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2017, vol. 71   Special Issue: Why 500 Years?

Review of Mark Jantzen, Mary S. Sprunger, John D. Thiesen, editors. European Mennonites and the Challenge of Modernity over Five Centuries: Contributors, Detractors, and Adaptors (North Newton: Cornelius H. Wedel Historical Series, 2016).

by Joe A. Springer

Joe A. Springer, Goshen, Indiana, is curator of the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College.

In this collection, the editors present 19 essays originally delivered at a 2010 conference at Bethel College entitled “Marginal or Mainstream? Anabaptists, Mennonites and Modernity in European Society.”

In the original call for papers for that event, conference organizers Jantzen and Sprunger solicited proposals demonstrating “how European history can be better understood by incorporating key aspects from five centuries of Anabaptist and Mennonite history.” The volume’s contents suggest that presenters were more interested in better understanding Anabaptist and Mennonite history than in that history’s impact on any broader understanding of European history. The editorial introduction reframes the resulting papers as examples that help us see Mennonites as contributing to, detracting from, or adaptors of “the modern venture,” a willingness to seek “to create the kind of world they, or we, might want to live in.” The hindsight of this introduction, together with Thomas A. Brady’s keynote “The Cost of Contexts: Anabaptist/Mennonite History and the Early Modern European Past” that opened the conference and this volume, do provide lenses that allow one to consider the specific content more broadly. Despite efforts to organize and interpret the content around a broader theme of modernity, individual essays generally remain narrow in chronological and/or geographical focus. With several exceptions, the significance of a particular essay does not seem to depend on or contribute significantly to the larger themes promoted in the introduction and keynote address. One wonders whether most of the essays might not have proved to be more “discoverable” (and therefore more usable) if published as journal articles – whether separately or as a group. Classed in Part I as “contributors” to modernity are these eight essays:

Part II, “Detractors,” has four essays:

Grouped in Part III, “Adaptors,” are six essays:

As in most collections of conference papers, there is noticeable variation in strength and depth of individual research. The quality of translations of contributions from presenters whose native language is not English ranges from good to somewhat tedious. A very welcome feature in this volume is an index – something often not provided when publishing conference proceedings.