George J. Lapp (1879-1951) was one of those Mennonite pioneers who emerged at the turn of the 19th century and made a contribution to multiple fields throughout his life. Missions, higher education and denominational structures were all emerging at the same time in the Mennonite Church, and George Lapp seemed to be at the center of many of these new movements.
He was an early student at the Elkhart Institute and later graduated from Goshen College, Bethany Seminary and Goshen Biblical Seminary. He went to India in 1905 and established the Mennonite Bible School in 1910. He became a bishop during his 40 years in India. He served on various churchwide committees and served as an interim president of Goshen College, 1918-19. He wrote two books and published many articles in church periodicals.
The focus of An Unlikely Trio: George J. Lapp, Esther Ebersole Lapp and Fannie Hershey Lapp and the Mennonite India Mission is not on Lapp’s accomplishments so much as on his relationships — specifically, to his two wives and his family, as well as to other missionaries and church leaders.
Author Myrna Burkholder holds the distinction of being the daughter of one Goshen College president (J. Lawrence and Harriet Lapp Burkholder were her parents) and the granddaughter of another, George J. Lapp, father of Harriet.
Sometimes a researcher comes upon a great find in trying to locate information about an ancestor. Such was the case for Burkholder while searching for more information about her grandfather’s life. She uncovered his unpublished autobiography at the Archives of the Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Ind.
From there, she could piece together the intriguing story of the man who had two wives (Esther Ebersole and Fannie Hershey) and therefore the children who had two mothers — one the biological mother, Esther, who died of black-water fever in 1917, and the other, Fannie, who married the widowed father in 1920 after he took a two-year furlough, during which time he was president of Goshen College.
This dramatic family story unfolded in the midst of dangerous travel by boat during two world wars, many health challenges and questions about missions due to the growing desire for independence on the part of the Indian people.
The India sections of the book capture the excitement and challenges of the early days of Mennonite missions.
An Unlikely Trio sheds light on the ways in which George Lapp’s two wives served as pioneers also. Esther Ebersole shared George’s devotion and commitment to mission. Her death might have shortened George’s days on the mission field. Eventually their mutual friend Fannie Hershey changed George’s life by marrying him and returning to India with him. There she focused on lepers, especially women, and on teaching the Bible.
For me, An Unlikely Trio yielded surprises. I had always thought of the Burkholders as having roots in the Cumberland Valley (Lawrence) and India (Harriet). The wedding picture of them standing outside Fannie Hershey’s home in Manheim, Pa., a few miles away from where I would later grow up, and the later photo of Fannie Hershey Lapp seated at the center of the Burkholder family, underscored a connection to my own Hershey family that I had not known. Fannie and I share a common progenitor in Bishop Christian Hirschi (1660-1722).
Someday, perhaps, former Goshen College presidents across many generations will be able to smile about the limitations of time and space in all human stories and about invisible connections among all of us known only to God.
For author Myrna Burkholder, and for others who read this book, the discovery of an unpublished autobiography was a great gift — a piece of family and Mennonite history that, like that last piece of a puzzle, brings the whole picture into focus.
Enriched by excellent photos, An Unlikely Trio is a necessary addition to any Mennonite history collection. It is available for $7 from the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society bookstore, 2215 Millstream Road, Lancaster, PA 17602.
Shirley Hershey Showalter was the 14th president of Goshen College from 1996 to 2004.