Perry Bush’s Peace, Progress and the Professor is technically a biography of Mennonite historian C. Henry Smith. But it’s actually a timely time machine. It transports readers back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, providing a fresh perspective on one of the most contentious eras in American Mennonitism while simultaneously keeping them in the present with insights into the tumult of the 21st-century church. Bush even gives a glimpse of what the future could be.
Smith (1875-1948) was the pioneer scholar — Bush calls him the “godfather” — of Anabaptist-Mennonite history. Considered the first Mennonite to earn a doctorate and stay in the church, he received his Ph.D. in history at the University of Chicago. Smith then spent the rest of his life, most of it as a Bluffton (Ohio) College professor, exploring his faith and its people with unprecedented academic rigor.
His crowning achievement was The Story of the Mennonites. First published in 1941, it was the first comprehensive historical survey of Anabaptism and Mennonitism and would be the standard work on the subject for decades. As a result, Smith, initially a member of the former Mennonite Church, became a prime shaper of American Mennonite identity at a time when it was undergoing serious evaluation in the first decades of the 1900s.
Smith was one of a number of progressives who challenged some of the denomination’s longtime self-understandings. Among those drawing Smith’s attention were separation from the world and polity.
First, Smith called for Mennonites, long sequestered in enclaves, to be more actively engaged with the society around them, because they had a message the world desperately needed to hear. In fact, he claimed, adherents had already made significant contributions to the world, such as a voluntary church and freedom of conscience.
Second, Smith argued that the congregation should be the place where discernment happens and power lies. Again he cited freedom of conscience. The Anabaptists and their spiritual descendants opposed being forced into a religious system counter to their beliefs, be it by a state church or an authoritarian bishop.
Such positions generated howls of opposition from conservatives as the Mennonite Church became increasingly doctrinaire in an effort to safeguard the faith from worldly threats. That eventually prompted Smith (along with other progressives) to leave his faculty position at Goshen (Ind.) College in 1913 for the more hospitable environments of Bluffton and the General Conference Mennonite Church. Even there he was a target for MC as well as GC critics.
Smith was adept at nuance and complexity, both as a historian and a Mennonite, which Bush clearly explains, particularly in comparison to colleagues such as John Horsch and later H.S. Bender. They each espoused a faith that was nice and neat, with clear identifying characteristics. They refused to acknowledge early Anabaptists such as Hans Denck and Hans Hut because they didn’t fit Horsch and Bender’s idealized concept of the faith. Smith, however, included such radicals, even while repudiating some of them. For Smith, there was a wideness in God’s history.
Bush, a Bluffton history professor, laments that Bender’s idealistic “Anabaptist Vision” — as much a mission statement as historical scholarship — has eclipsed Smith’s well-grounded approach to Mennonite history.
Throughout the book, the author’s analyses of the differences between Smith and his critics are wide-ranging, prescient, insightful and enormously compelling. They’re not dry academic arguments but crucial discussions of the nature of the church, authority, mission and other core tenets.
That’s what makes Peace, Progress and the Professor such an important, even essential, addition to Mennonite reading lists. The parallels between pre-World War II Mennonitism and the church’s current climate are obvious. Attempts to discuss same-sex attraction and its related issues are extraordinarily difficult. And yet, implicitly but effectively, Bush addresses today’s fractured body of believers by writing about conflict 80 to 100 years ago. It’s history at its finest.
One of the book’s lessons is how Smith dealt with adversaries — usually with patience, professionalism and grace. Despite being accused of heresy and leading the church astray, he was able to maintain fellowship with his critics, apologize to them when necessary and, years later, even eventually be influenced by them, albeit grudgingly. Surely there’s a message in there for all sides in today’s theological and ecclesiological battles. Conflict resolution can take time, but it can be time well spent, even if it doesn’t produce agreement.
Another reason Peace, Progress and the Professor is so vital is its very topic. Just as Bender has obscured Smith, so has the history of the Mennonite Church trumped that of the General Conference Mennonite Church. A cursory perusal of Mennonite Life’s annual bibliography and the holdings of Mennonite libraries shows that books and articles on MC historical topics outnumber GC ones.
That can give the impression that the General Conference Mennonite Church left no significant legacy. Bush is trying to remedy the situation. Not only does his book lift up an important figure from the past and address pertinent issues, it demonstrates that the General Conference notably contributed to Mennonite faithfulness. All that makes Peace, Progress and the Professor a must-read.
Rich Preheim, of Elkhart, Ind., is a freelance writer and historian. His book In Pursuit of Faithfulness: Conviction, Conflict and Compromise in Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference will be published in spring 2016 by Herald Press.
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