Henry P. Krehbiel, the editor of Der Herold, watched a linguistic trend with the keen interest of a man passionate about the written word and a business to run.
The direction was unmistakable: Among Krehbiel’s people, the General Conference Mennonites of Kansas, English was replacing German as the common tongue.
Such was the natural progress of acculturation over the nearly 50 years since the Russian Mennonites had immigrated from Ukraine to settle the U.S. prairie states.
Clearly, Krehbiel’s Herald Publishing Co. — just 3 years old in 1923, with an editorial office and print shop in Newton, Kan. — needed a plan to hold its share of the Mennonite market that preferred to read in English.
An English newspaper was called for.
Evolution of language wasn’t the only reason. The company also needed a new product with better potential to fulfill Krehbiel’s vision of a national paper — one that would link sectarian Mennonites who regarded other branches of their faith with suspicion, or simply knew little about them.
As early as 1896, while still a seminary student in Oberlin, Ohio, Krehbiel had expressed his hope to publish a newspaper “devoted to the advancement of every branch of the Mennonites.”
This was only one of his many dreams and interests.
By the 1920s, Krehbiel had:
— pastored a Mennonite congregation in Burrton, Kan.;
— served a term in the Kansas Legislature;
— published two newspapers;
— ran a printing business and bookstore, which was lost to a fire that ravaged the 500 block of Newton’s Main Street in 1914 and then reopened two blocks to the north; and
— been a leading advocate for Mennonite conscientious objectors during World War I, visiting the young men in military camps, where some endured abuse for refusing to carry a gun or wear the uniform.
‘A daring undertaking’
Krehbiel’s publishing business struggled, perhaps partly because he tried to do too many things at once. In 1920 he secured financial support for a new business plan: a nonprofit company with the express purpose of serving the church.
Bolstered by the sale of 200 corporate memberships at $25 each, Herald Publishing Co. opened for business on Aug. 15, 1920, at 107 E. Seventh St. in Newton.
Krehbiel declared its purpose: “to supply such specialized literature as will meet the needs of the Mennonites of the Central West through the publication of one or more periodicals” and selling “religious and wholesome books for home and church.”
The company made its debut with a German newspaper, Der Herold, and the vision of an English paper followed close behind.
After considering various names, including Mennonite World, the first edition of Mennonite Weekly Review appeared on Aug. 9, 1923, as a supplement to Der Herold.
The first edition’s headlines showed Krehbiel’s interest in mixing religious and secular news: the death of President Harding (“America’s First Citizen Gone”) and the arrival of Russian Mennonite immigrants in Canada.
Apparently, there were naysayers. Years later Krehbiel described MWR’s launch as “a daring undertaking which not a few feared would prove an utter failure.”
Will there be conflict?
With a company to manage and a German paper to edit, H.P. Krehbiel hired nephew Adolf Krehbiel to edit MWR. Writing in the first regular issue separate from Der Herold, both Krehbiels sought to establish MWR’s identity as a Mennonite community paper, as distinct from a Mennonite church paper.
H.P. Krehbiel promised to cover “the wide range of social, intellectual, industrial, economic, political, educational and other everyday interests that are little touched on by official church publications.”
Indeed, what about those other publications?
Under the headline, “Review No Competitive Move,” Adolf Krehbiel noted that people had asked, “Will this new paper conflict with The Mennonite?”
The fact that he cited The Mennonite — rather than the Mennonite Church periodical Gospel Herald or the Mennonite Brethren Zionsbote — showed that the Krehbiels were thinking mainly of readers from the General Conference Mennonite Church.
But Adolf Krehbiel’s answer was consistent with his uncle’s broad vision. He promised there would be no rivalry with The Mennonite because MWR “will not limit its field to General Conference Mennonites” and “aim at more general, or perhaps secular, news originating in Mennonite circles.”
‘Riding on New York air’
The news columns of MWR’s early years fulfilled H.P. Krehbiel’s promise to offer “a varied subject matter, including general world news.”
Readers could find, on the front page, anything from a discussion of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy (“Heresy Rocking Religious World”) to the comings and goings of central Kansas folks (“Mr. G.A. Harder of Whitewater was in Newton Monday having some dental work attended to for several of his children”).
They might read of Bethel College professor J.O. Kesselring driving from New York to Newton in 10 days despite muddy roads that on one frustrating day limited his progress to 10 miles: “Not once did he have to change tires; he is still riding on New York air.”
Or they could turn their attention to “The Political Situation,” whose unnamed writer predicted “if Coolidge and McAdoo are nominated without a split in the Republican Party, the Democrats have a good chance to win the election.”
Most of all, MWR reported on the daily life of Mennonite people. Did the Kansas wheat crop look good? How deep was the snow in South Dakota? Which Stoltzfus relatives from Ohio attended a funeral in Pennsylvania? MWR contained the facts.
A cure for many ills
Though the editors had national aspirations, most of their readers were in Kansas. The advertising reinforced MWR’s identity as a local paper. Some 1920s ads gave no town or address; apparently they assumed readers knew they were in Newton:
— “Haircuts in Jackson’s basement barber shop, 35 cents.”
— “$295 for a Ford touring car.”
— “Let there be a radio in your home this Thanksgiving. Easy payments can be arranged.”
Others wove bigger dreams: “A farm for you in Washington. A section for you in Montana. . . . 50,000 acres has been reserved for colonization, exclusive for the settlement of Mennonites.”
Ads appealing to a broader audience included a long-running series for the home remedy Alpenkräuter, which claimed “ailments that have baffled the skills of celebrated physicians yield to [Alpenkräuter’s] quiet influence.”
Politicians courted the Mennonite vote, as Kansas Gov. Harry H. Woodring did in the Nov. 2, 1932, issue: “Woodring is fighting to safeguard Kansas. A victory of this courageous champion of the people will be a triumph of principles.”
Too embarrassed to tell
Adolf Krehbiel edited the newspaper for two years before H.P. Krehbiel, who had been writing some of the editorials all along, assumed the title of editor in 1925. But his interests, as always, were scattered in many directions, and it wasn’t long before he began delegating more responsibilities to a young employee, Menno Schrag.
A graduate of Hesston Academy, Schrag proved a competent typesetter when Krehbiel hired him in 1925. But his resume was thin for the assignment Krehbiel sprung only 16 months later. Assistant editor Abe Epp would be resigning, effective Dec. 31, 1926, and Schrag would replace him. Krehbiel didn’t ask if he wanted the job.
But that wasn’t all. In the spring, Krehbiel and his wife would leave on a yearlong world tour. During that time, Schrag would edit the paper. Saying no didn’t seem to be an option.
The 22-year-old typesetter spent what he later described as a “sad and troubled” New Year’s weekend at his parents’ home at Pretty Prairie.
“I was too embarrassed to tell many about my new assignment,” he wrote years later. “I felt sure that were I to tell any of the church people that I was going to be an editor, they would have been as embarrassed as I.”
But he warmed to the task and began to think newspaper work might be a career and MWR a calling. But he felt underqualified.
With Krehbiel’s assurance of a job after graduation, he enrolled at Wheaton College in Illinois —and returned in 1931 to reclaim the assistant editor’s desk.
Conservative in faith, politics and finances, Krehbiel didn’t shy from controversy in the columns of MWR or his many other involvements.
Wading into the fundamentalist-modernist conflict that divided American Christians, he denounced the liberal theologian Harry Emerson Fosdick — writer of the hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory” — as an “apostate . . . leading Christianity into darkness.”
The editorial prompted Alfred G. Linscheid of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, to cancel his subscription: “You are doing more harm than good,” he wrote to Krehbiel.
Believing Bethel College had succumbed to modernist error, Krehbiel led an unsuccessful campaign for the Western District Conference to withdraw its support and start a new college.
Ironically, “had the fundamentalists really understood him, they would have disowned him,” Schrag wrote of Krehbiel years later. A staunch pacifist, Krehbiel believed the doctrine of nonresistance should energize social action and held the key to world peace.
As a leading voice for a public peace witness among the General Conference Mennonites, Krehbiel organized a national conference of Historic Peace Churches in 1935 in Newton. The meeting laid the groundwork for successful lobbying in Washington for the first alternative service program — Civilian Public Service — for conscientious objectors during World War II.
Politically, Krehbiel supported President Herbert Hoover, blaming the Depression on “high wages and misdirected expenditures.”
He accepted many commercial printing jobs — and ought to have been more selective in who he did business with. For a decade beginning in 1931, the company printed The Defender, the flagship paper of Defenders of the Faith, a platform for the pro-German and anti-Semitic views of Gerald B. Winrod, a Wichita evangelist whose 100,000 readers included more than a few Kansas Mennonites.
Company in crisis
Krehbiel’s financial conservatism and authoritarian style of leadership alienated many employees. To avoid complying with the minimum-wage provisions of President Roosevelt’s National Recovery Act, he required employees to defer a portion of their paychecks.
Tension built to a breaking point until in the summer of 1935 several key employees quit, leaving the company in crisis.
Finding no resolution with Krehbiel at the helm, the board asked him to resign. He claimed “a great injustice was done” but in a farewell editorial said he “rejoice[d] to know that his labors have not been in vain and our publishing house has steadily grown in strength and usefulness.”
H.P. Krehbiel died Dec. 2, 1940, at the age of 78.
The board of directors named Schrag to the editor’s role. On Sept. 18, 1935 — the first issue after Krehbiel’s resignation — a slogan appeared below the MWR title: “A Mennonite family paper — published in the interest of Mennonites everywhere.”
In 1938 the company moved its editorial office, print shop and bookstore from 722 N. Main to 129 W. Sixth, where the MWR office remains today.
Sign the ‘blockbuster’
World War II challenged Mennonite peace convictions and confronted the company with challenges. Der Herold ended in 1941 when Canada banned the German paper, cutting it off from the bulk of its subscribers.
MWR’s reliance on secular advertising caused a serious problem. After the U.S. entered in the war in December 1941, public utility ads grew increasingly militaristic.
Most extreme was the Cities Service Gas Co. ad in April 29, 1943, edition urging readers to “put your name on this blockbuster [bomb]. Buy extra war bonds this month.” Schrag decided to cancel all the secular advertising contracts. He regretted not doing so earlier.
The loss of revenue was significant. The week after the “blockbuster” ad, MWR had only two ads — one for the company’s own Herald Book Store, the other for Alpenkräuter.
Going off on its own
After the war, Krehbiel’s successor as company manager, George Willms, proposed to run the print shop as a for-profit business. He offered to buy everything except the building and MWR. The idea made sense; the company was doing a lot of printing not related to its nonprofit mission.
The sale was made and the company divided. Thus two companies would occupy the same building: Herald Book and Printing, owned by Willms, and the nonprofit Herald Publishing Co., managed by Schrag. Customers could be forgiven if they didn’t know the difference.
Schrag supported the sale, which would solve a problem for him. In contrast to his reluctance to substitute for Krehbiel in 1927, he had embraced the editor’s role after the founder’s departure.
But other parts of his job frustrated him. Because MWR was only a small part of the operation — and not a profitable one — Willms had assigned Schrag additional duties that interfered with giving MWR his full attention.
After the 1946 division, Herald Publishing Co. would exist solely to produce MWR. This presented as much challenge as opportunity, for the downsized company was small indeed. It owned the building, a typesetting machine, a printing press and some office equipment.
It had two employees: Schrag and secretary Katherine Banman. Soon a third was added: associate editor Richard Blosser, who would serve for 30 years. For the first time since Krehbiel’s departure in 1935, MWR had more than a one-man editorial staff.
But now MWR had to support itself rather than ride along as part of a company that made money in other ways. Schrag knew he needed to expand the circulation and push harder toward the goal of becoming a truly national inter-Mennonite newspaper.
He decided an overseas reporting trip could be a springboard for promoting MWR. His three-month journey to Europe and the Middle East in 1947 provided a unique perspective on a continent ravaged by war and on Mennonite relief work. He accepted numerous speaking engagements after his return, and circulation grew to 7,000.
Virtues of rural life
In the 1940s MWR began to publish more features designed to extend its readership nationwide. The “Mennonite Rural Life” page included articles like “Why I Want My Boy to Be a Farmer” and another that argued it was possible to use a college education on the farm.
In a Feb. 11, 1943, column, J. Winfield Fretz, who co-edited the Rural Life page with Melvin Gingerich, affirmed MWR’s purpose: “One of the weaknesses of Mennonites generally is that they have been too greatly divided. . . . It is our hope that, by means of the information given on these pages, Mennonite people from all parts of the world will become more solidly united with each other.”
Gingerich would become MWR’s leading contributor as a prolific book reviewer, writing the “On My Desk” column nearly every week for 30 years.
Matching Gingerich’s tenure, Ida Plank Yoder’s “Through My Kitchen Window” began a 30-year run in 1944. First as “Aunt Mary” and soon under her own byline, Yoder combined recipes and household hints with words of inspiration and faith.
Years of growth
In 1951, when Herald Publishing Co. bought a new press, MWR’s format changed from an eight-page broadsheet to a 12-page tabloid, the size that continues today. Schrag said the new size “makes it possible for us to furnish the most reading matter, in the most convenient form, at lower cost.”
More photos, larger headlines and more selectivity in front-page news were apparent in the new design. “In the News of the World,” a front-page summary of secular news, moved about half way down on the page, giving Mennonite news exclusive top billing each week.
By 1960 circulation exceeded 12,000. Also in 1960, a third member joined the editorial staff: Robert M. Schrag, Menno’s son.
On Aug. 22, 1963, the “Mennonite Family Paper” slogan was dropped in favor of “An Inter-Mennonite Newspaper.” Circulation continued to rise, reaching 15,000 by the end of the 1960s.
In 1969 the MWR editorship changed hands for the first time in 34 years when Menno Schrag resigned after suffering a heart attack.
“I lay down my editorial responsibility with deep awareness of God’s providential leading and care,” he wrote. “I am confident the door for service in the church and the Lord’s kingdom for Mennonite Weekly Review will be open even wider in the future.”
The board of directors appointed Robert Schrag as editor. Menno Schrag continued as company manager until 1974, when Robert Schrag assumed that position as well.
Menno Schrag died June 12, 1987, at the age of 83.
For three years in the early 1970s, the company added a second publication: Mennonite Life, a quarterly magazine of history and culture that Bethel College had produced since the 1940s but found difficult to continue. Schrag agreed to edit the magazine, keeping it alive until Bethel was able to take it back in 1974.
In the 1970s, while coverage of Mennonite agencies and institutions increased, MWR also continued to emphasize community and agricultural news. The top headline on July 5, 1973, declared, “Kansas Harvest Fulfilling Forecast.”
Front pages continued to present a mix of short, sometimes secular, items from across the country (“Promising Outlook for Corn, Soybeans in Minnesota”) to longer articles on national and churchwide institutional topics (“Critical Issues Listed for MCC Self-Study”).
In a 1983 editorial for MWR’s 60th anniversary, Schrag wrote: “One of the inspiring aspects of editing MWR is to sense the development that is taking place as Mennonites become world Christians — a people concerned about keeping their distinctives yet gaining a new breadth of vision. . . . Each week the Review attempts to give a kaleidoscope of events in the Mennonite world — evangelism, relief and service, education, the peace witness, economic and social concerns, congregational and community life.”
But ideas of what should make up the kaleidoscope were changing. In the 1980s, the space allotted to rural community interests diminished. A switch in 1992 from “Community News” to “Congregations” as the headline for reports from local correspondents reflected the shift toward a more heavily religious emphasis. A similar move introduced Religion News Service stories in place of “The World’s Week” summary of secular news.
To biweekly and merger
MWR’s next leadership transition occurred in 1996, when Robert Schrag resigned and the board of directors appointed his son, Paul Schrag, who had joined the staff in 1988, to succeed him.
Assigned the new title of publisher, Robert Schrag continued to lead the company, which adopted a new name: Mennonite Weekly Review Inc.
MWR began publishing online in 1999, establishing a website that offered faster access to the week’s top stories.
In 2000, after 80 years of producing a newspaper from start to finish, MWR Inc. closed its print shop and contracted with Valley Offset Printing in Valley Center, Kan., to print and mail MWR. Its larger presses enabled an upgrade to full-color printing.
By the turn of the century, a trend of circulation decline that affected nearly all print media began to pick up speed, prompting a rethinking of MWR’s identity as a weekly periodical.
In December 2007, MWR skipped a week for the first time, ending a streak of more than 4,300 consecutive weekly editions. The editors announced a 48-issue schedule for 2008.
A biweekly schedule began in 2012, and the name was changed to Mennonite World Review.
In 2011, after 51 years with the company, Robert Schrag retired as publisher, and the board named Paul Schrag to that role in addition to continuing as editor.
Robert Schrag died Jan. 26, 2016, at the age of 81.
A phrase used for many years to promote MWR — “Putting the Mennonite world together” — became the front-page slogan in 2011, followed by “Global Anabaptism today” in 2019.
By this time, MWR employed staff beyond the Newton office, beginning in 2008 with Celeste Kennel-Shank in Chicago.
As circulation fell below 7,000 in 2017, staff and board members joined with their counterparts at The Mennonite Inc. — publisher of the Mennonite Church USA magazine, The Mennonite — to consider a merger.
In June 2019, approval was secured, and Sept. 1, 2020, was set as the date for the beginning of Anabaptist World Inc., officially a continuation of MWR Inc. with a new name.
As an independent company that continues the missions of both of its predecessors, Anabaptist World Inc. carries forward the unifying purpose that founder H.P. Krehbiel established and that his successors dedicated their careers to fulfilling.