BLUFFTON, Ohio — A plea from C. Henry Smith to the Mennonite church 90 years ago remains relevant today, according to the author of a forthcoming book about the Mennonite historian.
After World War I, Smith modeled the role of Mennonite public intellectual, delivering a consistent message of peacemaking both to Mennonite and other audiences, Perry Bush said Feb. 3 in Bluffton University’s annual C. Henry Smith Peace Lecture.
But Smith also called for peace within the Mennonite church, added Bush, a Bluffton professor of history whose fourth book, Peace, Progress and the Professor: The Mennonite History of C. Henry Smith, will be published by Herald Press in September.
Smith, a history professor at then-Bluffton College from 1913 to 1946, lived his adult life in a time of deep conflict within Mennonite churches, Bush said. Behind disagreements about proper dress restrictions were deeper arguments between progressives and conservatives about acceptable phrasing of Mennonite theology — and those arguments quickly came to be focused on matters of church discipline.
All of the disagreements, however, fundamentally stemmed from “a basic and destructive fight” over what it meant to be a Mennonite in a time of rapid socio-cultural change.
“Individual congregations were splitting up; others were leaving their district conferences and joining new groups,” he said.
Smith was a leader of the “Mennonite union movement,” which sought to heal divisions in the church in part through biennial conferences called All-Mennonite Conventions. In 1925, “as the gulf widened among the Mennonite churches,” Bush said, Smith chaired and gave the keynote address at the convention in Nappanee, Ind.
“He knew that Mennonite unity was elusive and difficult, but he was convinced that it was a project still worth pursuing,” according to his biographer.
Smith started his speech with a story from his Amish Mennonite boyhood on an Illinois farm. When he was about to turn 16, he asked his parents for a telescope, rather than the watch they customarily gave their sons on that birthday, Bush related. They agreed, and he set up the telescope on the barn roof, from where Smith could soon make out peaks and valleys on the face of the moon and, eventually, four of Jupiter’s moons. The sights he saw through the telescope had given him an epiphany he shared with the convention delegates.
“How it stretches the imagination to grasp only faintly the idea of the immensity of this wonderful universe and its marvelous creator and ruler. How it humiliates us,” he told his listeners. “Against such a background as this, how insignificant seem the little differences of opinion which exist among us mortals.
“And so, the greatest lesson I learned from my little telescope was not a lesson in astronomy . . . but rather a lesson in toleration” — which he went on to urge among all Mennonites.
He qualified it, saying toleration didn’t mean anyone had “a right to teach and practice what he pleases, though it may be destructive of the principles of the church.”
However, Bush continued, Smith also cautioned that “toleration is not a one-sided virtue. It involves obligations as well as privileges. It demands that we respect the honest convictions of others even though we do not agree with them.”
Toleration was critical, Smith said, because, with it, churches could do so much good work together: “The great need of today among many Mennonites is not so much an absolute unanimity of belief and practice in all details, as a spirit of cooperation in carrying out a great constructive program of church activities which no group by itself is able to achieve.”
Most of all, said Bush, Smith repeated the “crying need” for Mennonite unity.
“What the Mennonite church needs today above all else is that its broken body should be healed,” he asserted in 1925. “The beliefs which we have in common are of far more significance than those which separate us.”
Ninety years later, “deep lines of fracture still extend across the Mennonite church,” Bush noted, adding that “I can only imagine what Smith might have to say about this”:
“Here you are, some of you, poised to pull apart what previous generations of Mennonites only dreamed of. Be careful; go slowly. . . . Christian unity is so delicate, so fleeting and so precious. Safeguard it.”
Smith also offers a modern lesson as an early Mennonite public intellectual — a role he developed, Bush noted, through a public speaking career that afforded him exposure to secular and regional radio audiences as well.
For example, he gave still-applicable advice to Bluffton High School students in 1935 — “an alarming, scary time . . . not too dissimilar from our own,” Bush pointed out, with “ominous trends” overseas and political polarization and economic instability at home.
That 80-year-old advice? “Read widely. Don’t believe it all. Make up your own mind. . . . Keep your head.”
“That’s what it meant to him to be an intellectual,” said Bush. And, “that’s not bad advice for those of us who want to play this role today.”
Smith taught at Bluffton for 33 years after 10 years at Goshen College. After his death in 1948, his estate established a trust in his name that funds projects — including the lectureship — that promote the Mennonite peace message.