new Mennonite Life logo    September 2001     vol. 56 no. 3     Back to Table of Contents

The Global Mennonite History Project

John A. Lapp

"The global Mennonite History Project is rooted in a call from the churches of the South to be recognized as full-fledged actors in the Anabaptist-Mennonite story -- and to be able to tell the story from their own perspective. The goal is not primarily academic, but rather to provide materials for identity formation and leadership training in churches around the world."
      Bedru Hussein, Vice President, MWC, Feb. 1999.

The Global Mennonite History Project (GMHP) was established by Mennonite World Conference (MWC) at its 13th Assembly held in Calcutta, India, January 1997. Shortly thereafter a coordinator and an Organizing Committee were named (see below). The reports of the coordinator to the Organizing Committee and to the Executive Committee of MWC have addressed the questions of purpose and style as well as preliminary publication data. This report is based on discussions at the Writers Workshop held in Fredeshiem, Netherlands, October 25 to November 2, 2000. As the project progresses there will be further extension and refinement. Responses to this report will be appreciated.

Purpose and Goals

"A church without a history is a church without a future. The Bible is an historical book. The church is based upon historical happenings: Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. The Christian church already has a long history. Our Anabaptist-Mennonite movement has a sound historical development. As well, each local church has its own history. Accomplishing a Global Mennonite History project will be easier if both local churches and national conferences actively participate in it. The goal of the project is not just to produce a lovely church history, but to foster and establish churches firmly rooted in the past, with a vision for the future."
      Gerhard Ratzlaff, Asuncion, Paraguay, to the Latin America Anabaptist Convention, February 1999.

At Fredeshiem we put it this way: "The purpose of the GMHP is to tell the story of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches and in their regional and global relationships with the goal of nurturing a sense of belonging together, promoting mutual understanding, and stimulating the renewal and extension of Anabaptist Christianity world wide."

In order to achieve this high goal the GMHP will produce a five volume history of the worldwide Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches. These volumes, one for each continent, will concentrate on the period since 1850 and will be written by persons from the respective continents. Each volume will emphasize the following:

1. The development of the church: beginnings, organization, critical moments/events, leading personalities, institutions.

2. The context of the church: social, religious, political, cultural, languages, and changes in the course of her history.

3. The character of the church: theological emphases, worship patterns, preaching styles, hymnody, nurture program, sense of mission, vision for her future, relationships with the denomination and other groups.

Some of the questions authors will address:

1. How has the church been an expression of "good news"?

2. How does the church demonstrate an Anabaptist/Brethren in Christ/Mennonite identity?

We want these volumes to be written in such a compelling fashion that each will be considered required reading by both lay and commissioned leaders locally and in the world-wide church.

Alle Hoekema, professor of theology and dean of the Doopsgezinde
Seminary in Amsterdam, addressing the Global Mennonite History
Project writers' workshop at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary,
Elkhart, Indiana, June 2001. Photo by Alice Lapp.


"Church history tends to be written in Western terms: in this era of what Karl Rahner called the 'world church,' we need to remember the struggle of saints who translated the gospel into the idiom of local, non-western cultures, who engaged the wisdom of other religious paths, and who tried to understand their faith in terms of new intellectual and cultural horizons."
      Robert Ellsberg, "The Mystery of Holiness" (Sojourners, October 1997, 27).

At a number of meetings with writers individually and again at Fredeshiem, we explored what themes ought to permeate these volumes. Each volume will have its own character and will emphasize themes most germane to that situation. Many of these themes are more specific than that noted above:

1. Ethnicity, class, caste, minorities.

2. Family, gender roles, children.

3. Social violence and war.

4. Conflicts and tensions in the church.

5. Relationships with government, participation in government and political movements.

6. Bibles, translation, other literature.

7. Education and leadership training.

8. Styles of leadership.

9. Church finances.

10. Militarism, conscription, conscientious objection to war.

11. Poverty, affluence.

12. Employment, unemployment.

13. Church discipline.

14. Church architecture.

15. Public perceptions and status of the church.


"We are left with a more humble, more reflective, less normative use of the history of our churches. We need to take the objective data seriously and try to grasp as objectively as possible how reality was understood and lived in the past. The past did not occur in narrative form. Our histories will. Will our narratives serve to God's glory and the edification of the church?"
      Arnold Snyder, "The Editorial Process" at Fredeshiem, October 29, 2000.

1. These volumes will deal with the historical period since 1850. The focus will be the church rather than missionary experience.

2. The end product must be useful to the churches particularly for leadership training.

3. Writers will be in tune with the church with an appreciation and understanding of the Anabaptist tradition of faith and practice.

4. Writers will recognize the need for humility in coping with diverse expressions of the faith amidst profound cultural differences.

5. The Anabaptist tradition and movement will be seen as part of the larger Christian movement noting the deep interdependence.

6. These volumes will accent relationships and solidarity among the Mennonite-Brethren in Christ family of churches.

7. These volumes will be based on fresh empirical research, much of it based on oral sources, as well as utilizing relevant published material.

8. As first time histories, these volumes cannot be assumed to be definitive but we hope they can provide a base line for further research and revision.

9. There will be a degree of critical analysis, observing change, success, failure in the lives of the churches.

10. There will be a frank recognition of the need to redress the balance in conventional church history by emphasizing the local and regional character of churches in Africa, Asia, Latin America.

11. During the process of writing, each writer and the local conferences will seize the opportunity to develop an archive of materials for this and subsequent research.

12. Writers are encouraged to recover as many stories as possible in the history of the churches and to use these as a base for their writing.

13. As historians of the church we are eager to have the support of the church through careful and critical reading of each manuscript. Readers will be both church leaders and regional church historians.

14. The current timetable which appears feasible is to have the volumes on Africa and Latin America completed (printed, translated) in 2003, Asia in 2004, and (hopefully) Europe and North America in 2005. Writers for Africa, Asia, and Latin America are presently at work on these volumes

Resource Base

"The doing of history converges with the making of it. When we study the life and work of past generations, and when we interpret it, we are doing history. But we must remember that future generations will read about our times as past history. For in that sense we are making history. This is responsibility and it demands that we do history in order to be able to make it more faithfully. Every renewal of the church, every great age in its history, has been grounded on a renewed reading of history."
      Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity (I, 1984, XVII-XVIII).

While this project is sponsored by Mennonite World Conference, it has been clear from its establishment that the project has to develop its own funding base. Even at this point it is not clear what the final needs will be. In order to raise funds with some integrity, we developed a few guidelines:

1. Each major writer will be guaranteed a salary for one year at appropriate local salary levels.

2. All expenses of the writers will be covered: travel, secretarial, a laptop computer, camera, hand-held tape recorder, supplies, etc.

3. The project would provide editing and translating for each volume. The project will translate each volume into English, French, and Spanish. Other translations will have to be done by the local church.

4. Each volume should be of a size useful for teaching purposes, hence about 300 pages. There will be photos, bibliography, appendixes, and an index.

5. The administration of the project should be by volunteer staff. The work of the Organizing Committee will be done by e-mail, telephone, and where travel becomes necessary, funded if at all possible by other sources.

6. Priority will be given to the Africa, Asia, and Latin America volumes. Europe and North America can be delayed if necessary. (At Fredeshiem the decision was made to go forward with the Europe and North America volumes. )

We have been envisioning a total project budget of at least $400,000. It is now clear that we will need $300,000 for the Africa, Asia and Latin America volumes. This will cover personnel costs, travel, equipment, secretarial, translation, editing, publication. At this time, November 2000, we have raised or have commitments of $260,000. We need $40,000 more to complete the first three volumes and substantially more than the envisioned $400,000 to complete all five volumes.

In addition to individual contributions, a number of agencies have made significant contributions. These include Mennonite Central Committee, MMA Fraternal Funds, United Service Foundation, Algemene Doopsgezinde Societeit (Dutch Mennonites), Mennonite Historical Society (Goshen), Mennonite Foundation Canada, Goodville Mutual Insurance Co., and a number of Mennonite Historical societies.

Special recognition should be given the ADS (Dutch Mennonites) and Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary who have or will sponsor workshops for the writers. Their substantial grants covering both travel and hospitality are in addition to the project budget.

The project continues to need funds. We invite large and small contributions which should be sent to a MWC office.

The People

"We need a generation of scholars who are flexible and open to the world's variety of method and perspective, who are willing to attempt projects of a less Eurocentric nature than in generations past. To step toward a methodological decolonization of the historical enterprise."
      Paul Spikard, "It's the World's History," Fides et Historia (Summer 1999, 29).

Left to right: Alemu Checole (Ethiopia), Adhi Dharma (Indonesia),
Beketema Dube (Zimbabwe), Eric Kumedisa (Congo),
Paulus Pan (Taiwan), Masakazu Yamada (Japan),
I. P. Asheervadam (India).
At Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana, June 2001.
Photo by Alice Lapp.


Organizing Committee


Inquiries regarding this project should be sent to the Coordinator: John A. Lapp, 13 Knollwood Drive, Akron, PA 17501, USA (e-mail:; phone: 717-859-4412). Contributions should be sent to Mennonite World Conference, 50 Kent Ave., Kitchener, Ontario, Canada N263R1 (or to) MWC, 8, rue du Fosse des Treize, 6700 Strasbourg, France.