Donald R. Jacobs, a missionary educator for 20 years in East Africa, where he was the last American Mennonite bishop in Tanzania and founded a Mennonite theological college, died Feb. 11 in Leola, Pa. He was 91.
Jacobs served with Eastern Mennonite Missions in Tanzania and Kenya from 1953 to 1973 and as EMM’s overseas director in Salunga, Pa., from 1973 to 1980.
“Don transformed the Mennonite Bible College into the Mennonite Theological College of Eastern Africa,” said Nelson Kisare, bishop of the eastern diocese of Tanzania Mennonite Church. “All of the current bishops were his former students or passed through the college.”
Serving with his wife, Anna Ruth, as a teacher and administrator in what was then the British-controlled territory of Tanganyika, Jacobs became principal of the Mennonite Bible School at Bukiroba in 1957, though he was younger than most of the students.
“I shifted from being a teacher of a subject to being a willing learner myself, eager to go deeper into the realities and mysteries of African cultures,” he wrote in his memoir, What a Life.
EMM President Gerry Keener remembers Jacobs as an enthusiastic preacher and insightful anthropologist.
“It was his recognition of the spirit world in Eastern African religious experience that helped him better contextualize the gospel for the people of Tanzania and Kenya,” Keener said.
During a furlough in the U.S., Jacobs earned a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from New York University and returned to Africa with a goal to establish the first Mennonite, English-speaking theological college in Tanganyika. Mennonite Theological College of Eastern Africa continued until 1981 and reopened in 1991.
Zedekia Kisare, the first African Mennonite bishop and uncle of Nelson Kisare, wrote in his 1984 autobiography that Jacobs’ respect for African traditions changed how students understood their faith.
“We [had] accepted the missionaries’ assessment of our traditional beliefs, and we actually thought that as Christians we had cleansed ourselves of all traditional influences,” Kisare wrote. “Don Jacobs changed all of this for us. . . . The first year he taught us African traditional theology. . . . [This] had never been discussed with the missionaries except in terms of rejecting it. Now Jacobs taught it as though he himself were an African traditionalist. . . . He helped us to understand ourselves.”
The signs burst forth
David Shenk, an EMM global consultant, said Jacobs introduced the concept of letting theology begin within the context.
“The starting point was signs of the gospel within the local culture and then freeing those signs to burst forth,” Shenk said. “. . . The Bible college students with Don decided that the soul of theology in the Tanzania Mennonite Church would be the three confessions of faith: first, the Apostles Creed; second, the Lord’s Prayer; and third, a Trinitarian song. That simple step has been the foundational rock of the church, for every Tanzanian Mennonite church at their Sunday morning worship recites those three confessions.”
Jacobs was born July 6, 1928, near Johnstown, Pa., to Paul and Trella Jacobs. He married Anna Ruth Charles in 1949.
He graduated from Eastern Mennonite High School and received a master’s degree in history from the University of Maryland. He taught for three years at Lancaster Mennonite School.
After serving in Tanzania, the Jacobs family moved to Kenya, where he helped to set up a religious studies department at the University of Nairobi and taught there for six years.
He was a bishop in the Tanzania Mennonite Church, the last American to serve in that role.
From 1980 until retirement he was engaged in leadership development internationally with Mennonite Christian Leadership Foundation.
He was a member of Chestnut Hill Mennonite Church in Columbia, Pa.
He is survived by his wife, Anna Ruth; four children, Jane (Glenn Stoltzfus), David, Alan and Paul (Tammy Smith); 10 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.