For years, hushed fragments of information circulated in certain circles. John Howard Yoder, the famous Mennonite theologian, did something wrong, but specifics were scattered and elusive.
Then, in 1992, reports of Yoder’s sexual harassment and abuse of women appeared in Mennonite publications and the secular media.
But the story was far from complete. As the years passed and Yoder’s theology attracted a new generation of readers, church leaders heard calls for a full accounting of the facts — including recognition of institutional failures to deal decisively with the problem.
Now, a Mennonite historian, working at the request of Mennonite Church USA, has tried to help bring healing and ensure accuracy by writing a complete account.
Using dozens of interviews and previously unavailable documents, Rachel Waltner Goossen has compiled a narrative of Yoder’s actions beginning in the early 1970s that took place both at Yoder’s position at Goshen Biblical Seminary — a part of what is now Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind. — and around the world.
Her 73-page essay spans more than 25 years and is available in an extended-length edition of Mennonite Quarterly Review that focuses on Yoder and how the church responds to sexual abuse.
A professor of history at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., Goossen was asked to do the project by MC USA’s Discernment Group, which was convened by the denomination to address sexual abuse by Yoder.
She used her experience as a scholar of 20th-century U.S. history, with focuses on peace and Mennonites, to independently delve through extensive Mennonite conference records, seminary presidential files and correspondence with victims. She conducted 29 interviews with Yoder’s seminary colleagues, Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference workers, mental health professionals and victims.
Goossen found a theologian who over many years experimented with what he considered a new theology of sex.
“He didn’t concede that [it was wrong],” Goossen said. “Yoder wasn’t blithely doing this once or twice. He was deeply engaged with this for a very long time, even when people very close to him, including his seminary president, directly challenged him over a number of years. . . .
“Part of his project was he believed that as a Mennonite theologian he could help women sexually. I know that sounds strange, but he had a very high sense of what he could do for women, and he engaged with very many women who he believed that he was helping.”
Revisiting what happened
Sara Wenger Shenk began to be aware of the scope of Yoder’s actions at the seminary about a year after she became AMBS president in October 2010. A faculty member shared a perspective that there was unfinished business related to Yoder.
Shenk initiated an internal process in the fall of 2011 that invited conversation among faculty and included perspectives from victims.
“We needed to revisit what had happened and to be transparent in communicating what can be known about what happened,” she said.
During his years as seminary president, Marlin Miller kept detailed records of what he heard from victims as he worked to privately confront Yoder. Shenk said Miller’s files about his interactions with Yoder weren’t kept at the seminary, and it was his decision to keep them secure so that they wouldn’t be “indiscriminately accessed by just anyone.”
“They were not available because there had been no decision to make them available by previous administrators,” Shenk said.
Goossen said it is important that the documents related to both AMBS and Indiana-Michigan Conference are now available and that others can directly see how institutions attempted to work with Yoder.
“No historian wants to look at records that no one else has access to,” she said. “You want people to be able to check your work.”
In addition to sifting through primary sources, Goossen expanded her knowledge of sexual abuse in religious institutions — something she says happens with some frequency.
“I tried to do as much reading as I could to help readers understand the broader context,” she said. “This is not just a story about Yoder. It’s about how religious institutions respond to unwelcome news that someone in their midst is perpetuating sexual violence against others.
“Mennonites had to deal with it in ways that weren’t very successful. While they tried to confront Yoder and they were well-meaning in their attempts, they weren’t very successful, and that’s often the case in religious institutions.”
Opinions on Yoder’s legacy are divided — in more ways than one. There is disagreement not just about whether to revisit his interactions with women but even about the fundamental basis of his theology.
Mennonite theologian and Bluffton (Ohio) University professor emeritus J. Denny Weaver has edited one of the first books about Yoder to be released since MC USA turned its attention to lament and healing concerning him.
John Howard Yoder: Radical Theologian, published in 2014, is a collection of essays by writers who believe, like Weaver, that Yoder’s views are rooted in Jesus, not later New Testament writers or church creeds.
It is a viewpoint Weaver said Yoder outlined in his Preface to Theology class at AMBS and gave full expression to in an essay titled “But We Do See Jesus” in his 1985 book The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel.
“The viewpoint portrayed by this book was written by members of the small handful of us who had classes with him and then went ahead to further study,” he said.
More prominent Yoder works, such as his most famous book, The Politics of Jesus, received more attention, though Weaver says those are only applications of Yoder’s core methodology.
“Politics of Jesus was one extended application of what happens when you start with Jesus,” Weaver said. “Politics of Jesus isn’t the definitive statement of how to understand Yoder.”
Radical Theologian addresses Yoder’s complete legacy. There are chapters on “Reflections from a Chagrined ‘Yoderian’ in Face of His Sexual Violence” by Ted Grimsrud of Eastern Mennonite University and “Sin and Failure in Anabaptist Theology” by Gerald J. Mast of Bluffton University. Lisa Schirch of EMU contributes an afterword aimed at cultivating a next generation of peace theologians that includes feminism.
“Some of us can read his theology a little more detached from his personal story,” Weaver said. “For others, the personal story will certainly overshadow the theology, and I don’t think we can expect a uniform response.”
One response is coming this spring. Seminary leaders are planning AMBS-based gatherings, including a service of lament, confession and hope, for March 21-22.
Shenk doesn’t know if the event will be attended by a few people or hundreds.
“Some people may feel a tremendous amount of relief when the story is finally told and be ready to move on,” she said.
MC USA has planned a service of lament and several seminars for the national convention in early July in Kansas City, Mo. Goossen plans to lead a seminar on her research and be available to answer questions.