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

Telling a Fuller Story

by Tobin Miller Shearer

Tobin Miller Shearer is associate professor of history and director of the African-American Studies Program at the University of Montana. He has written widely on religion, race, and Mennonites in the civil rights movement; his most recent book is Two Weeks Every Summer: Fresh Air Children and the Problem of Race in America (Cornell University Press, 2017).

Narratives define people. Whether religious, secular, or civic, the stories we tell about ourselves create boundaries, model truth, and channel resources. In his essay, Benjamin Goossen argues that we need to exercise utmost care in how we tell Anabaptist history. And for good reason. The story told of Mennonite origins defines who is in and who is out, declaims history as fact, and determines whose voices are heard and thereby which groups receive the church’s limited funds and energy. The question of how we frame our story is worth the investment of our collective attention. We do, indeed, need to craft the Mennonite story with nuance, deliberation, and the best historical insight we have to offer.

The question is how to do so.

Goossen notes that his perspective is most closely aligned with African-American historian and sage Vincent Harding. He highlights Harding’s trenchant critique of white Mennonite withdrawal, acquiescence to racism and, as Harding would go on to describe it in 2011, the dilemma of trying to be faithful Anabaptists while engaged as “chaplains and cheerleaders of the empire.”1

Goossen’s choice is illustrative in many respects. First, he has selected an exemplar who knew the value of story and narrative. In 1994, Harding stressed the importance “of creating a history that is faithful to the realities of our ambiguous past, our contentious present, and our rather uncertain future.”2 But he did not stop there. Harding noted that those who tell a people’s history – their storytellers – need to do so in order to share that people’s “healing truth.”3 He believed that good history could, at least in the U.S. context, “contribute to the healing of our wounded nation.”4 Stories were, for Harding, the very bedrock of society. He averred, “In the same way that food and water are essential to our survival, stories are also essential.”5

In fact, Harding’s entry to the Mennonite world came via story. While pursuing his doctorate at the University of Chicago, Harding encountered the traditional story of Mennonite’s origins and was “deeply impressed” by the long sweep of Anabaptists’ commitment to living out their faith.6 Although he would later become disillusioned in the 1950s and ’60s with what he felt was a lack of integrity among white Mennonites for their refused to join the racial revolution, he came into the Mennonite fold because of a story, in all likelihood, the “monogenesis” account that Goossen describes. For Harding, it was a convincing tale.

Harding is also an excellent exemplar because he offered an answer to the historical question implicit in Goossen’s essay: How does one develop a polygenesis story that is faithful to the evidence but also captures the community’s imagination? Here is what Harding suggested. Attending to the specific question of how to re-cast his nation’s story, Harding proposed first “creating new histories of particular racial, cultural, or ethnic groups,” then having “skilled and creative witnesses” from within these groups tell how the larger nation’s story appeared to them, and finally bringing together “historians and others” to “grope toward what might become at least the proposed outline for a … new ‘holy history.’”7 Harding wisely noted that that new “master narrative” would “immediately be challenged by a generation now in waiting.”8

His three-phased process offers much for Mennonites at this celebratory juncture. Harding sketched the parameters of a process that deliberately opens itself to those who have been left out of the master narrative. As Goossen suggests, this kind of inclusiveness will not only mean bringing in those who have traditionally been left out because of their racial and national identities, but also those who have been alienated and expunged due to their sexual and gender identities. In this regard, those responsible for the crafting of the commemorative story need to simply let go of their presumed gatekeeping role in deciding who is in and who is out of the story. As religious study scholar Herbert Berg notes in his study of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, it is only by essentializing a religious community that it becomes possible to claim that someone who asserts their identity as a member of that community is outside the bounds of that community. Only by including leaders and members of the Nation of Islam in the narrative of the Muslim community does a complete story emerge.9 In the same way, only by including all those who claim identity as Mennonites will a complete story come to fruition. Anything less, and we once again tell a story that privileges gatekeepers and excises voices of renewal.

Harding’s three-phased approach also emphasizes the process needed for a more complete narrative. Rather than conceive of the decade leading up to the 500th anniversary as a series of celebrations, why not conceive of it as a process through which emerges a more complete telling of our stories? Imagine a series of gatherings of Mennonite storytellers that does not begin in Europe but rather in one of the growing Anabaptist population centers like India or the Congo (to name two of many such non-North American sites). Consider the possibilities that such a sharing of stories could elicit. By de-centering Europe, as yet unimagined narratives could revitalize and renew us all.

Harding finally reminds us that all histories, all stories, all narratives of any people are constantly in a state of retelling. The “newer wave” of inclusive scholarship that Goossen footnotes will and should be challenged by coming generations even as those of us in that wave have challenged the histories we have received. We will never arrive at a final Mennonite story. We can only hope to be a part of telling one that is richer and more complete than those that were told previously.

The biggest challenge raised by Goossen, and one that he does not appear to acknowledge, is that monogenesis stories are by far the easiest and most captivating to tell. At once richly visual, readily memorialized, and highly dramatic, single-source narratives capture the popular imagination. The trick on the occasion of this quincentenary will be to develop a narrative line – or, more appropriately, narrative lines – that draw in audiences with the same adroit facility as do those surrounding Manz, Blaurock, Grebel, and Simons but without the attendant patriarchy, Eurocentrism, and colonial mindset that such stories invariably promote. Some version of the process Harding suggested may offer the best hope of getting us there.


  1. Vincent Harding and Joanna Shenk, “Anabaptist Formation: An Interview with Vincent Harding,” in Widening the Circle: Experiments in Christian Discipleship, ed. Joanna Shenk (Harrisonburg, Virginia: Herald Press, 2011), 34.
  2. Vincent G. Harding, “Healing at the Razor’s Edge: Reflections on a History of Multicultural America, ” Journal of American History 81, no. 2 (1994): 573.
  3. Ibid., 574.
  4. Vincent Harding, Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1990, 2009), 6.
  5. Vincent Harding and Daisaku Ikeda, America Will Be!: Conversations on Hope, Freedom, and Democracy (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Dialogue Path Press, 2013), 27.
  6. Harding and Shenk, 24.
  7. Harding, “Healing at the Razor’s Edge, ” 580-81.
  8. Ibid., 580.
  9. Herbert Berg, Elijah Muhammad and Islam (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 4.