new Mennonite Life logo    June 2002     vol. 57 no. 2     Back to Table of Contents

Donovan Smucker:
Liberal Activist or Moderate-Conservative Anabaptist

William Keeney

Link to Smucker audio file (mp3, 80mb, 44 minutes) This recording of Donovan Smucker was found on a reel-to-reel tape donated to the Archives of the Mennonite Church USA-North Newton by Malcolm and Esther Wenger. It is undated and simply labeled "D. Smucker chapel talk." It likely comes from his Chicago seminary teaching days in the early or mid-1950s and gives something of his presentation style in the era discussed by William Keeney in the article below. Perhaps one of our readers can give more complete identification to this recording.

Introduction (1)

Donovan Ebersole Smucker (1915-2001) was the son of Boyd David and Mary Ebersole Smucker. His father taught speech in his early years at Goshen College. Boyd left when Goshen would not allow him to offer drama and theater. After a few years out west, he joined the faculty at Bluffton College in Ohio. As a consequence Donovan grew up in Bluffton. While in high school, he followed in his father's footsteps and was part of a debating team that won the state championship. In 1936 he graduated from Bluffton College with an A.B. degree.

Smucker was interested in social issues. In 1934 and 1935 he participated in American Friends Service Committee work camps at Greenburg and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He attended Yale University from 1936 to 1938, and in 1937 served in Yale Industrial Research at the Ford Motor Company, in Dearborn, Michigan. He served as president at Mary Holmes College during the height of the Civil Rights Movement (1967-1969). He has said that he resigned because he became convinced the college should have a black president. His interest in social ethics is also indicated by his doctoral dissertation, "The Origins of Walter Rauschenbush's Social Ethics," published in 1994 by McGill-Queen's University Press.

Smucker's first major position was under the American Friends Service Committee as Executive Secretary of the Kansas Institute of International Relations at Newton, Kansas (1938-39). From there he went to the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) where he served first as Youth Secretary and then as Mid-West Secretary. There he met John Swomley, who succeeded him as Youth Secretary and later served in other capacities with the FOR. Swomley later taught at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri.

In 1942 Smucker resigned from the FOR and became pastor at the First Mennonite Church in Wadsworth, Ohio, and then at the Bethel Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. While at Lancaster he took work at Princeton Theological Seminary where he received his B.D. in 1947. He received an M.A. at the University of Chicago in 1953 and a Ph. D. in 1957. He did this while teaching Ethics at Bethany-Mennonite Biblical Seminaries in Chicago, 1949-1957.

From 1959 to 1967 Smucker was Chaplain and Professor of Religious Studies at Lake Forest College, Lake Forest, Illinois. From there he served as President of Mary Holmes College from 1967 to 1969. He joined the faculty at Conrad Grebel College and the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada where he served as Professor of Social Sciences from 1970 until his retirement as Emeritus Professor in 1980.

Smucker's first major role in the larger Mennonite churches came during the World War II years. He visited and spoke at numerous Civilian Public Service camps under the auspices of the Mennonite Central Committee. He also wrote a number of articles for the Mennonite Quarterly Review, beginning in 1945, and also did numerous book reviews published there. Smucker was known as a dynamic and eloquent preacher and frequently served churches on Sunday. After his retirement and until 1990 he also was interim pastor at Vancouver; Wichita, Kansas; the Bethel College Mennonite Church; and First Mennonite Church, Bluffton, Ohio. Through these various Mennonite involvements he was widely known and was influential throughout the larger Mennonite communities.

This article focuses upon a major turning point in Smucker's life. Apparently he became disillusioned with liberal pacifism with the onset of World War II. He came to believe that the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr was too pessimistic about sin and evil, and led to the choice of lesser evils. Smucker found in the "Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision" a more adequate position regarding the reality of evil but with some optimism about the way to cope with it. This shift, and the likely reasons for it, may shed light on the pilgrimage of other Mennonites of that era.

Don Smucker ca. 1955, Chicago

The Quaker Connection

In college Smucker somehow became aware of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). In the summer of his sophomore year (probably 1934) he went to a government homesteading project at Mt. Pleasant, Pennsylvania. The AFSC had an early and continuing interest in the plight of coal miners. The organization was active in the early thirties in Arthurdale, West Virginia, where the government also had a homesteading project. A Friend, Walter Day, later a director of an AFSC homesteading project at PennCraft in Fayette County of Pennsylvania, was working at the Mt. Pleasant homestead before AFSC started the PennCraft homesteading project.

After graduation from Bluffton College in 1936 Smucker went to Yale Divinity School. There he came under the influence of Jerome Davis and had a strong interest in industrial research. In the summer of 1937 Smucker became the Director of the Yale Industrial Research at the Ford automobile factory in Dearborn, Michigan. In an interview in 1996, Smucker said that the experience was a turning point for him. (2) He observed a lot of stealing and noted that workers could not check out tools from the crib without numbers on them (probably indicating that they had to sign for them.) The experience in Dearborn probably contributed to Smucker's major field of ethics for study and teaching.

When Smucker was at Yale his father died. Don had gone to Yale with $100 and so ran out of money. He did have a Downes and Mersick Prize in 1936-37 at Yale. (3) No indication is given of whether any monetary award accompanied the prize. Faculty members at Bluffton often did not receive some payments during the Depression years, so his family had few resources to assist him. The AFSC offered him a position as Executive Secretary of the Kansas Institute of International Relations based at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas. Smucker served in that capacity from 1938 to 1940.

During Smucker's period at North Newton he met and married Barbara Claassen of Newton. In the summer of 1939 they traveled to Germany and the Soviet Union where they met some of Barbara's Claassen cousins. Smucker was shocked at how they "drank too deeply at the Nazism well." (4)

In October of 1939 Barbara reported in the Fellowship magazine about a Fellowship of Reconciliation conference at Haverford in which she had participated. (5) Reports from Smucker began appearing in Fellowship in October 1939 on a regular basis first under the rubric of "Pacifist Youth in Action." (6) He apparently was acting as the FOR Youth Secretary while still Director of the Kansas Institute of International Relations. He was in Manhattan and New York sometime during this period. John Swomley says that Smucker left that job to go to Chicago as Mid-West Regional Secretary. (7)

In March 1940, Fellowship magazine reported that Don and Barbara Smucker were collecting materials for a casebook on nonviolence. (8) In September 1940, a note reports that a "Catechism of Peace in a World at War with a Casebook on Nonviolence" was prepared. (9) At some point Smucker was apparently appointed as Mid-West Secretary for the FOR. (10) The monthly reports he had in Fellowship were then included in "News Notes from the Field," (11) later headed "Field Action Reports." (12)

Smucker organized a major conference in Chicago on November 15, 1941. He had General Lewis B. Hershey, then Director of Selective Service, as a major speaker. Other participants included: Paul Comly French, head of the National Service Board for Religious Objectors; Charles Boss, Jr. of the Methodist World Peace Commission; M. R. Ziegler of the Brethren Service Committee; Claude Shotts, Director of the Merom, Indiana, Civilian Public Service camp; and Col. McLean, director of Selective Service in Illinois. (13) On February 18, 1942, Fellowship magazine had the following in an article titled "Additions and Changes in F.O.R. Staff."

We regret that we must conclude this report with the announcement that at the end of March Don Smucker will relinquish his post as Mid-West Secretary to become pastor of the Mennonite Church of Wadsworth, Ohio. This does not imply that the F.O.R. is "losing" Don and Barbara Smucker. Don has become an Editorial Contributor of Fellowship and continues to serve actively on the National Council, heading the Council's newly appointed important committee on relations with the "Historic Peace Churches." Don hopes that a settled pastorate may give him more time for writing than the exigencies of a Regional Secretaryship, with its executive and field duties, permitted. Those who know Don's capacities as a writer will hope that this expectation may be realized; nevertheless, we share with our Mid-West people a feeling of dismay as we think of the removal of Don and Barbara Smucker from the work in which they have pioneered for the F.O.R. so effectively and acceptably. His post will not be easy to fill. (14)

In April the following item appeared:

The news of the loss of Don Smucker to the Mid-West can be offset only by the happy news that Herman Will, Jr., formerly Youth Secretary of the The Methodist Peace Commission has accepted the invitation to become Smucker's successor in the position, beginning about April 15th. Smucker and Barbara will be sorely missed by all who learned to know and love them. Our sincerest wishes go out to them in their new field of service and usefulness. (15)

Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Chicago:
(left to right) S. F. Pannabecker, Edmund J. Miller, Don Smucker,
Mrs. S. F. Pannabecker, Marvin Dirks, Katie Andres, John T. Neufeld.

Shift to Mennonite Circles

We can speculate about some of the factors which led to Smucker's departure from FOR as a liberal pacifist to become a more moderate or even conservative Mennonite pastor. The clearest statement is in an article in The Mennonite Quarterly Review, published four years after he left the FOR. He says,

I start with the assumption that the peace movement has failed: the outbreak of ruthless total warfare is simple proof of this fact. The National Council for the Prevention of War did not prevent the war: The Fellowship of Reconciliation did not reconcile the opposing powers; The War Resisters' League could not resist the satanic tides of war; the American Friends Service Committee did not make the world friendly; the Mennonite Central Committee did not construct any central cohesion to hold the world together; the Socialist party did not socialize the naked individualism of humanity. Ironically enough, the Nobel Peace Prize, whose source of funds was a high explosive, was once awarded to Nicholas Murray Butler, one of America's leading interventionists. In any case, our failure is clearly set before us in tragic, painful truth.

I repeat that divisions in the peace movement revolve around explanations of our failure to prevent the war and/or to make a lasting peace. After a considerable period of professional service in the American peace movement, I have been forced to restudy the reasons for this perennial failure. Like the Apostle Paul I have had my Damascus Road experience [emphasis added].

This brief essay is a report of my new synthesis of thought on great issues of war and peace in the light of what I would like to call "Biblical realism" as guided by historic Mennonite thought. My present mood was well stated by Sam Shoemaker when he wrote: "I am tired of cures that don't cure, movements that don't move, of answers that don't answer." (And I think that deep down this is a well nigh universal feeling. It is vague and confused, in the main; yet the clear thought is there that the present answers of the peace movement do not answer. This, to be sure, is not complemented by any clarified declaration of what the true answer really is.) (16)

Smucker proceeded to give four major critiques of contemporary pacifism from a "Biblical realism" perspective. He did not elaborate on when and how he had that experience, though, as mentioned above, it was apparently very important for him for he referred to it again in the 1996 interview. (17)

One possibility seems clearly to be his disillusionment with his liberal activism because of several events which he mentions elsewhere. He talked about his shock at the Nazism of Barbara's relatives in Germany. His departure might also be related to the U. S. entry into World War II after Pearl Harbor and some feeling of the inadequacy of his liberal pacifism in the light of the scope of horror of those events.

Another possibility is the influence of Harold S. Bender. Already on October 29, 1939, while Smucker was Youth Secretary for the FOR in New York City, he was invited by Bender to come to Goshen. Indications are that Smucker accepted the invitation and went. In 1944 he began a long series of letters with Bender about Smucker's choice for a seminary. Smucker apparently visited Bender sometime that year and then sent a letter to Bender on Dec. 7 indicating the direction of his thinking after the visit. Smucker wrote,

I came to Goshen fully convinced that Biblical Seminary [New York Biblical Seminary] was the place for me; I left feeling convinced that Princeton was that place. I do believe, nevertheless, that Biblical is, in some minor and secondary respects, more truly Biblical in the sense it is not haunted by a theological system as strongly as more or less Calvinist Princeton.

Also, I want to ask this question: since the Baptists would be closest for our background, historically speaking, why have Mennonites failed to go to more orthodox Baptist schools such as Louisville, Northern and Eastern? For example, at Princeton the view on infant baptism and the Lord's Supper would be much less Mennonite than, say Eastern. Right? (18)

Bender replied (apparently to reaffirm Smucker's position as opposed to going elsewhere),

I hope you will not mind if I remind you that the Eastern Distrcit [sic] and Central District Conference of the General Conferences, particularly the former, have abandoned so much of Mennonitism, including nonresistance, secrecy, oath, discipline in general, etc., that it is not primarily a matter of competition in the minds of these men, but rather a matter of having folks lose out in Mennonitism when they join the General Conference.

Later Bender tried to persuade Smucker to go to Basel and study under Brunner. Indeed, Bender arranged with the Mennonite Central Committee for Smucker to serve part time as pastor for the MCC people in Basel and to travel among Mennonite churches in Switzerland and Germany to become acquainted with them. That was because Bender saw Smucker as an important person for leadership in the broader Mennonite church. He also tried to dissuade him from going to the University of Chicago for his doctoral study,

because of the bad example of having Mennonite theologians go to Chicago University for graduate study in theology. (19)

Smucker did not go to Basel because he received a call to teach at the newly formed Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Bible School, which also included teaching at Bethany Biblical Seminary (with which Mennonite Biblical Seminary was affiliated), in large part for accreditation purposes. Smucker did get his M.A. in 1953 and Ph.D. in 1957 at the University of Chicago. He kept insisting that he must have the European experience but never did.

Another evidence of the reasons that Smucker left the FOR comes from a letter he wrote to Bender on Dec. 15, 1947.

I found it extremely difficult to work with men who simply did not share any of the nonresistant position. Now this is at the very heart of the Christian gospel; it is not a mere facet of it. It is based on the grace of God in Jesus Christ and nonresistance is the man to man manifestation of agape love which is supremely seen in the atonement at the cross of Calvary. Hence, to bring together these two aspects of the gospel is supremely important.... It is precisely this belief that has led me to break with organizations like the F.O.R. which seek to specialize on one aspect of the Christian "message." (20)

What led to that conclusion is still a mystery. Did he read Guy F. Hershberger's War, Peace and Nonresistance? He did say in the Schlabach interview that the book was a very scholarly book--well written. He spoke of the influences of the teaching of Richard Niebuhr when he was at Yale but does not elaborate about it. He says that it was a "big turning point." He also reacted to Reinhold Niebuhr. In the 1996 interview Smucker did say MCC is the way out of Niebuhrian activism and pietistic quietism. (21)

Finally he did say in a letter of October 8, 1943, addressed only to Dear Brother Henry [Fast] as seen in a letter of September 30, 1943,

Frankly, it has been somewhat difficult for me to be so much on the outside of all the real inner planning and thinking of the Mennonite church in regard to non-resistant policy and practice, particularly after my very active role in C.O. movement as a whole. On the other hand, I think God in his providential care has wanted me to have the approximately two year invoicing and re-checking of my peace convictions while toiling here in Wadsworth. In utterly paradoxical fashion, a thoroughgoing conservative yet dynamic Mennonite position has been revealed to me here in the midst of a sharply un-Mennonite situation. Perhaps the sad disintegration of true Mennonitism in this historic community has been God's catalytic agent to stimulate the development of the true faith within me.

Apart from the renewal of the solid historical and foundation of true Mennonitism, I have also come to feel that the MCC policy has been fundamentally sound in all major areas. This, I must confess in contrast to many of my old FOR friends who have quite unwittingly tended to sanctify an exaggerated secular individualism, often quite unloving and unredemptive. As you suggested at Pandora non-resistance is a fruit of the Gospel; it is not the Gospel, per se. This is a double edged insight which condemns the failure to find this fruit in the militarist Christian and, on the other hand, condemns the attempt to find peace apart from Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, the Saviour [sic] and Redeemer. While eternal vigilence [sic] is the price of liberty, I believe that CPS is and will be a magnificent Godly blessing to our church. (22)

In conclusion, we can only guess as to which persons, events, and organizations most led Smucker to his Pauline conversion and his shift from radical activism to Anabaptist pacifism. It is also a question of how much we can trust Smucker's later reflections on the experience to be accurate at the time he made his decision and what he read back into it as he pursued his further career. This does remain clear: it was a shift that affected him greatly in the next decade, though he never completely abandoned his activism, as testified by the pendulum swing somewhat back that led him to the presidency of Mary Holmes College, 1967-69, during the height of the civil rights movement. He no doubt worked out some kind of a synthesis of the two extremes over time.

Karl Schultz, a classmate of Smucker in the Bluffton College graduating class of 1936, made what appears to me to be a very perceptive comment about Smucker that helps explain his extreme swings: "Whatever Don does, he does enthusiastically. He goes all out." (23)

Barbara Claassen Smucker and Donovan Smucker, 1987


1. Many of the sources for this article were found by Ann Hilty of the Mennonite Historical Library of Bluffton College and by Dennis Stoesz of the Archives of the Mennonite Church at Goshen College. They were most helpful in locating relevant materials.

2. Interview of Donovan Smucker, August 17, 1996, by Theron F. Schlabach, Cassette Tape #34, Theron F. Schlabach Tape Collection (Hist. Mss. 6-192) Mennonite Church USA Archives, Goshen, Indiana.

3. Curriculum Vitae of 1994 in papers of Donovan Smucker, Bluffton College Archives.

4. Barbara Smucker said they went to Germany, the Soviet Union, and Holland the year they were married. She was not sure if they also went to Switzerland. Conversation March 28, 2002.

5. Fellowship magazine, Oct. 1939, p. 7.

6. Ibid., pp 20-21.

7. John Swomley letter of March 25, 2002.

8. Fellowship, Mar. 1940, p. 44.

9. Fellowship, Sept. 1940, p. 111.

10. John Swomley reports that he "was invited to become the National Youth Secretary at the F.O.R. headquarters...This move made it possible for Donovan Smucker, a young Mennonite and my predecessor as Youth Secretary, to go to Chicago and organize a new Midwest Regional F.O.R. office." Letter of March 25, 2002, quoting from Swomley's autobiography.

11. Starting Sept. 1940, p. 114, and further issues.

12. Starting Feb. 1941, p. 30 and following issues.

13. Fellowship, Nov. 1941, p. 190.

14. Fellowship, Feb. 1942, p. 18. (Despite Smucker's openness to write for Fellowship no further articles or reports were found from him through 1944. Another Mennonite, Carl Landes, apparently served for a time as interim Mid-west Secretary; see Fellowship, May, 1942, p. 86. He also served as Rural Secretary for the FOR.)

15. Fellowship, April, 1942, p. 66.

16. Don. E. Smucker, "A Mennonite Critique of the Pacifist Movement," Mennonite Quarterly Review 20 (Jan. 1946): 81-82.

17. See above, note 2.

18. See letter of Smucker to H. S. Bender on Dec. 7, 1944, as found in the Harold S. Bender Collection, file entitled "Smucker, Don E.," (Hist, MSS. 1-278, Box 23), Mennonite Church Archives, Goshen, Indiana.

19. Ibid., letter of January 11, 1945.

20. Ibid.

21. Op. cit.

22. See letter of Smucker to Henry [Fast], Oct. 8, 1943, as found in the Mennonite Central Committee Collection, Central Correspondence Files, file entitled "Smucker, Don E., 1943" (IX-6-3), Mennonite Church USA Archives, Goshen, Indiana.

23. Telephone conversation, March 14, 2002.