Many traditions use stories to pass on their heritage from generation to generation. In this volume John E. Sharp has compiled twenty-eight stories from the General Conference and Mennonite Church traditions for the purpose of fostering a common identity as the two denominations merge. The project of collecting and publishing the stories was undertaken under the auspices of the Historical Committee of the Mennonite Church, which employs Sharp. Unfortunately the General Conference does not have a similar committee. Instead James C. Juhnke, Professor of History at Bethel College, prepared a preface and represents the General Conference half of the merger equation.
Sharp selected stories which reveal who Mennonites are. He correctly argues that it is collective or common memory which creates identity. Thus the stories focus on the core values of Mennonites, but the stories are quite varied in their specific themes. Some demonstrate Mennonite servanthood. Others look at examples of suffering and even martyrdom. Often the players in the stories are leaders in the church, but sometimes they are ordinary believers who lived or witnessed for their faith. The volume certainly achieves its goal in showing a rich diversity of faithfulness.
However, what does this book reveal in terms of its goal of informing people about the differences and similarities between the Mennonite Church and General Conference traditions? Quite a number of the stories actually come from neither tradition but are inter-Mennonite. These are stories of Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Disaster Service, Mennonite World Conference, Civilian Public Service, and worldwide Mennonite mission projects. While the mission work of the past has tended to be carried out by denominationally based mission boards, the nature and sometimes even locations of the work have not varied considerably between the Mennonite Church and General Conference.
So what will the reader learn from this volume that distinguishes between the traditions of the Mennonite Church and General Conference? One major theme is the importance of the Russian Mennonite experience for the General Conference. The massive immigration of Mennonites from Russia and other locations to the United States and Canada in the 1870s had a formative impact on the General Conference, and continued migrations from Russia and relations with Mennonites who remained behind in Russia impacted Canadian Mennonites throughout the 20th century. Of course, the Clayton Kratz story of a Goshen College student who tragically disappeared while providing aid to the Russian Mennonites in 1920 is just one of many examples which shows that even the Russian Mennonite experience was never completely foreign to those in the Mennonite Church. Nevertheless, the Low German or Dutch background of most General Conference Mennonites is an important distinction which comes through in a number of the stories.
A number of the major traditions in the Mennonite Church which differ from those in the General Conference relate to church polity and authority, and often these differences are revealed through issues related to discipline or dress standards. A handful of stories address these themes, but the reader who is not already quite familiar with the other denomination will not gain a good understanding of very fundamental differences between the Mennonite Church and General Conference on polity and discipline. For example, the General Conference has little experience with practices such as "shunning" or with sources of authority like bishops. It would also be useful for someone of General Conference background to understand the continuum from the Mennonite Church to the Conservative Mennonites and Amish and how many members of the Mennonite Church have family connections over the generations to the more conservative groups. Nothing like this kinship with the Amish exists within most of the General Conference.
The reader is introduced to a handful of leaders within each tradition. Some like David Goerz and David Toews from the General Conference and Orie Miller from the Mennonite Church exhibited incredible energy and diversity in their witness. Of course, a more comprehensive review of denominational leaders in the twentieth century might be problematic, since some leaders like John Horsch and Daniel Kaufman devoted considerable venom to attacks on the General Conference during the second quarter of the century. Even in the sphere of church history the relationship was often tense, as Harold Bender and Cornelius Krahn competed for books for their respective denomination's historical library and did not always speak of each other kindly. This book is not the place to look for some of the bumps in the road which eventually brought the denominations together.
Another weakness of the volume is the format of the stories. Many were previously published or taken from other sources and not thoroughly adapted to read as "stories." So despite the title, one likely will not want to curl up in front of the fireplace and read these stories aloud to the family. This does not detract from the content of the narratives, and the style of the stories is popular rather than scholarly (although the book does have footnotes). Thus while the stories are not presented in dramatic fashion, they are relatively easy reading.
Numerous other areas exist where the reader will only achieve a fragmented understanding of the distinctions between the Mennonite Church and the General Conference. One may safely conclude that the primary goal of this book is not to demonstrate differences between the two denominations as they merge but to show the commonalities. This it does reasonably well. Often if the names and places were deleted, one would not know from which group the story originated. However, it is knowing the names and places and becoming familiar with the people who have shaped the memories of each denomination which make the book valuable. The reader will learn to know Mennonites from the Hochsetlers in the mid-eighteenth century to Annie Funk and John Schrag in the early twentieth century who lived and sacrificed for their faith.
Nonresistance and peacemaking are themes in many of the stories, General Conference and Mennonite Church alike. These and other stories also often reveal deep commitments of individuals to missions and witnessing for their faith. These are the core values which are uniting the denominations. The stories do an excellent job of portraying these common values as they were lived by real people, and in this way the book will help to build the common memories and identity which is its goal.
David A. Haury