This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

History: From Dirk Willems to Hurricane Camille

Another year is about to pass into history. But before it does, let’s recognize some of the anniversaries of 2019 that commemorated special events and developments in the annals of Anabaptism.

Pacific Bible Institute enrollment peaked at 161 students in 1949, the highest number of students of the Pacific Bible Institute era. — Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary
Pacific Bible Institute enrollment peaked at 161 students in 1949, the highest number of students of the Pacific Bible Institute era. — Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary

450 years ago (1569)

Anabaptist martyr Dirk Willems was burned at the stake on May 16 outside the Dutch town of Asperen. As depicted in the renowned etching in Martyrs Mirror, Willems had escaped from prison and had successfully made his way across an ice-covered river. But his pursuer — a jail guard or a police officer — fell through the ice and was at risk of drowning. Willems, however, turned back and pulled the man from the river. Willems was subsequently apprehended and returned to prison, where he refused to recant and was eventually executed.

375 years ago (1644)

William Rittenhouse, the first Mennonite minister in North America, was born Dec. 12 near the German city of Essen. In 1690, he and his family moved to Germantown, Pa., from Amsterdam via New York, and later that year was selected as minister of Germantown Mennonite Church. Germantown, the first permanent Mennonite settlement in America, was started in 1683 but had been without ordained leadership. The same year he was chosen for the ministry, Rittenhouse, with his son and a non-Mennonite partner, built the first paper mill in the American colonies.

150 years ago (1869)

The Krimmer Mennonite Brethren Church was formed in the Crimea (Krimmer is German for Crimean) after a spontaneous spiritual revival infused local Mennonites with new vitality. They had sought to align themselves with the Kleine Gemeinde, another revivalist Mennonite group, but when that failed, the Crimeans rebaptized themselves. The KMB immigrated to the United States in the 1874, settling in Kansas. The group became part of the Mennonite Brethren in 1960.

125 years ago (1894)

The Elkhart (Ind.) Institute began classes on Aug. 21. Founded as a secondary school, it relocated to nearby Goshen in 1903, where it was renamed Goshen College and became the Mennonite Church’s first post-secondary school.

100 years ago (1919)

Pressured by the Canadian government to acculturate, a delegation of Old Colony Mennonites left to explore immigration to South America. The Old Colony Mennonites had left Ukraine and settled in Manitoba in 1875, having received the privileges they desired to continue their extremely conservative and isolationist ways. But starting in 1916, Canadians began pushing the Old Colonists to send their children to public schools, eventually making public school attendance mandatory. So in 1919 the Old Colonists decided to leave Canada. The South American investigation proved fruitless, and they continued the search for a new home. Finally, an acceptable deal was reached with Mexico in 1921, and church members began moving the next year.

75 years ago (1944)

West Coast Mennonite Breth­ren established Pacific Bible Institute in Fresno, Calif. It was the second MB-affiliated post-secondary school, after Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan. The institute became a junior college in 1961 and a four-year school in 1963. It changed its name to Pacific College in 1964, to Fresno Pacific College in 1976 and finally to Fresno Pacific University in 1997.

Also in 1944, Henry A. Fast on Dec. 27 presented to the Mennonite Central Committee executive committee “the question of establishing a Mennonite mental hospital under MCC administration.” The idea was born out the experiences of more than 1,500 Civilian Public Service Workers who served in mental health hospitals during World War II. Fast had been director of the Mennonite CPS units. His proposal set in motion the movement that created a number of Mennonite-affiliated mental health facilities, starting with Brook Lane Farm, Leitersburg, Md., which opened in 1949, and Kings View, Reedley, Calif., in 1951.

50 years ago (1969)

One of the most intense storms to hit the United States resulted in one of Mennonite Disaster Service’s largest responses. On Aug. 17, Hurricane Camille made landfall on Mississippi’s Gulf of Mexico coastline and would proceed to decimate the region. Over the next six months, 1,800 MDS men and women logged 11,000 days cleaning, repairing and rebuilding. Camille’s devastating impact was also felt in Virginia, where the storm dumped more than 2 feet of water in some places, causing terrible flash flooding. Local MDS volunteers were among the emergency responders who searched for bodies in the mud and rubble.

Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.

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