In 1864, the presses began to roll at John F. Funk’s new Mennonite Publishing Co. in Elkhart, Ind. “Shall we have a religious paper?” Funk asked in the first issue of Herald of Truth.
Readers answered with a resounding “yes.” During its 44-year run, Herald of Truth came to be recognized as the unofficial magazine of the Mennonite Church.
I’m looking back to Funk’s leap of faith because Anabaptist World is new enough — we’re turning 3 this month — that a version of his question is still on our minds.
Shall we have a “religious paper” for Anabaptists in the 2020s and beyond? What is its identity and purpose?
I feel a connection to Funk because his magazine was the root of AW’s family tree:
n Herald of Truth (1864) merged with Gospel Witness (1905) to create Gospel Herald (1908).
n Gospel Herald merged with The Mennonite (1885) to create a new version of The Mennonite (1998).
n The Mennonite merged with Mennonite World Review (1923) to create Anabaptist World (2020).
I’m also looking back because this month marks MWR’s centennial. Founded by Henry P. Krehbiel in Newton, Kan., on Sept. 18, 1923, it was an independent newspaper, seeking to complement, rather than compete with, the official magazines of the Mennonite Church (Gospel Herald), General Conference Mennonite Church (The Mennonite) and other Anabaptist denominations.
AW’s third anniversary and MWR’s 100th prompt us to consider how to build on the legacies of our ancestors.
The world of 1864 was simpler than today’s, yet our purpose has a lot in common with Funk’s.
He declared his intent to offer 1) “words of hope and encouragement” and 2) “a record of matters of interest transpiring among our own people” so that his publication might 3) “bring our hearts into sympathy and our feelings into union.”
AW’s tagline, “Mennonite news, inspiring stories,” sums up Funk’s goals to encourage and inform. His third purpose, to foster sympathetic hearts and united feelings, has become an urgent need. In a polarized culture, partisan voices appeal to the perpetually enraged. Yet we believe it is possible to be “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord” (Philippians 2:2), though we disagree about some important things.
Funk’s three goals — to encourage, inform and unify — have lost none of their resonance. They find a 21st-century parallel in the ideas of media scholar Robert G. Picard, who says a periodical offers three kinds of benefits: functional, emotional and self-expressive.
n Functional benefits include useful information and ideas.
n Emotional benefits include a sense of belonging and community.
n Self-expressive benefits accrue when readers identify with the publication’s perspective and are empowered to express their own ideas.
AW is a gathering place for a far-flung community. As a successor to The Mennonite and Gospel Herald, we claim a mandate to serve the members of Mennonite Church USA while covering global Anabaptism and appealing to anyone interested in it — because Anabaptism isn’t a church but a movement, a way of following Jesus.
Yet reporting about the church is a key part of our mission. Here our independence is important. It’s not our job to put a positive spin on things. To be sure, there’s plenty of good news, and we’re glad to share it. But the church needs an independent press that’s free to report bad news and conflict. Problems aren’t solved by keeping secrets. Facing challenges openly is the clearest path to honesty and trust.
We welcome a wide range of voices. Presented with kindness and respect, diverse ideas challenge assumptions, rebuke complacency, clarify thoughts, broaden perspectives and help us understand each other. AW offers a unique forum for community engagement.
Shall we have a religious “paper” (and website and podcasts)? The question is as relevant now as it was for John F. Funk. Readers hold the answer, for survival cannot be taken for granted.