C. Henry Smith remains a model for Mennonites, biographer says

NewsPeaceProgressAndTheProfessor release

October 12, 2015

Smith remains a model for Mennonites, biographer says
Herald Press releases new volume in Mennonite history series

BLUFFTON, Ohio, HARRISONBURG, Va., and KITCHENER, Ont.—In the first half of the 20th century, Dr. C. Henry Smith wrote three books that were “the vehicles by which generations of Mennonites learned their history,” says author Perry Bush, a Bluffton University professor of history.

Now, nearly 75 years after the last of Smith’s histories of the Mennonites was published, Bush has written a biography, Peace, Progress, and the Professor: The Mennonite History of C. Henry Smith. Bush notes that Smith was a man who spoke to his times and ours, while modeling the emerging role of Mennonite public intellectual.

Published recently by Herald Press, Peace, Progress, and the Professor tells the story of a self-described “all-around Mennonite” who was raised Amish before becoming one of the first Mennonites to earn a doctorate, early in his 50-year teaching tenure in higher education.

After beginning his career at Goshen College, the native of Metamora, Illinois, spent the last 35 of those years at Bluffton. There, he also became a banker and a prolific public speaker who was a voice for Mennonite unity—and principles—while demonstrating a different way of being a Mennonite in the world, his biographer says.

Perry Bush

Author Perry Bush

Smith felt the Mennonites had “a tremendous tradition,” says Bush, the current successor to Smith’s legacy in the Bluffton history department.

“We have an Anabaptist orientation and an ethic that would be beneficial for others to hear,” Bush continues, paraphrasing his subject. “Let’s be out in the public sphere”—where increasingly, beginning in the mid-’30s, Smith extolled Mennonite values such as peace and justice while discussing public affairs with secular as well as church audiences, and even on regional radio.

Smith’s progressive bent early on convinced him that while Mennonites had much to share with the outside world, they shouldn’t be afraid to borrow from it, either. But he borrowed too uncritically at first, including the widespread racism of the time, although that was “never a major aspect of his thought,” Bush says. And after seeing the extreme anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany while in the neighboring Netherlands for the 1936 World Mennonite Conference Assembly, Smith wrote about its “un-Christian nature,” he adds.

An earlier, “major watershed” for Smith was World War I, when he witnessed persecution of U.S. Mennonites who spoke German and, as pacifists, didn’t buy war bonds, Bush points out. A Democrat who had backed the war, he turned a more critical eye toward acculturation afterward. By the late ’30s, he was writing of the dangers of a totalitarian state and that Franklin Roosevelt was leading the United States into war, leading him to vote for Wendell Wilkie, FDR’s unsuccessful Republican opponent, in the 1940 election.

He always believed, however, that exposure to, and adoption of, Mennonite ideas could help North American society—and that Mennonite unity was a goal worthy of ongoing pursuit.

Smith lived much of his adult life during “contentious times in the church,” Bush says. A hierarchy in the church began enforcing “proper” Mennonite behavior, including dress codes. Resulting arguments about dress, theology, and what it meant to be a Mennonite in the modern world created divisions between traditionalists and progressives, and within district conferences and individual churches, Bush explains.

Smith was a leader of the Mennonite union movement, which sought to heal those divisions in part through biennial All-Mennonite Conventions. In 1925, he chaired and gave the keynote address at the convention in Nappanee, Indiana, where he called for toleration in the church.

He said toleration didn’t mean anyone had “a right to teach and practice what he pleases though it may be destructive of the principles of the church.” But neither is it “a one-sided virtue,” he cautioned. “It involves obligations as well as privileges. It demands that we respect the honest convictions of others even though we do not agree with them.”

Toleration was critical, he said, because, with it, churches could do good work together. “The great need of today among many Mennonites is not so much an absolute unanimity of belief and practice in all details, as a spirit of cooperation in carrying out a great constructive program of church activities which no group by itself is able to achieve.”

And he repeated the “crying need” for Mennonite unity. “What the Mennonite Church needs today above all else is that its broken body should be healed,” Smith asserted 90 years ago. “The beliefs which we have in common are of far more significance than those which separate us.”

Bush observes that with the church divided again, “Smith could have written that speech yesterday,” and calls Smith an important figure who has been neglected, including by Bush himself, despite their having lived and worked in the same place.

That common bond of Bluffton was “part of the attraction” to writing the book, Bush adds, also crediting its completion to support from the C. Henry Smith Trust, which aids projects promoting the Mennonite peace message.

The biography is Bush’s fourth book, joining Rust Belt Resistance: How a Small Community Took on Big Oil and Won (2012), Dancing with the Kobzar: Bluffton College and Mennonite Higher Education (2000), and Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (1998).

The new book’s release will be celebrated at a banquet on October 17, part of a conference on Mennonite education that Bluffton is hosting October 16–18. Visit www.bluffton.edu/conference for more information on the event.

Peace, Progress, and the Professor is volume 49 in Herald Press’s Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite History series, and is available for $39.99 in hardcover and $29.99 paper from Herald Press at MennoMedia at 800-245-7894 or www.MennoMedia.org, as well as at bookstores.


Bluffton University public relations office and MennoMedia news
For more information: Robin Bowlus, 419-358-3453 or (cell) 567-204-0120, bowlusr@bluffton.edu

Or MennoMedia, Melodie Davis, news manager
MennoMedia, 540-574-4874

The Return of Sam Steiner to Faith: Gadfly No Longer?


As I waded into a six-year project on writing the history of Mennonites in Ontario, I had to think carefully of how I stood in relation to the subject matter. I knew that no historical writing is objective. Each interpreter of past events is shaped by personal heritage, training, and beliefs, not to mention the resources available when making that interpretation. I decided I should be as transparent as possible in describing my perspective and my place in this history of Ontario Mennonites.


 Sam with older siblings on the farm.

My family upbringing was in an Eastern Ohio Mennonite home, first on a small mixed farm of eighty acres and from age ten in a small town. My father was a Mennonite bishop and my parents were both schoolteachers. In my teens I took an extremely critical view of faith, especially Mennonite faith. Nonetheless I attended Goshen College in Indiana, where I had mixed success academically but had the good fortune to meet my future spouse, Sue Clemmer. Wedding_1969_with_Sams_Parents

1969 wedding to Sue Clemmer, pictured with Sam’s parents.

Through a series of events, including expulsion from the college, I became a political radical and eventually a draft resister, refusing induction into the U.S. military in April 1968. Draft_Protest_1968

Draft protester.

A key shaper of that direction in my thought was participation in the last day of the Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, civil rights march in March 1965. I arrived in Canada in late October 1968 as a refugee still alienated from the church of my birth. This story has been interpreted in a drama by Rebecca Steiner [distant cousin], Gadfly: Sam Steiner Dodges the Draft, put on in various places and published by Theatre of the Beat in 2012.

Celebration of Citizenship 1973

Sue and Sam celebrate Sam’s Canadian citizenship.

Through the actions of many within the Ontario Mennonite community I found my way back to the church in the early 1970s and became engaged with Anabaptist and Mennonite history, especially as taught by professors Frank H. Epp and Walter Klaassen at Conrad Grebel College. This led to seeking and obtaining the first paid archivist position at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario at Conrad Grebel College in September 1974, where I remained until retirement in December 2008. Those were rich years during which my hands sifted through an enormous pile of documents, photographs, books, sound recordings, and visual recordings that related to the religious and cultural life of Mennonites in Ontario.


Sam as Mennonite Church of Eastern Canada secretary, 1991.

I also became more directly engaged in the life of the church—first at Rockway Mennonite Church in Kitchener where I was rebaptized at age 28. My spouse, Sue, became a Mennonite pastor, and I happily followed her to several congregations in the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and Quebec (MCOQ) and later the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada (MCEC). I also participated for many years on the executive committees of MCOQ, MCEC, and Mennonite Church Canada, as well as with national and regional Mennonite historical societies.

This brief personal history reveals several things: First, I did not grow up with Ontario Mennonite history in my blood; it came through my work and church life, though my family history gave me a sense of familiarity with the culture of those Ontario Mennonites descended from Amish and Pennsylvania Mennonite backgrounds.Integration_Committee_Forming_MCEC_Sam_Secretary

Sam (seated, middle) with integration committee forming MCEC.

Second, I am a culturally assimilated Mennonite, though I have been submerged in Mennonite church and denominational life more than most other assimilated Mennonites. This surely affects my objectivity, but in this book I have worked hard to respectfully describe those groups that emphasize greater separation from the world or that come from other cultural backgrounds.

Finally, my history also reveals I am not a trained academic historian. I am an archivist who spent years among the individual trees of the Mennonite forest, gathering and preserving the leaves that told particular stories. I am not a detached observer. I do not approach the history of Mennonites in Ontario as a social historian or as a theological or intellectual historian, though issues of boundaries between church and culture and the influence of theological movements on Mennonites inform my historical observations.

Because of my many years of working within denominational structures and in the formation of the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada, I am particularly fascinated by the workings of church structures and the role of individual stories and events that have led church members to make different decisions about the cultural and theological directions of their church. For these reasons my subtitle describes this work as a “religious history” of Ontario Mennonites.

Chin Christian Church Choir, 2009. MCEC photo

Chin Christian Choir, one of many photos in this book tracing the history of Anabaptists in Canada to contemporary times.

In many ways this project was a labor of love, and I’ve felt privileged to participate in one corner of it. I’ve watched the Mennonite world become more and more diverse. As an assimilated Mennonite with a liberal bias I welcome this, though the diversity has come with much pain in many parts of the church. Future histories will determine where this diversity has taken us.


To purchase a copy of In Search of Promised Lands: A Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario, go to the MennoMedia store or call 1-800-245-7894 in Canada or the U.S.

Sam Steiner, author. You can \also visit Sam’s blog for this project here


P.S. What got Sam expelled from Goshen College: