This book is a collection of eighteen essays and interviews in honor of John L. Ruth, a Mennonite leader of Franconia Conference in eastern Pennsylvania. John Sharp, director of the MC USA Historical Committee, introduces Ruth as a
pastor, professor, historian, storyteller, film maker, and videographer. Editors Reuben Miller and Joseph Miller recruited a distinguished group of Mennonite scholars, many of them friends and all of them admirers of John Ruth, to contribute to the volume.
Although these essays are on diverse topics and written in different styles, the theme of community emerges as central. In all his ministries, Ruth has served as an advocate for the integrity and value of traditional disciplined Mennonite (and Amish and Hutterite) communities grounded in rural space. From the perspective of Mennonite historiography, Ruth belongs to a broader late twentieth century neo-conservative cohort of Mennonite scholars. Historians Theron Schlabach and Beulah Hostetler, among others, challenged an earlier progressive interpretation that saw a nineteenth-century dark age of separatist isolation succeeded by a
Great Awakening of new openings to education, mission, and denominational development.
Some of the essays in this festschrift implicitly or explicitly (but never without qualification) resist Ruth’s placing such high value on traditional Mennonite community discipline, yieldedness, humility, and separation from the world. Jeff Gundy borrows from the title of Ruth’s comprehensive history (1,329 pages!) of Lancaster Conference Mennonites to pose the question,
If the Earth is the Lord’s, Do We Have to Hate the World? Joseph S. Miller affirms a paradoxical
Necessity of Leaving Community. Julia Kasdorf warns that community can be undermined by those who seek control. Leonard Gross, who as a teenager had to confess before the church that he had sinned by attending a public school picnic in a park, finds the essence of Anabaptism/Mennonitism in
the visibility of the individual disciple living in tune with his or her conscience. John Richard Burkholder wrestles with the definition and claims of conscience and joins John Ruth in the startling conclusion,
Don’t let your conscience be your guide; rather, ground yourself in loyalty to the community of faith-for Jesus’ sake!
Judging from this collection, Ruth’s small pamphlet,
Mennonite Identity and Literary Art, originally presented as the Menno Simons Lectures at Bethel College in 1976, has had as much influence as his larger historical works. In those lectures Ruth made his most complete theoretical case for a Mennonite literary agenda oriented to the central values and experiences of the community, rather than the ironies and dysfunctions on the boundaries and edges. Julia Kasdorf’s interview with Ruth discusses and illuminates these issues.
Another delightful interview-Joseph S. Miller with the Old Order Mennonite farmer and museum/library developer Amos Hoover-provides an unusually perceptive glimpse into the ways of traditionalist Mennonitism. Hoover is a gifted communicator who could have been a prominent denominational institutional leader if he had not chosen to submit to the disciplines of his community. He says that John Ruth is one of very few outsiders who really understands how Old Order people live.
Each reader of this festschrift will have favorites among the essays. Three of my nominations of worthy writings are John D. Rempel’s on the meaning and practice of communion, Ervin R. Stutzman’s on the calling out of church leaders, and John A. Lapp’s on the Global Mennonite History project.
John Ruth has led more than forty historical Mennonite tours to Anabaptist sites in Europe-a significant ministry that gets scant attention in this book. The book might also be more useful with an index of names and subjects. But overall it is a significant celebration of a well-lived life.