to commit themselves to open minds and open policies, and to accept all people regardless of race. Many of these convictions were found in Hershberger’s “The Way of the Cross in Race Relations,” though commitment to the lordship of Christ was not explicit. The GCMC, however, directly affirmed the lordship of Christ. While critical of the sin of the world, it called Mennonites to work toward solutions in the world rather than separate from it.30

These two statements are largely representative of the denominational positions on issues regarding the state and society, especially in the wake of the Winona Lake conference. Whereas MCs found ways to integrate themes of witness to the state and the lordship of Christ with their commitment to two-kingdom separationism, GCs more readily accepted this new paradigm in speaking to the issue of race relations. Despite the call of these statements for Mennonites to act on contemporary issues, they were largely only theoretical and had varying degrees of effect on how members actually acted. Moreover, these statements were the work of church leaders and were less familiar or adhered to by lay members. Finally, as Mennonites began to respond to these issues, the once seemingly clear denominational lines of thought and action started to blur.

Work of the leadership

By the early 1960s, the Mennonite leadership – who were mostly white male pastors, scholars, and administrators – had been wrestling with the issues of race relations in the context of their transforming theology for nearly a decade. In 1963, MC and GC leaders struggled to find ways to instill their own fervor into Mennonite congregations across the country. Recognizing the importance of their recent denominational statements, black Mennonites Ed Riddick, Curtis Burrell, Gerald Hughes, and Vincent Harding urged their fellow church leaders to preserve these new commitments through practical and widespread works. Understanding that they had “drafted and adopted enough resolutions,” the leadership set out to light a fire among their congregations by taking up the mantle of educator. Church committees developed Sunday school materials, educational literature, workshops, and programming aimed to fulfill corporate commitments by igniting the Mennonite social conscience and inspiring prophetic witness.31

Central to many of the conversations regarding race during this era were black Mennonites. Although respected and influential by the 1960s, some of these men had been the targets of skepticism and rejection as members of interracial couples only a few years earlier. Interracial marriage was a divisive issue in the 1950s, especially in the MC, due to its higher level of integration to that point. In the case of Gerald Hughes and Annabelle Conrad, their marriage in 1954 garnered support from their family, pastor, and many fellow members at their church in Ohio, but was met with opposition at the denominational level. After their wedding, Hughes was dismissed from his alternative service position at Hawthorne State Hospital. As Mennonites began focusing more and more attention on issues of race relations, however, they sought out the voices of black Mennonites. Hughes, Burrell, and others, who had all married white Mennonite women, quickly rose to positions of prominence in the leadership.32 Thus, as Shearer observed, “a racialized menace had become a welcome asset.”33

In 1964, Vern Preheim, executive secretary of the GC Peace and Social Concerns Committee (PSCC), reported that since instituting educational programs on race, all GCMC district conferences had passed their own resolutions on race, which included support for civil rights legislation. Furthermore, congregations had begun finding their own ways to take action in their local communities, which will be discussed at length later.34 Despite these changes, leaders continued to lament that, in their eyes, congregations were still not doing enough. This dissonance between the expectations of leaders and the actions of members continued throughout the civil rights era.

There were few church leaders, if any, who had a greater impact on Mennonite race-related social conscience than Vincent Harding. Originally from New York, Harding was attracted to the Anabaptist-Mennonite message as a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago. After some time as a member at Woodlawn Mennonite Church, Harding joined its white pastor, Delton Franz, and became the first black pastor of a GC church, in 1958.35 Though viewed at first as “an exhibit of ‘our Negro Mennonite pastor,’” Harding soon became a familiar and respected figure.36 Harding’s personal investment in racial equality gave fresh energy for radical Anabaptism. This positioned him as a natural leader of the Mennonite conversation on race relations, emphasizing the necessity of traditional Anabaptist values of peace, discipleship, and reconciliation in resolving national social issues of racial injustice.37

Vincent Harding’s message pointed out the value of a Mennonite prophetic voice in an unjust society, and guided Mennonites toward a more active form of peace witness. This boldness, however, was sometimes met with reluctance and criticism, as Harding was one to turn a mirror to Mennonites’ own shortcomings: “We must confess that we have too often allowed nonresistance to become synonymous with sitting on our hands and closing our eyes and turning our backs on injustice and hatred among men,” for example.38 In a prophetic and unusually critical statement, Harding declared the need for Mennonite leaders to continue moving forward, with or without congregational support. “The Mennonite God is too much a God of order and peace. It may be that God is ready to use revolution as a prelude to resurrection. We are defending the status quo. Most of our people will never be ready for the requirements of the hour, and we can no longer wait for them.”39 Despite the discomfort this created, Harding’s leadership often led to introspection and positive change.

The fervor for activism that Harding displayed at church conferences was not unfounded, for his role among Mennonites was only part of his identity. Harding claimed and practiced his Mennonite identity through “service, speech, humility, and theology,” yet he also was deeply committed to the mainstream civil rights movement.40 While pastoring Woodlawn Mennonite Church, leading Mennonite House in Atlanta, and guiding conversations among church leaders, Harding was simultaneously actively challenging Jim Crow laws, spending time in jail, and gaining respect within the national civil rights movement. While at Mennonite House, located only a block away from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Atlanta home, the Hardings became well-acquainted with the Kings. Harding soon became a strong ally in King’s efforts, acting as a key mediator between white leaders and civil rights protestors in Birmingham, Ala. Harding’s high-profile work in the civil rights movement doubly challenged Mennonites to consider their own position on issues of nonviolence and the state.41 Over time, however, Harding’s balance between church and society shifted. Although he drew away from the denomination he was becoming increasingly critical of, he continued to guide and inspire Mennonites to follow his example, and become directly involved in civil rights protests and lobbying efforts. In 1966, due to growing frustrations with the church and complications in his personal life, Harding severed ties with the Mennonite community, returning only for a few often controversial and provocative speaking engagements.42

As Mennonite leaders and laity alike were struggling with their understanding of the roles of the church and of the individual in this time of racial crisis, their traditional commitment to nonresistance was brought into sharp focus. The rise of Martin Luther King Jr. and the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott gave Mennonites a new perspective when considering their role in improving race relations and, more generally, in their responsibility to the state. Perhaps the leader most greatly influenced by King was Hershberger. “Surely the Holy Spirit is telling us that on this question we must speak and we must act,” he wrote, giving voice to the question on every Mennonite’s mind, “But what shall we say and how shall we act?”43 The nonviolent example set forth by King in Montgomery would provide a new framework for Christian action.

In his analysis of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Hershberger lauded King for his true commitment to pacifism as taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and for the faithful and unfaltering commitment to Christian ethics displayed in the “Montgomery experiment.”44 In his critique of King, however, Hershberger was clear not to affirm all boycotts, only the events in Montgomery. Hershberger affirmed appealing to authority for justice, if carried out in the way of the cross “with an attitude of love at all times … toward the opponent.”45 This ethic was not an easy task, and Hershberger viewed Montgomery as a rare example of success. Put another way, Hershberger was affirming nonviolent resistance if it was based solely on pure Christian ethics and never led to violence. Hershberger also maintained a preexisting reluctance to affirm the validity of Gandhi’s and King’s interpretation of nonviolence. While Hershberger recognized the greatness of Gandhi and that his positive influence on the world, he could not get past the fact that Gandhi was not Christian, and his ethics and practices were not rooted in the New Testament. Finding enough evidence that King’s basic ethics were rooted in the New Testament, Hershberger could look past King’s Gandhian techniques, though not without some difficulty.46 Reluctance to embrace Gandhian nonviolence was a sentiment among Mennonite thinkers at the time, especially of the MC variety.

In July 1959, Neufeld, now the executive secretary of MCC’s Peace Section, and Hershberger attended a conference in Atlanta on nonviolent resistance to segregation. Reflecting on this conference, these men expressed concern that the use of nonviolence by many leaders of the SCLC was not properly founded in Christian pacifism, but rather in humanistic philosophy. Thus, nonviolence was simply an optional tactic rather than a way of life. Despite their criticisms of the SCLC, Neufeld and Hershberger recommended that Mennonites remain connected to the SCLC, and advocated for social action in the form of “an aggressive Mennonite program of work in the area of race relations.”47 Paul Peachey, an MC peace scholar and advocate, had similar doubts about the presence of nonviolence in the civil rights movement. Peachey observed that while nonviolent action was spreading across the South, very few people were familiar with its origins – Christian nonresistance, Gandhian nonviolence, or otherwise. For Peachey, this perceived ambiguity about nonviolence was problematic, as the nonviolent tactic could easily become warped. Peachey argued that Mennonites, as a historic peace church, were in a prime position to help spread the practice of nonviolence as a Christian ethic rather than as a method of protest and coercion.48

In 1961, the MCC Peace Section established a Voluntary Service (VS) unit in Atlanta, led by Vincent and Rosemarie Harding. The Hardings’ fervor for racial justice and Anabaptism fueled their energy in this role. The Atlanta VS unit was commissioned by MCC to provide Christian witness to “all aspects of life,” not just on the issue of race relations.49 Boldly, MCC added that “Christian obedience may at times lead to violation of government laws and regulation.”50 Mirroring Hershberger’s comments following his own trips to the South, MCC also expanded the Anabaptist vision of higher loyalty to contemporary situations.

At the GCMC’s 1961 Church and Society Conference, Harding and a group of Chicago Mennonites gave a series of recommendations regarding actions for Mennonites, specifically those in rural areas largely separated from the mainstream civil rights movement. Critically, they noted the “great difference [between] the policy of a congregation which says its doors are open to all who wish to come and the congregation which sends its members forth to the streets and lanes of the city inviting, urging, and compelling men to come.”51 Harding’s group provided a list of suggested actions for these quiescent congregations, including speaking out against discriminatory policies and practices in their communities, and seriously considering participation in protests and demonstrations. Congregations were consistently encouraged to leave their churches and engage with the marginalized on their own terms. “We have no right to plan and attend conferences of this kind,” charged the study group, “unless we are at the same time ready and willing to suffer responsibly in bringing these convictions into deeds.”52

The study group criticized the GCMC as “apathetic” at best and more often “consciously disobedient” at worst “to the light of God’s living Word, and untrue to our own professions of faith and the heritage of our church.”53 Witnessing to society was a necessity for Mennonites, but a necessity that could only be fulfilled after issues of racism had been remedied within the church and the individual. Peter J. Ediger responded to these criticisms, noting that this study on race downplayed the number of Mennonites already engaged with issues of race both inside and outside of the church. “In the dark night of the church’s struggle with sin,” Ediger wrote, “it is helpful to point to the candles illuminating the night, and not merely curse the darkness.”54 Although he recognized less racism and greater activism among Mennonites than the Chicago group did, Ediger still echoed the call of this study group for Mennonites to examine their own sins and find their prophetic voice.

Work of the membership

Indeed, Mennonite leaders spent considerable time and energy on activating the laity, and while those leaders never seemed fully satisfied with the level of activism they inspired, lay Mennonites’ attitudes about race and the state were changing rather drastically during the 1950s and 1960s. Although most Mennonites were apathetic about or unaware of the doctrinal statements appearing at the denominational level, they were nevertheless finding their prophetic voice and its relevance. One of the most activist congregations during this era was the GCMC congregation Woodlawn Mennonite Church. In the late 1950s, Woodlawn’s young pastor, Delton Franz, urged the GCMC to support the failing congregation, convinced that the future of GC race relations was contingent on its success. With denominational support and the addition of Vincent Harding to the pastoral team in 1958, Woodlawn indeed became the hub for conversations regarding race and the state for the next decade.55

The Woodlawn congregation was active in the North Kenwood neighborhood in Chicago, hosting Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, and a Fresh Air program, as well as their own coffeehouse, all of which served as gateways between the congregation and the non-Mennonite community. Under the passionate leadership of Franz and Harding, interracial relationships developed and grew. Those at Woodlawn became active participants in the civil rights movement, marching, demonstrating, and practicing the nonviolent tactics that many Mennonites found to be problematic. The high levels of service and activism at Woodlawn made it a model congregation to which many leaders pointed when trying to motivate Mennonites across the country.56

The Chicago area was also home to another GC congregation, Community Mennonite Church, which had a strikingly different experience than that of their neighbors in North Kenwood. The founders who started Community Mennonite in the white suburb of Markham in 1956 formally agreed to exclude “any one who is not a Caucasian.” This policy, which was overturned in 1959, resulted in nearly one-third of the congregation leaving the church.57 Between 1950 and 1960, the black population of Markham skyrocketed, expanding from 67 to over 2,500. In 1961, Community Mennonite’s inclusivist policy was tested when Pastor Larry Voth invited three black women to a Sunday service. Their presence left the white congregation reeling – some even left the congregation permanently because of it. Nevertheless, Voth used this opportunity to reaffirm the church’s openness. “God wasn’t going to create two heavens, one for the blacks and one for the whites,” lay leader Jerry Mares remarked to the congregation during a meeting about the future of Community Mennonite, “so we better deal with [integration] right now.”58

In so dealing with integration, Community Mennonite blossomed. By 1962, black members were participating in every aspect of church life. By the end of the decade, black Mennonites comprised over one-third of the congregational membership. Rather than civil rights activism, however, members of Community focused primarily on local ministry, service, and evangelism, or in the words of one member, “practic[ing] integration without agitating for it.”59 The Community Mennonite congregation thrived as they lived out the vision of integration in their sanctuary and neighborhood every week. A similar ethos towards activism and engagement was found at the MC Bethesda Mennonite Church of St. Louis, where congregants found local service and fostering interracial relationships to be a more comfortable and effective demonstration than organized political action.60

The activism and engagement of the Woodlawn, Community, and Bethesda congregations were connected by two common themes that were critical to the rise of the Mennonite prophetic voice during this era. First, many of the most activist Mennonites during this time were those closest – both geographically and relationally – to black communities and to high levels of civil rights activism. Second, these congregations found ways to become activists for racial equality in the Mennonite church and in American society through racially integrated study, worship, service, and fellowship within and beyond the walls of their churches. Personal connections and inventive forms of engagement and demonstration gave Mennonites the courage and the purpose to find their prophetic voice, whether it manifested itself as the protests at Woodlawn, or as the daily demonstrations at Community and Bethesda.

The absence of these influential themes, on the other hand, was also telling of their importance, as seen in rural congregations with far less exposure to interracial communities and with little or no experience with the civil rights movement. In 1961, at the GC Church and Society Conference examined earlier, one study group reported on the work being done in local communities including Elkhart, Ind., Newton, Kan., and Reedley, Calif. All these congregations demonstrated an attitude of openness to congregational integration, but were largely disengaged with social issues. Furthermore, although these Mennonite churches were open to all, interracial worship was a rarity. In Newton, the prevailing attitude was that non-white Christians were “happier in their own churches.”61 Moreover, these Mennonites often struggled to address social issues in their local communities. Nevertheless, interest in action was slowly fermenting, partially due to increasing racial diversification within their communities.62 Surprisingly, one Elkhart Mennonite remarked that “the Negro community is complimentary toward the influence of the Mennonites in their attitudes and influence in the race problem, in spite of the fact that we have actually done very little in this area.”63 Indeed, personal interracial relationships and experiences with the civil rights movement (or lack thereof) were strong determinants of Mennonites’ engagement in society.

Another group whose activism deserves attention is the black women of the Mennonite faith. As Mennonite leaders began discussing the church’s role in the civil rights movement outside the sanctuary, Rowena Lark, Roberta Webb, Betty Gwinn, Rosemarie Harding, and others were deeply committed to church-based change. Defying racial and gender stereotypes, Rowena Lark became a well-respected activist within the church, and in so doing, brought more black people into the Mennonite fold. As black women entered the denomination, they became engaged missionaries, volunteers, Sunday school teachers, and devout Mennonites. One of the most original ways in which black women declared their membership was through wearing the traditional MC dress, including cape dresses and prayer coverings, in some instances as early as the 1930s and 1940s. By embracing the MC dress code as their own, especially as it was falling out of practice, these women faithfully identified as members of the religious community that had so often marginalized them. They also forged meaningful interracial friendships, which were powerful motivators for advocacy and demonstration, contributing to a common theme of the era.64

One of the most popular ways Mennonites engaged with American society and with the civil rights movement itself was through trips to the South. During the so-called “period of tours” during the late 1950s and early 1960s, students, professors, pastors, and church members traveled to the South to learn about and observe the racism and activism that had captured national attention.65 The primary – and often only – goal of these trips was education, not activism. In February 1960, six Mennonite Biblical Seminary students traveled through Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi on such a tour. They met with students, pastors, volunteers, and leaders of the civil rights movement, and heard Martin Luther King Jr. deliver a sermon. During their sobering 10-day journey, they learned that the so-called “race problem” was a social, cultural, economic, and political problem, too, and that it was far more deeply rooted and destructive than they had imagined. Stirred into activism by their trip, these young students began encouraging the church to become more educated about the racism in the South and in their own communities, and to become activists in mending these deep-seated tensions.66 While educational tours were far more popular, there were Mennonites who traveled to the South to participate in actions of the mainstream civil rights movement. In 1965, church leaders and students from GC-affiliated Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., and church leaders drove from Kansas to Alabama to participate in the historic march from Selma to Montgomery. That same year, a group of Bethel students and faculty marched from North Newton to the state capitol in Topeka to demand equitable housing policies.67

Although most did not to engage in activism directly, many of those who traveled into the South returned transformed and empowered to address issues of racism. After their 1960 “exploratory visit” to the South, Hershberger and Neufeld declared the necessity of action by the church, both within and beyond its doors.68 Hershberger traveled to the South on multiple occasions during the early 1960s, each time returning with a more urgent message that Mennonites must stand with the oppressed, even if it meant defying local laws in order to obey “the laws of God [which] are higher.”69 Many of these trips were successful in unveiling the destructive manifestations of racism both in the South and elsewhere across the country. Although these experiences often animated Mennonites to pursue new avenues towards justice, this was not always the case, as the notion that racial prejudice was only a problem in the South solidified in the minds of some Mennonites.

Many of the itineraries of these tours included Camp Landon, a GC mission in Gulfport, Miss. Started in the late 1940s as a Civilian Public Service (CPS) camp, Camp Landon was where many of the first interracial encounters for GC Mennonites occurred. Before the 1950s, most had only engaged theoretically in topics of race.70 Camp Landon served as a “Christian presence” in the Gulfport area, a mission fulfilled by sponsoring MCC VS workers, providing Christian education, and hosting summer camps.71 Camp Landon also ran the Christian Community Center for children from the predominantly black neighborhood of North Gulfport. While the interactions between these children and the camp staff were “superficial” at first, the center became a place that fostered caring and meaningful relationships. By 1953, most of the camp’s interracial work with Gulfport’s white community ceased, a change largely brought about by the pressures and demands of the southern social system in which the camp existed.

Although the camp was perfectly situated to take an activist stance in the civil rights movement, it was determined that a “quiet demonstration” would be more appropriate.72 Rather than drastically changing its mission focus, Camp Landon emphasized working with the black community rather than for it, and acting as peacemakers furthering racial reconciliation and communication. Although this new reality was discouraging to many, such as Janet Juhnke and Rachel Heidebrecht who had come to Camp Landon with “an expectancy of being a part of direct action,” camp administrators felt the constraints of the Southern social system. The camp and its staff were harshly criticized and threatened with violence for their contact with black people. While it may have seemed timid, those at Camp Landon felt their quiet demonstration of living and working alongside the black people of North Gulfport would go much further than participating in marches and sit-ins, which may have brought an end to Camp Landon.73

Despite Camp Landon’s political quiescence, some of the Mennonites working there played a much more activist role. Assistant Director Harold Regier, with the support of Director Orlo Kaufman and with the inspiration of Vincent Harding, participated in a march in Selma, Ala., in 1965. Although he eventually decided it was the right thing to do, Regier did initially question whether or not to march. Should his support of the civil rights movement be passive or active? Would his participation affect Camp Landon’s already strained relationship with the white community of Gulfport?74 Perhaps of greater significance than his marching participation was Regier’s “Sunday School Class on the Air,” a weekly radio broadcast in which he took explicit positions on racism, peace, justice, and their connection to Christianity. Though its message was controversial, Regier’s broadcast was a platform that reached all who listened, regardless of race.75

Camp Landon not only brought Mennonites to the South, it also brought the South to Mennonites. Through the Fresh Air program, black children from the Gulfport area traveled to Kansas and South Dakota to spend two weeks with a Mennonite host family. Camp Landon’s Fresh Air program, along with a similar program run through the MC Lancaster Conference, transformed children into civil rights activists who made lasting impressions on their hosts.76 Many of these hosts were motivated by recognition of the growing problems of racial crisis in the South and their desire to help remedy this crisis by ministering to young children. Fresh Air provided a practical way for Mennonite farm families to engage in a civil rights initiative without an obvious disruption to their daily lives, although for some, it became far more disruptive than they expected. Their young guests, who were clean, smart, generally well-behaved, and insisted on interracial dialogue rather than obeying the prejudiced and controlling demands of their hosts, defied racial stereotypes on a daily basis. Though many hosts were “more interested in maintaining ordered lives than pursing racial justice,” a handful were deeply moved by their experiences as Fresh Air hosts and became politically active during the civil rights era.77 While the Fresh Air children insisted on the recognition of the problems of racism in the South, they did not inherently demand that hosts realize similar realities in their own northern communities. Nevertheless, the young children of Mississippi defied racial stereotypes and disrupted the lives of their Mennonite hosts, bringing “more white Mennonites into intimate contact with African-Americans than any other church program.”78

Similar to the experiences of the Woodlawn, Community, and Bethesda Mennonite churches, Camp Landon and the Fresh Air program brought Mennonites into society to engage with the contemporary issues of race relations to some degree or another. Although many lay members never fulfilled the sort of awareness and activism their church leaders advocated for, Mennonites of many postures found meaningful ways to connect to society and begin to see the links between their spiritually motivated lives and contemporary issues. For some, these realizations were immediate motivators to make their prophetic voice heard, while for others they only laid the foundation on which the transformation would build in the following decades.

Clearly, prophetic witness did not take hold in every Mennonite by the end of this era. At Community Mennonite Church, racial issues drove the congregation apart. Interracial marriage was harshly contested in public and private settings, especially in the MC. Conservative letters to the editor of Mennonite periodicals appeared sporadically throughout the 1950s. Indeed, issues of race relations and the state were divisive ones, although opposition was rarely heard. Typically, those opposed to the quickly expanding group of Mennonite activists and the leaders who inspired them were only vocally critical at the local level. In the mid-1960s, however, those critical of the Mennonite leadership took a more public stance.

In the “For Discussion” section of a 1965 issue of the Gospel Herald, MC pastor and civil rights activist Lynford Hershey called his church to accept the responsibility of civil rights activism.79 Hershey declared that both holding prejudice and being silent on the issue were “damning sin[s]” that Mennonites were “all guilty of,” and that action was required to properly follow in the way of Christ – a position he justified by the denomination’s acceptance of the lordship of Christ paradigm. Two weeks later, the response of Sanford Shetler, a fundamentalist MC, was published. In his scathing critique of Hershey, Shetler advocated for the total separation of church and state and argued that the only valid position Mennonites should take in “the problem in the South” was to convert the white man, the root of the problem.80 Shelter saw the ministry and conversion “to the underprivileged Negros” to be the role of the church rather than advocacy for equal voting rights.81 Shetler also expressed his appreciation for the actions of the segregationist governor of Alabama, George C. Wallace.

During the following months, the “Readers Say” section of the Gospel Herald was full of responses to the Hershey-Shetler debate. The 11 contributors who publicly supported Shetler’s conservative stance were equally critical of their denomination’s new concern with worldly issues and agreed that Mennonites should not participate in protests. One even declared that “neither Christ, the apostles, nor the early leaders spoke to the social concerns or issues of their day.”82 “Let us be marching to Zion with a message of deliverance,” another wrote, “rather than to Selma with an attitude of defiance.”83 Supporters of Hershey praised the direction the church was headed and encouraged further action on the issue of race relations. These vocal few lamented the amount of support Shetler’s article drew, with one noting it revealed “that Mennonites are after all not different from the millions more middle-class Americans who feel called to rally around the status quo.”84 Another quipped that Shetler’s article “was the best piece of satire ever to appear in the Gospel Herald.”85 Although the public tension between conservative and progressive Mennonites appeared late to the debate on race relations, it would become a far greater issue during the next decade centered around the Vietnam War.

Witnessing to the state

By 1963, Mennonite witness against racial injustice was shifting from action in society to advocacy to government. Emboldened by their newfound prophetic voice, changing attitudes toward the state, and the growing possibility of civil rights legislation, Mennonites turned their attention to Washington, D.C. Until now, engagement with the state had generally, if not exclusively, been self-serving – advocating for alternative service for conscientious objectors. Now, however, their witness was in the interest of others. In the words of the Winona Lake delegates, they were fulfilling their responsibility to “the total social order of which [they were] a part.”86 “We are always ready to run to Washington when the draft issue is at stake,” remarked one, “the race issue is equally important.”87

Not surprisingly, some of the first contacts with the government came from Mennonite leadership. In 1963, MC moderator John R. Mumaw sent a telegram to President John F. Kennedy expressing the church’s “strong support” for the establishment of racial equality, justice, and reconciliation – values that were becoming integral to the Mennonite faith.88 Later that year, Hershberger, under the directive of the CESR and the MCC Peace Section, sent a letter to every U.S. Congressmen. His message advocated for the “emancipation of our citizens of color,” noting issues such as equal housing, employment, and social rights.89 Mumaw and Hershberger’s messages shared a tone of gratitude for government and an encouragement of current works. The GC PSCC also sent letters of their own to all U.S. Congressmen, penned by executive secretary Preheim. Unlike the MC’s messages, Preheim’s letter was brief, direct, and absent of any expression of gratitude. In his call for the government to realize its founding ideal of “equality and justice for all,” Preheim cited the Mennonite theological position on race, but also made a secular argument, something Mumaw and Hershberger did not. “Even from human points of view,” Preheim wrote, “one should accord to every man the dignity and justice he deserves as a human being, regardless of race or creed.”90

In addition to their own messages, leaders of both denominations continuously encouraged their congregations to personally contact their representatives on the issue of racial equality.91 In the eyes of Mennonite leaders, witness to the state was no longer an option for those who felt called, but a necessity to the fulfillment of Christian living. Hershberger and the CESR explicitly promoted the “obligation to give a Christian witness to the state.”92 This encouragement motivated many Mennonites across the country. In one instance, Senator James Pearson from Kansas remarked that a great number of the letters he received came from rural areas, which were dominated by Mennonites.93

As Mennonites entered into greater political participation, further divisions emerged. No longer just asking, “Does our faith tell us to vote?” they were now wondering, “How does our faith tell us to vote?” During the 1964 presidential election, the political and theological clefts between progressives and conservatives in both Mennonite conferences had grown more pronounced than ever before. Many found the Republican candidate Barry Goldwater, whom one described as a “threat to the peace of this world,” particularly troubling. MC theologian J. Lawrence Burkholder, an early advocate of social responsibility, suggested that a corporate statement against Goldwater be drafted. “All this talk about peace, justice, etc., in the abstract is beside the point unless we have the nerve to say what we mean with reference to specific persons and policies.”94 This became a decisive topic of debate among the CESR. Some, like Orie O. Miller, staunchly opposed this idea, while others personally concerned with Goldwater did not believe a corporate response was appropriate. A majority of the CESR, however, believed a statement was in order.95

The resulting statement, published in the Gospel Herald Sept. 22, 1964, took an issue-focused approach, with no mention of political parties or candidates, though the anti-Goldwater sentiment was clear. This posture came at the suggestion of John E. Lapp, who keenly observed the rising support among Mennonites for the Republican Party. “Moral Issues in the Election of 1964” was not meant to persuade Mennonites to vote in one direction or another – or even to vote at all – but rather to encourage thoughtful reflection on what the Christian position was in relation to the issues at hand. The Mennonite positions on civil rights and nuclear warfare, however, sharply aligned with those of President Johnson.96 Despite its nonpartisan approach, the article received a great deal of pushback from the laity. Mervin J. Hostetter conveyed his disappointment and shock upon reading the statement when he wrote, “to uphold a political party … as the solution for the moral and social ills among us is to abandon the whole concept of the power of Christ within individuals to transform lives.”97 MCs opposed the CESR’s statement on the grounds of both theological and political conservatism, unveiling new divisions within the church.

During September 1964, the Mennonite editor Maynard Shelly conducted a survey of his readership with questions covering their views on the candidates. Although 72% of respondents were Republican (Democrats and Independents each comprised 14%), Mennonites favored Johnson over Goldwater 48% to 26%. Regardless of their preferred candidate, nearly all Mennonite respondents identified civil rights and peace as the main issues of the 1964 campaign. Goldwater’s candidacy drew out the strongest opinions among survey respondents. His supporters praised his strength, conservative values, resistance of socialism, and his plans to rein in civil rights radicalism. His critics were fearful of his stance on civil rights, peace, and his right-wing radicalism. Johnson’s most favorable trait among his supporters was his position on civil rights.98

The most interesting revelation from Shelly’s survey came from the section in which he asked respondents to comment openly. Mennonites gravitated toward the topic of the church’s role in the election. “I think the pastors should inform the members from the pulpit about Goldwater’s dangerous platform,” commented one undecided Republican, while another Republican favoring Johnson commended Shelly for “[getting] involved in this sort of thing.”99 Goldwater voters were highly critical of Shelly’s decision. “The Mennonite being a church paper … should not mix in politics.”100 Another respondent embodied a more classic two-kingdom approach, encouraging true Christians to stay out of American politics and instead take up the “higher order of politics.”101 Between the Mennonite and Gospel Herald, the 1964 election appeared dozens of times in letters to the editor, open discussions, and special articles. Strangely, these debates fell silent after the election.

A changing church, a changing state

Throughout the civil rights era, as race relations dominated the attention of Mennonite leadership, conversations extending from the Winona Lake conference and Neufeld’s foundational “Christian Responsibility in a Political Situation” continued. Written by Hershberger and the Peace Problems Committee (PPC), and adopted by the MC General Conference, “The Christian Witness to the State” identified the concern of Christians for the welfare of society and thus, the concern for the actions of the state. Instilling the image of a servant church, this statement identified new means of prophetic witness to the state and society in the form of word and deed.102 It is somewhat surprising that the MC, the champion of two-kingdom theology, accepted this statement so readily. Though a critic of Neufeld’s 1957 work, Hershberger found a way to synthesize social concern with MC theology, arguing that the lordship of Christ paradigm was not a departure from two-kingdom theology, but a clarification of it.103 Hershberger’s success in the passage of “The Christian Witness to the State” fueled his fervor in living out these new commitments, as evidenced by his centrality in race relations work.

As a whole, GC leaders had an easier time accepting the theological advancements made by the Winona Lake Statement and by Neufeld than did their MC counterparts. In large part, this was due to their cultural past and congregational polity, which both pointed toward engagement with the state and society, as well as a less strict interpretation of two-kingdom theology. Nevertheless, the GCMC supported these changes and made their own contribution with “The Christian Responsibility to Society: A Biblical-Theological Statement.” The product of a 1961 study conference, this statement affirmed the lordship of Christ and declared both social action and evangelical concern as necessary components of a Christian life. Explicitly stated, this GC statement provided “a firm theological basis on which to labor for the abolition of all racial segregation and the inequalities that flow from it.”104

In 1965, MCC hosted the Church-State Study Conference in Chicago to address the burgeoning reality that the lives of American Mennonites were “inextricably bound up with the policies of the [modern] state.”105 In many ways, the 1965 Church-State Study Conference was a continuation of the conversations held at Winona Lake 15 years earlier, although only four individuals had attended both conferences.106 In Chicago, MC and GC Mennonites searched together for a new way to understand the church-state relationship in contemporary terms. Central to this search was the understanding that American Mennonites of the post-war period lived in a starkly different socio-political situation than their Anabaptist forebears, a commitment which required a theological refocusing.107 In this reality, now even more clear than it was in 1950, Mennonites had arrived at a crossroads. Was this reality cause for abandoning the tenants of two-kingdom separationism and nonresistance? Or should efforts be concentrated towards restoring and enforcing the distinct nonresistant faith community? Dissatisfied with both options, the 50 Mennonites at the Chicago conference affirmed a middle axiom: the lordship of Christ.108

“Findings of Church-State Study Conference,” the lengthy statement produced in Chicago, never mentioned “nonresistance” but rather focused on “the Lordship of Christ” and “prophetic witness.”109 The conference statement firmly established the lordship of Christ as the new theological framework in which to understand the church-state relationship in contemporary terms. A concept introduced at Winona Lake and explored thoroughly throughout the next 15 years, this “theological breakthrough” firmly established the understanding that all of humanity existed under the lordship of Christ and was held to the same moral standard.110 The church was called by God to give prophetic witness for all to uphold that same moral standard. This new commitment, while extremely significant, was in no way an abrupt development, as the Mennonite social conscience and prophetic voice had been awakened and active for nearly two decades.

By 1965, this had become the leading Mennonite theological framework. The lordship of Christ paradigm revolutionized the ways Mennonites understood the state and their own core tenets of nonresistance and peacemaking. A single moral standard also dictated a Christian dual identity as both “church member and citizen,” which in turn held a special responsibility.111 This led to defining another characteristic of the Mennonite community as pioneers rather than defenders. Indeed, as Mennonites became more participatory in society, they faced the difficult reality that they, both as Mennonites and as Christians, were of a minority in a secularizing society. Their recommendation for action was not to take a “defensive stance of self-preservation,” but rather to make “distinctive contributions … as a pioneering minority.”112 Thus, not only did this paradigm give justification for those already engaged in prophetic witness to the state and society, it also motivated the reluctant to do the same.113

While “Findings of Church-State Study Conference” was admittedly not a product of “complete agreement,” nor did it contain “adequate answers,” it did firmly point the Mennonite community in a revolutionary direction of reflection, conversation, and action.114 In recognizing that the church and state were held to the same moral standard of Christ, in acknowledging that the modern state was no longer tyrannical but limited in power, and in accepting that the state was not only the “sword” but also concerned with public morality and human welfare, Mennonites found a common ground for collaboration. This common ground, however, now existed in the “unredeemed ‘battleground’” of the social realm, not within God’s realm of the church. While encouraging Mennonites to venture out into the society to express their prophetic witness of the moral standard, the delegates also warned they must maintain an awareness of the evil characteristics of the state. Succinctly, Mennonites found a new responsibility to express their “love for [their] country by practicing the highest ethics in [their] citizenship functions and by challenging [their] national leaders to seek the highest meanings in such concepts as justice, equality, freedom, and peace. The Christian citizen must constantly witness to the righteousness which God requires of all men.”115

While this story began and ended at church conferences, it was not simply theological discussions that caused the resulting transformations within the Mennonite community during the civil rights era. Rather, these transformations had a circular momentum – theology influenced action, which influenced theology, which influenced action, and so on. In similar fashion, the issues of racism (both within and beyond the church) and the relationship between Mennonites and the state were inextricably bound each influencing and guiding the Mennonite understanding of the other. While racism in the church was in no way absent by 1965, Mennonites left this period with a fundamentally different understanding of the world and their place in it. From this perspective, Mennonites, motivated by a deep and growing social conscience and a newly realized responsibility to the world, were positioned to make their prophetic voice heard in new and meaningful ways.


  1. Elmer Neufeld and Guy F. Hershberger, First Southwide Institute on Non-Violent Resistance to Segregation, Mennonite Church Committee on Economic and Social Relations Records, I-03-007, b. 7, f. 29, Mennonite Church USA Archives (MCA); Guy F. Hershberger to the executive officer of the Dobbs House, July 28, 1959, Mennonite Church Committee on Economic and Social Relations Records, I-03-007, b. 7, f. 31, MCA.

  2. Guy F. Hershberger to Stanley Kreider, May 24, 1968, Mennonite Church Committee on Economic and Social Relations Records, I-03-007, f. 7, b. 38.

  3. All of Hershberger’s letters and their responses are found in Mennonite Church Committee on Economic and Social Relations Records, I-03-007, b. 7, f. 31, MCA.

  4. Ervin R. Stutzman, From Nonresistance to Justice: The Transformation of Mennonite Church Peace Rhetoric, 1908-2008 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2011), 32-35.

  5. Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 9.

  6. James C. Juhnke, Vision, Doctrine, War: Mennonite Identity and Organization in America, 1890-1930 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1989), 33-42.

  7. Ibid., 35-37.

  8. James C. Juhnke, “Mennonite History and Self-Understanding: North American Mennonitism as a Bipolar Mosaic,” in Mennonite Identity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Calvin Wall Redekop (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1988), 95.

  9. John R. Mumaw, Nonresistance and Pacifism, 20, quoted in Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties, 6.

  10. Ibid., 8.

  11. Tobin Miller Shearer, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 27.

  12. Ibid., 5-8, 27.

  13. “Negro Membership in Mennonite Church,” James Henry and Rowena Lark Papers, 1944-2001, HM1-566, b. 1, f. 12, MCA.

  14. Shearer, Daily Demonstrators, 11.

  15. Guy F. Hershberger, “The Discipleship of Christ and the State,” in Report of the MCC Peace Section Study Conference Held at Winona Lake on November 9-12, 1950, 53-57

  16. Leo Driedger and Donald B. Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1994), 85.

  17. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Peace Section, Report of the MCC Peace Section Study Conference Held at Winona Lake, Indiana on November 9-12, 1950, 19-22.

  18. Elmer Neufeld, “Christian Responsibility in the Political Situation,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 32, no. 2 (April, 1958), 143.

  19. Ibid., 161.

  20. Driedger and Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking, 114-115.

  21. Theron F. Schlabach, War, Peace, and Social Conscience: Guy F. Hershberger and Mennonite Ethics (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2009), 438.

  22. Committee on Economic and Social Relations (CESR) of the Mennonite Church, Christian Race Relations: Proceedings of the Conference on Christian Community Relations (Scottdale, Pa.: Mennonite Publishing House, 1955), iii.

  23. Ibid., 11.

  24. Ibid., 7-12.

  25. Schlabach, War, Peace, and Social Conscience, 444.

  26. MCC Peace Section, Report of a Seminar on Christ, the Mennonite Churches, and Race, Woodlawn Mennonite Church, Chicago, April 17-19, 1959, 45.

  27. Ibid., 54.

  28. General Conference Mennonite Church (GCMC), The Christian and Race Relations, Aug. 12-20, 1959, in Urbane Peachey, ed. Mennonite Statements on Peace and Social Concerns, 1900-1978 (Akron, Pa.: Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Peace Section, 1980), 180.

  29. Ibid., 180-181.

  30. Ibid.

  31. Record of the meeting of church leaders, Sept. 14, 1963, Elkhart, Ind., GC Peace and Social Concerns Papers, MLA.I.Z, b. 6, f. 77, Mennonite Library and Archives (MLA).

  32. Shearer, Daily Demonstrators, 130-159.

  33. Ibid., 157.

  34. Vern Preheim, Peace and Social Concerns Committee Report, June 1, 1964, Mennonite Church Peace Problems Committee Records, 1917-1964, I-03,05, b. 14, f. 23, MCA.

  35. Juhnke, A People of Two Kingdoms II, 85.

  36. MCC Peace Section, Report of a Seminar on Christ, the Mennonite Churches, and Race, 45.

  37. “Program of Witness to and With Negroes,” in Report of Home Missions and Evangelism Committee, Bethel Church, Chicago, April 16, 1959, Bethesda Mennonite Church (St. Louis, Mo.) Records, 1955-2008, III-25-08, b. 2, f. 11, MCA, 3.

  38. MCC Peace Section, Report of a Seminar on Christ, the Mennonite Churches, and Race Papers, 31.

  39. Record of the meeting of church leaders, Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Ind., Sept. 14, 1963, Peace and Social Concerns Committee, MLA.IZ, b. 6, f. 77, MLA, 3.

  40. Shearer, Daily Demonstrators, 101.

  41. Ibid., 98-115.

  42. Ibid., 117-126.

  43. Guy F. Hershberger, “A Mennonite Analysis of the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” 1962, MLA, 2.

  44. Ibid., 8.

  45. Ibid.

  46. Ibid., 5-7.

  47. Neufeld and Hershberger, Report on First Southwide Institute on Non-Violent Resistance to Segregation, 4.

  48. Paul Peachey to the Peace Problems Committee (PPC), February 5, 1957, Mennonite Church Committee on Economic and Social Relations Records, 1929-1973, I-03-007, b. 7, f. 43, MCA.

  49. Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties, 213.

  50. Ibid.

  51. GCMC, Report on Church and Society Conference, Chicago, Oct. 31-Nov. 3, 1961, Mennonite Church Committee on Economic and Social Relations Records, 1929-1973, I-03-007, b. 9, f. 9, MCA, E-11.

  52. Ibid., E7-E16, E21.

  53. Ibid., E-3.

  54. Ibid., L-2.

  55. Shearer, Daily Demonstrators, 164-165.

  56. Ibid., 160-189.

  57. Quoted in Shearer, Daily Demonstrators, 166.

  58. Quoted in Ibid., 170.

  59. Quoted in Ibid., 175.

  60. Ibid., 221-250.

  61. GCMC, Report on Church and Society Conference, E10.

  62. Ibid., E7-E10.

  63. Adolf Ens and Harold Regier to Delton Franz, May 4, 1961, Delton Franz Papers, 1952-2000, HM1-012, b. 2, f. 31, MCA.

  64. Shearer, Daily Demonstrators, 29-61.

  65. GCMC News Service, Mennonite Race Relations, MLA, 2.

  66. Board of Christian Service, Seminary Students’ Southland Experiences, 1960, Leonard Wiebe personal collection, Goshen, Ind.

  67. Juhnke, People of Two Kingdoms II, 87-88.

  68. Elmer Neufeld to Guy F. Hershberger, March 3, 1960, Mennonite Church Committee on Economic and Social Relations Records, 1929-1973, I-03-007, b. 6, f. 9, MCA.

  69. Guy F. Hershberger, The Christian Church and the Current Race Issue: Observations and Reflections Following a Visit to Southern States, April, 1960, Mennonite Church Peace Problems Committee Records, 1917-1964, I-03-05, b. 14, f. 18, MCA.

  70. Shearer, Daily Demonstrators, 14-15.

  71. David A. Haury, The Quiet Demonstration: The Mennonite Mission in Gulfport, Mississippi (Newton, Kan.: Faith & Life Press, 1979), 79.

  72. Ibid., 59.

  73. Ibid., 58-61.

  74. Ibid., 79.

  75. Ibid., 62.

  76. Shearer, Daily Demonstrators, 93.

  77. Ibid.

  78. Ibid., 92-97.

  79. Lynford Hershey, “Souls and Civil Rights,” Gospel Herald, July 6, 1965, 582.

  80. Sanford Shetler, “Is This Our Task?,” Gospel Herald, July 20, 1965, 629.

  81. Ibid.

  82. J.W. Townsend, letter to the editor, Gospel Herald, Aug. 17, 1965, 731.

  83. Jency L. Hershberger, letter to the editor, Gospel Herald, Sept. 7, 1965, 794.

  84. Loren Lind, letter to the editor, Gospel Herald, Oct. 5, 1965, 886.

  85. Mr. and Mrs. James Bixler, letter to the editor, Gospel Herald, Aug. 17, 1965, 731.

  86. MCC Peace Section, Report of the MCC Peace Section Study Conference Held at Winona Lake, Indiana, on November 9-12, 1950, 20.

  87. Record of the meeting of church leaders, Sept. 14, 1963, Elkhart, Ind., GC Peace and Social Concerns Papers, MLA.I.Z, b. 6, f. 77, MLA.

  88. John R. Mumaw to John F. Kennedy, August 1963, Mennonite Church Committee on Economic and Social Relations Records, 1929-1973, I-03-007, b. 6, f. 6, MCA.

  89. Hershberger, Mennonites and the Current Race Issue, Sept. 10, 1963, MLA, 4-5.

  90. Vern Preheim, Esko Loewen, and David Habegger to representatives and senators, July 1963, Mennonite Church Committee on Economic and Social Relations Records, 1929-1973, I-03-007, b. 7, f. 47, MCA.

  91. Hershberger, Mennonites and the Current Race Issue, 24; Vern Preheim, Peace and Social Concerns Committee Report, June 1, 1964, Mennonite Church Peace Problems Committee Records, 1917-1964, I-03-05, b. 14, f. 22, MCA, 2.

  92. Hershberger, Guy F., “A Christian Witness on Race Relations Now,” Gospel Herald, May 19, 1964, 425.

  93. James C. Juhnke, A People of Two Kingdoms II, 89

  94. J. Lawrence Burkholder to Guy F. Hershberger, June 22, 1964, Guy F. Hershberger Collection, 1896-1989, MS 1-171, b. 21, f. 20, Mennonite Historical Library (MHL).

  95. The debate among the CESR took place largely through letters, which can be found in the Guy F. Hershberger Collection, 1896-1989, MS 1-171, b. 21, f. 20, MHL.

  96. John E. Lapp, H. Ralph Hernley, and Guy F. Hershberger, “Moral Issues in the Election of 1964,” Gospel Herald, Sept. 22, 1964, 826.

  97. Mervin J. Hostetter to John M. Drescher, Nov. 17, 1964, Guy F. Hershberger Collection, 1896-1989, MS 1-171, b. 21, f. 21, MHL.

  98. Maynard Shelly, “Mennonites View the Candidates,” the Mennonite, Oct. 13, 1964, 632-636.

  99. Ibid., 636.

  100. Ibid., 636.

  101. Ibid.

  102. Mennonite Church, “The Christian Witness to the State,” Aug. 25, 1961, in Peachey, Mennonite Statements on Peace and Social Concerns, 1900-1978, 11.

  103. Quoted in Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties, 202.

  104. GCMC, Christian Responsibility to Society: A Biblical-Theological Statement (North Newton, Kan.: Faith & Life Press, 1963), 17.

  105. MCC Peace Section, “Church-State Study Conference,” Chicago, Oct. 7-9, 1965, 3, Mennonite Church General Conference Executive Secretary’s Correspondence and Subject Files, 1935-1972, I-01-004, b. 9, f. 20, MCA.

  106. MCC, A New Look at the Church and State Issue, 1966, Mennonite Church General Conference Executive Secretary’s Correspondence and Subject Files, 1935-1972, I-01-004, b. 9, f. 20, MCA.

  107. “Introductory Concerns” in MCC Peace Section, Background Papers for Church-State Study Conference, Chicago, Oct. 7-9, 1965, 3.

  108. Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder further developed the concept of the lordship of Christ and its connection to witness to the state, most significantly through The Christian Witness to the State, Newton, Kan.: Faith & Life Press, 1964; and The Politics of Jesus, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing, 1972.

  109. MCC Peace Section, Findings of Church-State Study Conference, Oct. 7-9, 1965, in Peachey, Mennonite Statements on Peace and Social Concerns, 1900-1978, 5-9.

  110. Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties, 198.

  111. MCC Peace Section, Findings of Church-State Study Conference, Oct. 7-9, 1965, in Peachey, Mennonite Statements on Peace and Social Concerns, 1900-1978, 5.

  112. Ibid., 7.

  113. Driedger and Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking, 121-124.

  114. MCC Peace Section, Findings of Church-State Study Conference, Oct. 7-9, 1965, in Peachey, Mennonite Statements on Peace and Social Concerns, 1900-1978, 5.

  115. Ibid., 8.


Archival Collections

Mennonite Church USA Archives

Bethesda Mennonite Church Records, 1955-2008

Delton Franz Papers, 1952-2000

J. Lawrence Burkholder Papers, 1938-2010

James Henry and Rowena Lark Papers, 1944-2001

Mennonite Church Committee on Economic and Social Relations Records, 1929-1973

Mennonite Church Committee on Peace and Social Concerns Records, 1965-1971

Mennonite Church General Conference Executive Secretary’s Correspondence and Subject Files, 1935-1972

Mennonite Church Peace Problems Committee Records, 1917-1964

Mennonite Historical Library

Guy F. Hershberger Collection, 1896-1989

Mennonite Library and Archives

General Conference Mennonite Church Peace and Social Concerns Committee Collection

Gospel Herald

the Mennonite

Mennonite Quarterly Review

Primary Sources

Statements and Reports

Board of Christian Service. Seminar Students’ Southland Experiences. 1960. Leonard Wiebe personal
collection, Elkhart, Ind.

Committee on Economic and Social Relations of the Mennonite Church. Christian Race Relations: Proceedings of the Conference on Christian Community Relations. Scottdale, Pa.: Mennonite Publishing House, 1955.

General Conference Mennonite Church. Christian Responsibility to Society: A Biblical-Theological Statement. Newton, Kan.: Faith & Life Press, 1964.

Hershberger, Guy F. “A Mennonite Analysis of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.” 1962.

—. Mennonites and the Current Race Issue. Sept. 10, 1963.

Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section. Report of the MCC Peace Section Study Conference Held at Winona Lake, Indiana on November 9-12, 1950.

—. Report of a Seminar on Christ, the Mennonite Churches, and Race. Woodlawn Mennonite Church, Chicago. April 17-19, 1959.

Published Collections

Peachey, Urbane, ed. Mennonite Statements on Peace and Social Concerns, 1900-1978. Akron, Pa.: Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Peace Section, 1980.

Secondary Sources


Bush, Perry. Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Driedger, Leo and Donald B. Kraybill. Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1994.

Haury, David A. The Quiet Demonstration: The Mennonite Mission in Gulfport, Mississippi. Newton, Kan.: Faith & Life Press, 1979.

Juhnke, James C. A People of Two Kingdoms II: Stories of Kansas Mennonites in Politics. North Newton, Kan.: Bethel College, 2016.

—. Vision, Doctrine, War: Mennonite Identity and Organization in America, 1890-1930. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1989.

Schlabach, Theron F. War, Peace, and Social Conscience: Guy F. Hershberger and Mennonite Ethics. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press 2009.

Shearer, Tobin Miller. Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

Stutzman, Ervin R. From Nonresistance to Justice: The Transformation of Mennonite Church Peace Rhetoric, 1908-2008. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2011.


Juhnke, James C. “Mennonite History and Self Understanding: North American Mennonitism as a Bipolar Mosaic.” In Mennonite Identity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Calvin Wall Redekop, 83-99. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1988.