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2015, vol. 69


by Mark Jantzen

Mark Jantzen is professor of history at Bethel College and author of Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880 (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010) and The Wrong Side of the Wall: An American in East Berlin during the Peaceful Revolution (1993). He is co-editor with John Thiesen of two translations, The Military Service Exemption of the Mennonites of Provincial Prussia (2013) and The Danzig Mennonite Church: Its Origins and History, 1569-1919 (2007). He currently serves as the North American representative on the editorial council of volume five of Mennonitisches Lexikon.

When the editorial board of Mennonite Life met at the end of May last year to wrap up the 2014 issue, we noted, too, around that time the passing of Vincent Harding, theologian, historian, and, for a time in the 1960s, prominent Mennonite leader. From his sojourn with Mennonites he went on to be a key civil rights leader and important collaborator with Martin Luther King, Jr. Shortly before his death, after decades of distance, he reconnected with a new generation of young Mennonites and Anabaptists. We decided to gather reflections from among that new generation and from the elders among us who remembered his time in Mennonite churches and leadership to see what traces of his footprints remain with us. The results of this effort are presented here in this section of the 2015 issue of Mennonite Life.

One common theme, as one would expect for a man who provided bold leadership on the difficult issue of race during tumultuous times, is of discomfort on all sides. This uncomfortable and reluctant Mennonite engagement with Harding is continued in his death by at least one measurement, namely the fact that Ronald Sawatsky, Esther Annie Brandt Born, and Peter Derksen, Mennonites leaders who died in 2014, already have biographical entries in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online while Harding does not. Perhaps a reader of these lines will work to rectify that omission. The large number of people who declined invitations to write might also be another measure of ongoing uneasiness, although their motives were undoubtedly varied and there is no constructive argument to make out of silence.

Tobin Miller Shearer opens this section with an insightful review of Harding’s background in the Mennonite church and the activities that led him into leadership and eventually out of the church. Even on his way out of the church, Harding was still engaged and hoping for change, with some of his last writings in Mennonite periodicals published in this journal. While Shearer honestly grapples with failings on all sides, Harding’s departure in his judgment was the result of deafness and rejection on the part of the church toward Harding’s prophetic work.

Drew Hart pursues especially Harding’s ongoing and current legacy among Mennonites. Hart notes how a younger generation’s engagement with Harding and especially with his creative attempt to be in black and Mennonite communities at the same time demonstrates the continuing impact of what many at the time assumed was a failed effort. That failed effort might now point to a new way forward.

Harold Regier writes out of the personal experience of encounter in 1963 during Harding’s visit to the Camp Landon Mennonite Mission program in Gulfport, Mississippi. Harding was more direct and confrontational in his approach then Mennonites in general were comfortable with in that time, something that might still be the case today. His visit raised the kind of questions then that still resonate over what is the true or most fully authentic Anabaptist and Christian response to injustice and oppression. Regier’s reflection on their time together invites us into those uncertainties.

Our final piece in this Harding memorial section is a reprint in a more accessible digital format of his 1967 address in Amsterdam to Mennonite World Conference, The Peace Witness and Revolutionary Movements. We included it here at the urging of John Lapp, historian and former executive secretary of Mennonite Central Committee, who recalls in his introduction the web of issues and personalities that Harding cited and interacted with in that year.