In late 1995, the noted Christian theologian John Howard Yoder challenged Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference (IMMC) officials over a press release draft intended to announce that the church disciplinary process for Yoder’s sexual abuse of women had reached a satisfactory endpoint.
For months, Yoder and conference officials had exchanged memos negotiating the release’s potential reference to financial restitution for victims and whether to mention a so-called
safe plan by which Yoder might monitor his behavior. Yoder opposed conference leaders’ plan to archive hundreds of documents related to his sexual misconduct; he was adamant that some records should be destroyed. The University of Notre Dame professor, 68 years old and by this time exasperated by the lengthy disciplinary process that had begun three years earlier with the suspension of his ministerial credentials, expressed irritation to the conference’s Church Life Commission (CLC).
What will [Mennonite leaders] say, Yoder asked,
when addressed by pushy questions from an offended feminist, or from a muckraking journalist, to explain church measures for addressing grievances?1
More than half a year later, in June 1996, Mennonite papers finally published a news release announcing the end of Yoder’s disciplinary process and commending him for
participating in the process to its conclusion.2 Those familiar with the prolonged wrangling knew that the statement had been finessed for legal reasons, that IMMC officials had crafted a statement they hoped would mitigate the prospect of a lawsuit filed by victims or by Yoder.3 But the broader question that Yoder had thrown down – how the reputation of Mennonite institutions concerned with his two-decades-long history of sexual abuse would fare under journalistic inquiry and feminist scholarship, as well as how he and his legacy would be regarded – has intensified recently, years after his death in 1997.4
My historical essay
published in 2015, interrogates how three institutions – Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS), Elkhart, Indiana, Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, and IMMC – responded to reports of Yoder’s sexual harassment and abuse of women, which dated back at least to the mid-1970s.5 In 1973, Yoder ended a term as president of Goshen Biblical Seminary in Elkhart. He continued his dual appointments as a faculty member at the seminary and at the nearby University of Notre Dame. More than a decade later, in 1984, Goshen Biblical Seminary administrators and board members forced Yoder’s resignation. In secret severance agreements, they promised not to publicize the reasons for his departure. After leaving the seminary, Yoder, already tenured at Notre Dame, taught there full-time and continued to publish widely in Christian theology and ethics.
Defanging the Beast: Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse,
But as Goshen College president Vic Stoltzfus would observe, by the beginning of the next decade,
JHY is in trouble with most Mennonite institutions.6 Because of Yoder’s history of sexually abusive behavior on the AMBS campus, in private homes and apartments, and at conferences across the United States and internationally, he was no longer being invited to speak in many Mennonite settings. Yoder’s status – an ordained church leader who was unwelcome in locales ranging from his alma mater, Goshen (Indiana) College, to Mennonite Central Committee-sponsored meetings – was not stated policy, but rather an unspoken, unpublicized and inconsistent practice. Mennonite agencies hoping to draw the renowned scholar to their events sometimes did so, discounting rumors of Yoder’s sexual misdeeds at the seminary, or finding that substantiating reports of his wrongdoing seemed impossible, given AMBS leaders’ unwillingness to release details about his employment record.
At three Mennonite colleges – Goshen College in the mid-1980s, Bethel College in 1992 and Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in 1997 – grassroots concern about Yoder’s history prompted administrators to address whether or not to welcome him as a visiting speaker. In each case, this led to campus controversies. In one instance, at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, fallout included widespread publicity, as religious and secular news services reported that Yoder faced accusations of sexual abuse.
These campus developments, occurring over a span of years in geographically distant communities, illustrate how Mennonites in higher education sought to insulate their institutions from harm perpetrated by Yoder. By the 1980s, efforts to prevent sexual abuse in educational settings were gaining cultural and legal currency, although competing concerns about preserving privacy and protecting individual leaders’ reputations provided counterweights. The theorist Marie Fortune, a minister in the United Church of Christ whose writings on abuse perpetrated by religious leaders raised awareness of the problem, noted:
An institution acts first on what it perceives to be its self-interest. Seldom does it identify its self-interest to be the same of the interests of the people it is supposed to serve.7 In the case of Yoder and Mennonite colleges, initial reluctance to address the appropriateness of Yoder’s campus visits reveals barriers faced by advocates for victims of sexual abuse.
Yet campus culture in the 1980s and ’90s also allowed for feminist activism to gain influence. Some faculty, alumni and others concerned about the potential harm that Yoder posed succeeded in making their voices heard. Meanwhile, Mennonite administrators struggled to make informed decisions, wondering how they might define institutional interests in such a way as to achieve a perilous balance – giving credence to Yoder’s extraordinary prominence as churchman and standard-bearer for Christian peace theology, but also respecting palpable fear on the part of some activists for women’s safety.
An Unspoken Ban at Goshen College
Among the three campuses, Goshen College, located in northern Indiana and affiliated with the Mennonite Church, was closest in proximity to Yoder’s longtime employer, the Mennonite seminary in Elkhart. Although Goshen Biblical Seminary President Marlin Miller kept information about Yoder’s abusiveness closely guarded, by the late 1970s, Miller had compiled a substantial list of women who had reported Yoder’s sexual aggressiveness toward them, either on the seminary campus or elsewhere. Eventually Miller’s list of women grew to more than 40, and he learned of sexual violations that had occurred at Goshen College and at Notre Dame.8 After Yoder’s seminary employment ended in 1984, he was no longer welcome at AMBS events, although he still used campus library facilities. While some of his former colleagues continued to use his writings in their courses, others ceased referring to his work.9 The
ban of Yoder from the AMBS campus had not been spelled out in the 1984 severance agreements; it remained informal. Yet Yoder’s physical remove from campus was a reality. If students wanted to study with him, they enrolled in Notre Dame classes.
A few miles south, as Goshen College faculty and administrators learned in the mid-1980s of Yoder’s shifting employment arrangements, some women faculty, in particular, were determined to prevent Yoder from coming to campus to lecture.10 During the 1985-86 academic year, Bible Professor Don Blosser led a convocation series on peace-related themes, and Yoder agreed to serve as one of the speakers. Concerned about the potential safety implications for women on the campus where Yoder had earned his bachelor’s degree 40 years earlier, Dean of Students Norm Kauffmann, who supervised the campus ministries team, along with Anna Bowman, professor of social work and women’s studies, advocated that Yoder be disinvited. They also questioned the appropriateness of Yoder’s speaking on peace, given that sexual violence against women constituted abuse of power. As Kauffmann later remembered it, this critique of Yoder was not widely shared among Goshen faculty and administrative cabinet members. Informal pushback included grumbling that
these were just women on a power trip.11 Nevertheless, President Stoltzfus decided that the college should disinvite Yoder from participating in the peace series, and Blosser called Yoder to give him the news. This reversal Yoder accepted without protest, and in coming years, Goshen College’s stance toward Yoder echoed AMBS’s – he could use the library and archives housed at Goshen, but otherwise was unwelcome at college events.12
Ironically, in 1992, Stoltzfus, Bible Professor Marlin Jeschke and others at Goshen lifted this unofficial ban when the college hosted a Believers Church Conference, for which Yoder was a member of the planning committee and where he delivered a lecture. From his vantage point at AMBS, Miller was privately critical of the decision.
I find it [difficult], he told Stoltzfus,
to understand why the college would want to sponsor a conference on discipline with John Howard’s direct involvement without first seeking resolution of the past history, especially when John’s own responses to discipline are more widely known today than ever.13 By the early 1990s, Miller’s own stance was changing. Although he still maintained secrecy in an effort to guard AMBS’s reputation, when asked, he now confirmed to Mennonite leaders the local and international scope of Yoder’s history of sexual abuse, as well as the Notre Dame theologian’s propensity to resist accountability measures.14 Meanwhile, at Goshen College, the years of quiet ban, an under-the-radar system for protecting women, had caused no notable controversy. The outcome would be different, however, in developments surrounding a planned appearance by Yoder at a Mennonite campus in Kansas, Bethel College.
Violence and Nonviolence in the American Experience
Early in 1992, Tina Mast Burnett, the Women’s Concerns coordinator at Mennonite Central Committee U.S., headquartered in Akron, Pennsylvania, wrote to Jim Lapp, general secretary of the Mennonite Church, and to Miller. A brochure had arrived on her desk announcing an upcoming conference at Bethel College titled
Violence and Nonviolence in the American Experience, for which Yoder was to be a keynote speaker. According to the brochure, he would also be addressing Bethel students at a convocation. Burnett, who knew several women who had been victimized by Yoder, told Lapp and Miller that she was
concerned about Mennonite women who do not know this story and are vulnerable to him. … I am assuming the planners of this conference are not aware that John himself is accused of violent behavior within the family of faith.15 Miller responded to Burnett and to a close circle of confidantes with news of three developments: first, President John Zehr of Bethel College had already called him, saying that he was considering disinviting Yoder from the conference due to pressure from Bethel constituents over
the apparent lack of integrity between [Yoder’s] rhetoric and his behavior16; second, a task force originating with Yoder’s congregation in Elkhart, Prairie Street Mennonite Church, had opened an investigation into Yoder’s inappropriate behaviors; and finally, two Mennonite women, both of whom had rebuffed Yoder’s sexualized advances years earlier, were drawing together a group aiming to bring Yoder to accountability by reporting to denominational leaders their personal experiences with his harassment and abuse.17
The coinciding of these events – the Bethel academic conference, planned for April 1992, and rapidly developing challenges to Yoder in northern Indiana – led to a very public controversy on the Kansas campus. President Zehr and conference organizer and Professor of History James Juhnke sought counsel on whether to retain Yoder as featured speaker.
Zehr’s decision to remove Yoder from the conference roster has been well documented. An interview in which Juhnke reflected on the events and broader significance of Bethel’s disinvitation appears in the June 2014 issue of The Mennonite.18 Asked whether he, a longtime admirer of Yoder’s work on Christian peace theology and discipleship, had known about Yoder’s reputation when he invited him to serve in a keynote speaking role, Juhnke replied,
I was not well informed. As far as I knew, Yoder had left AMBS… in 1984 because he wanted to move up the academic ladder. … Many folks in the AMBS community, I learned, were remarkably ill informed about what Yoder had done.19 Moreover, Juhnke had not known of the quietly instituted
ban on Yoder’s appearances at Goshen College.20 The decentralized structure of Mennonite higher education in the 1980s and ’90s accounts, in part, for why information was not shared; the two schools had entirely different governing structures and separate boards. As a result, Goshen College, a Mennonite Church-affiliated school, had only informal ties with Bethel College, a General Conference Mennonite Church (GCMC)-related institution, and whatever gossip might have flowed between the schools did not reach Bethel conference planners.
As Juhnke learned abruptly in Feb. 1992, however, Yoder’s history of abuse was known to many individuals in Kansas and beyond. At least six persons associated with GCMC institutions sent letters to Bethel College, urging that Yoder’s planned appearance be canceled. One of the writers noted that she was speaking
on behalf of some of Dr. Yoder’s victims and their families, some from this area, who are upset by the Bethel College invitation to Dr. Yoder.21 Another wrote,
At some point we must take our Christian responsibility seriously enough to confront what appears to be violating coercive behavior from someone who preaches non-violence.22 Solidarity with victims became a significant theme in conversations on campus. Zehr and Juhnke consulted a number of faculty women; one told them,
Others have run away from this issue; we [at Bethel] cannot.23 Other faculty members, including Juhnke’s wife, Professor of English Anna Kreider Juhnke, planned to join protesters in picketing Krehbiel Auditorium, the conference site, if Yoder attended.24
From northern Indiana, another Mennonite theologian informed the Bethel planners he might withdraw from conference participation if Yoder’s invitation remained intact.25 Ted Koontz, a friend and former colleague of Yoder’s at AMBS, strongly encouraged the Bethel conference planners to disinvite Yoder. As Koontz saw it, doing so might help persuade Yoder to face the wrongs he had committed. Koontz believed, too, that since some women feared Yoder based on previous experiences with him, public demonstrations at Bethel were likely, and that such a spectacle would undermine the conference’s integrity and cause embarrassment to the college and to Yoder himself.26
These considerations weighed on Zehr, who phoned a number of acquaintances to learn more about Yoder’s history of abuse. Both Zehr and Juhnke spoke with women whose accounts of Yoder they deemed credible. Zehr also called Albert Meyer, then head of the Mennonite Board of Education and married to Mary Ellen Meyer, John Howard Yoder’s sister. Just as Koontz had suggested to Juhnke, Meyer responded that a disinvitation from Bethel College could perhaps help convince Yoder to turn from actions that were harmful.27
Juhnke phoned Yoder in Indiana on Feb. 15 to inform him of the barrage of letters and phone calls. Yoder replied that Bethel’s administration should resolve its dilemma in terms of the values to which it was committed, and he raised questions of
due process, as well as whether it is
the business of a college to do church discipline or moral policing.28 But Yoder also acknowledged that Bethel might simply disinvite him and adjust the conference speaking schedule, adding that he would not mind and that similar occurrences had happened before.29
A few days later, Zehr, citing
serious accusations of a moral and ethical nature, notified Yoder that he was being disinvited. Yoder was conciliatory in his response.30 After the student newspaper The Bethel Collegian reported the reasons for Yoder’s disinvitation, Zehr received sharp criticism from Bethel students, faculty and constituents. Some viewed the president’s action as disrespectful, given Yoder’s stature, while others advocated academic freedom of expression. But as reports of allegations of sexual abuse against Yoder appeared more widely, first in the Mennonite Weekly Review and a few months later in religious and secular news services following the IMMC’s suspension of Yoder’s credentials, Zehr concluded that
there was widespread support for the action taken at Bethel College.31
In the long run, the greatest impact of the Bethel episode was that student journalists at the college uncorked information about Yoder’s history to a wider public. Although the students writing about Bethel events were unaware of it at the time, their newspaper account appeared only a few days after a group of eight women, led by Martha Smith Good and Carolyn Holderread Heggen, had gathered in Elkhart. The women had shared their personal experiences with Yoder’s harassment and abuse, in some cases dating back to the 1970s, with the JHY Task Force, a committee composed of Prairie Street Mennonite Church leaders as well as denominational officials. The task force found the women’s accounts to be credible and, ultimately, task force recommendations led to IMMC’s decision to suspend Yoder’s ministerial credentials.32
For Yoder and those closest to him, this convergence of events in Kansas and Indiana must have been a dark time. But some among his friends saw an opening they hoped would provide for reconciliation and healing. Five days after the front-page student newspaper article
Yoder Disinvited to Conference appeared at Bethel, Miller and fellow seminarians gathered to speak with students and staff in Elkhart about the new revelations regarding Yoder’s past. Koontz, present at that meeting, , expressed resolve to use the moment for good.
I, at least, believe, he said,
the time has come to stop having everyone learn about these matters indirectly. …We have been disempowered, and cut off from one another, by not being able to talk directly with one another. …Today it will start coming out of the closet here. I am convinced it will be healthy, though it will not be easy.33
Pursuing Peace: Agitation at Eastern Mennonite University
Bethel College’s very public decision to disinvite Yoder from the conference on nonviolence had ramifications for the next several years. In 1993, at Calvin College, a Christian Reformed Church-affiliated school in Michigan, officials announced that Yoder, whom they had earlier designated as a keynote speaker for a conference later that year, would no longer appear, adding that the theologian
took pains to assure we knew about his ongoing, Mennonite-led disciplinary process for sexual misconduct.34 Meanwhile, Yoder continued to work at the University of Notre Dame and to complete scholarly projects. His associations with Mennonite institutions were strained, as leaders within IMMC implemented new denominational protocols for addressing sexual misconduct by ordained leaders. During his four-year accountability process with conference representatives, nearly all Mennonite institutions – colleges, mission agencies, publication boards –disassociated themselves from him, expecting eventual resolution of his status as churchman.35
In mid-1996, IMMC officials announced that the disciplinary process with Yoder was over, and their press release encouraged
the church to use his gifts of writing and teaching.36 Although some who had closely followed the process were disappointed that the press release made no reference to victims, no financial restitution was offered, and Yoder had issued no statement of apology, others interpreted the statement as a nudge to extend a welcoming gesture. Among the new invitations that Yoder subsequently received was one from Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Just as leaders at Bethel in 1992 had been unaware of an earlier, unwritten
ban at Goshen College, EMU administrators arranged for Yoder to headline a peace-themed conference not knowing that their actions would deeply offend some faculty and constituents. When Eastern Mennonite Seminary (EMS) announced plans for Yoder to teach a seminar on peace theology at its annual leadership training event,
Pursuing Peace in the Congregation, EMU Professor of Theater Barbra Graber called on university colleagues to rescind the invitation. A close friend of two of Yoder’s victims, she pointed out that IMMC’s recent statement about Yoder had not included a statement of regret or apology:
His actions have done untold harm to a large cross-section of women and their families in the church who are out there silently suffering the consequences. If he were an internationally acclaimed engineer it might be different, but he purports to be a peace theologian! I beg you to take an action that supports the title of your conference rather than mocks it.37 Graber added that she might organize public protests if Yoder came to campus.
Conference planners replied that in inviting Yoder, they had not intended to condone his behavior.38 Still, Graber’s and others’ concerns prompted administrators Duane Sider and George R. Brunk III to make Yoder’s appearance conditional on his issuing a statement
acknowledging and renouncing the wrongs of the past.39 In a flurry of events, only a few days before Yoder’s anticipated arrival in January 1997, he sent a two-paragraph statement to the Virginia school that said, in part:
I regret the institutional decisions which have permitted the persistence of the misperception that I had not repented or apologized.40 With Yoder’s statement in hand –which he had stipulated ought not to be posted or circulated publicly – EMS leaders welcomed him. The controversy continued, since some at EMU regarded Yoder’s response as an exercise in calculation rather than as a genuine apology.
Nevertheless, on Jan. 20, 1997, Yoder made his presentation as planned. Women faculty in attendance were divided about whether to press Yoder about what he had learned through the past four years of Mennonite-sanctioned disciplinary actions. EMU’s student newspaper reported that Yoder had responded to one questioner that
there isn’t anyone I’ve hurt that I haven’t wanted to apologize to and I’m grateful for those who have forgiven me.41
Graber, EMU’s most vocal critic of Yoder, did not attend his presentation but, together with her husband, arranged to host Yoder at her home that morning for breakfast.42 The Harrisonburg couple visited with Yoder for more than an hour, and Graber later recalled that Yoder had spoken primarily of the recently ended church disciplinary process, in which he felt he had had little voice.43 Yoder told her that he did not see himself as having power over others; rather, he perceived women as having significant sexual power over men. The conversation was cordial and as he left, Graber later recalled,
I remember feeling a sense of peace … and tragedy all mixed together. I recognized the … amazingly effective defense of turning the offenses one has caused into offenses one receives.44
Yoder’s public appearance in Harrisonburg, clouded by divisiveness in the university community, prompted reflection from campus leaders. EMS Dean George R. Brunk III noted that the turmoil had yielded at least one significant lesson about the past and one for the future. Institutional transparency had been in short supply; now, going forward, more concern would need to be demonstrated for victims of Yoder’s abuse.45
Catechizing Abuses of Power
In subsequent years, a number of Mennonite women and their allies worked to expose the ways in which Mennonite institutions, beginning with AMBS, enabled Yoder’s abuse and put an unknown number of women at risk by supporting his academic career while keeping secret his legacies of harmful behavior.46 The story of campus protests against Yoder’s public appearances – at Goshen, Bethel and EMU – suggests how difficult it was, in decentralized Mennonite institutional settings, to shake off the secrecy surrounding Yoder’s past and share information across geographic and denominational boundaries. Mennonite schools were no better positioned than other religious-affiliated institutions in the 1980s and ’90s to act decisively when confronted with sexual abuse. Mennonites offered no leading edge in discussing or dealing proactively with cases involving sexual abuse and power manipulation by church leaders.
Yet, in Yoder’s case, the timbre of protests grew over time – beginning with quietly expressed determination at Goshen and continuing with threats of potential public protests at Bethel and EMU. In this narrative, everyone in positions of campus authority – college presidents, academic deans, conference planners – regarded themselves as benign, wanting to make enlightened decisions regarding Yoder’s status as churchman and scholar.47 In the end, Mennonite institutional responses to sexual abuse – including those of small colleges facing the specter of public protest – suggest that Yoder had a significant advantage in retaining his scholarly reputation, in comparison to those who opposed his access to college campuses. And still, grassroots sources of influence – most significantly, faculty/constituent voices of dissent and student journalism – tipped campus culture toward heightened concern for victims.