Monday, August 20th, 2012
Courtesy of the Brethren in Christ Historical
Library and Archives
Then, in 1952, Wolgemuth resigned his denominational post to pursue full-time employment with Youth for Christ (YFC), a parachurch ministry aimed at evangelizing young people. He initially served as YFC’s representative to Japan and as organizer of the eighth-annual World Congress on Evangelism in Tokyo. In 1957 he became vice president of YFC’s Overseas Program, and by 1965 had ascended to the presidency of Youth for Christ International, a post he held until his retirement in 1973. All the while, he maintained connections to his natal denomination, serving on many of its boards and continuing to promote its distinctive doctrines, like nonresistance.1
How do we make sense of someone like Samuel Wolgemuth—someone whose theological identity lies deep within traditions as seemingly divergent as Anabaptism and evangelicalism?
Historian Jared S. Burkholder and theologian David Cramer provide one answer to this question in their recent edited volume, The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism (Wipf and Stock, 2012). As their title indicates, Burkholder and Cramer see evangelicalism and Anabaptism as linked by a shared “activist impulse,” a desire to “engage American society” and to make “vigorous efforts . . . in support of Christian ideals” (p. 2). This shared “impulse,” though understood and operationalized differently in each tradition, has created a space for myriad “intersections,” both historical and theological, between these two movements during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By focusing on these intersections rather than the obvious departures, argue Burkholder and Cramer, church historians and theologians might gain more nuanced insights into Anabaptist-evangelical relations.
Such an approach directly challenges the dominant historiography of Anabaptist-evangelical relations. As developed by a previous generation of scholars (mostly historians) like Rodney J. Sawatsky and Beulah Stauffer Hostetler, this historiography has emphasized declension, arguing that as evangelical influence increases, Anabaptist distinctives decrease and, ultimately, vanish.2 Burkholder and Cramer want to move beyond such dichotomistic thinking. “While such arguments still carry some weight, and some Anabaptists continue to resent the appeal of popular evangelicalism,” they admit, “others see plenty of opportunity for integrating the two traditions” (p. 3).
Burkholder’s and Cramer’s assembled band of collaborators flesh out this integrative approach in a series of fourteen thought-provoking essays. The opener, a brilliant survey of Anabaptist-evangelical intersections across American and Canadian history by Mennonite historian Steven M. Nolt, lays a fine foundation for subsequent entries. Nolt chooses the guiding metaphor of conversation, suggesting that at various points Anabaptists and evangelicals have engaged in spirited debate, at times tentatively and at times vigorously. On occasion, the conversation has been conflicted: Nolt notes that evangelicals have long felt suspicious of evangelicals’ uncritical devotion to the nation-state and to consumer culture, while evangelicals have expressed concern over Anabaptists’ insufficient concern with “stewarding” politics, culture, and the arts. On the other hand, evangelicals and Anabaptists have often had much to agree upon.
Some evangelicals have warmly embraced Anabaptism’s “long-standing witness of discipleship” as a critique of the “cultural status-quo,” while some Anabaptists have used evangelicalism’s emphasis on a personal religious faith to “distinguish theological convictions from ethnic conventions” or to “move past embarrassing particularities” and into the religious mainstream (pp. 37-38). Importantly, he concludes that the future of Anabaptist-evangelical relations will center not on North America but on the global south, where both Anabaptist and evangelical churches are gaining new members at unprecedented rates.
Building on Nolt’s survey are two sections of historical case studies. These studies profile a variety of Anabaptist-related communities—including Mennonites, Mennonite Brethren in Christ, Grace Brethren, and others—and their intersections with American evangelicalism. The first section, “Anabaptism and the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy,” examines Anabaptist efforts to navigate the murky theological and cultural waters of late nineteenth and early twentieth century American Protestantism. Two essays stand out. The most convincing, by University of Notre Dame doctoral student Benjamin Wetzel, describes how some Mennonites—including prominent Bishop Daniel Kauffman—endeavored to carve out a “third way” between fundamentalism and modernism: one that confronted the perceived dangers of a rapidly changing society while endeavoring to preserve Mennonite distinctives like nonresistance and nonconformity.
A similar study from Burkholder, examining anti-modernist activism among eastern Pennsylvania Mennonites, argues for a “distinctly Mennonite version” of fundamentalism that “was both an internal response to modernity and . . . that simultaneously opposed the broader, non-Mennonite fundamentalism that was gaining momentum in America during the same period” (p. 187). Burkholder’s theory seeks rightly to counter the dominant “‘infiltration’ theses” in Anabaptist historiography, which situate Mennonites as the agency-less victims of fundamentalist influence. Nevertheless, his invention of a “Mennonite fundamentalism” seems less convincing than Wetzel’s “third way,” especially in light of recent scholarly critiques of “comparative fundamentalisms.” [PDF]
Like “Muslim fundamentalist” or “Hindu fundamentalist” in other contexts, “Mennonite fundamentalist” may fail to capture what Burkholder is trying to describe in his essay, given the historical rootedness of the broader category. Indeed, if “Mennonite fundamentalism” offered a critique of both the liberals and the conservatives, why employ the term “fundamentalism” at all?
In the second section of case studies, “Intersecting Concerns: Anabaptist and Evangelical Public Witness,” a handful of diverse scholars push the conversation on Anabaptist-evangelical intersections in interesting new directions. First, Felipe Hinojosa complicates preceding studies by showing how Hispanic Mennonites in the American Southwest “forged an evangelical and Anabaptist identity that was unique to their communities—one that better reflected their own cultural and ethnic context” (p. 239). His discussion of becoming evangélico—which, as he notes, carries meaning beyond the English-language “evangelical”—is particularly fascinating.
Asbury University professor David Swartz’s essay similarly re-directs the discourse by showing how evangelicals have been influenced by Anabaptists. For thousands of progressive evangelicals, Anabaptist icons like John Howard Yoder, Ronald J. Sider, and Doris Longacre (author of the bestselling More With Less cookbook) provided the ideologies and practical theologies necessary to provoke action on issues like global poverty, pacifism, and simple living. Years before Jerry Falwell’s Religious Right became the de facto public face of evangelical politics, these Anabaptist-inspired evangelicals forged a left-of-center movement that left a significant mark on the 1970s public sphere.
The book also contains a section of theological essays, exploring “intersecting trajectories” as diverse as atonement theory, pacifism, and biblical authority.
One of the collection’s most unique contributions comes from John Fea, a professor of history at the Brethren in Christ-related Messiah College. Departing from the historical narratives and theological treatises that comprise the majority of The Activist Impulse, Fea’s essay offers a historiographical excavation of the ways in which the activist impulses of both Anabaptism and evangelicalism are driven by oversimplified, ideologically charged readings of American history. Among Anabaptists (especially Yoderian neo-Anabaptists), Fea identifies an attempt to use the past to critique America’s moral failings (slavery, war, economic oppression, etc.) and to envision a more just, peaceful future.
By contrast, Fea argues, evangelicals seek “to discern the hand of God in American history” (p. 83) and to emphasize American’s providential status as a “Christian nation.” “Both approaches,” Fea contends, “allow political, religious, and cultural agendas to be their lens for understanding the past, rather than letting the past stand on its own terms” (p. 83). He concludes with an invitation for both Anabaptists and evangelicals to cultivate a less ideological view of the past, one that sees historical actors not in Manichean terms but as fallible humans shaped by their contexts: “An encounter with the past in all its fullness, void as much as possible of present-minded agendas, can cultivate virtue in our lives” (p. 91).
There are, of course, problems with the The Activist Impulse. In the main, it contains too few voices of women. Given that women have long dominated the membership rolls of both evangelical and Anabaptist churches, their stories undoubtedly shed substantial light on the question of these “intersections.” Yet outside of Swartz’s discussion of evangelical feminism and its Anabaptist encouragers, few women are allowed to demonstrate their “activist impulse.” In the same vein, youth—such as might have flocked to the trendy Youth for Christ rallies of the 1950s, participated in the 1-W alternate service programs of the 1960s, or listened to the popular evangelical rock music of the 1970s—are also strangely absent from the collection.
What’s more, the book doesn’t deal adequately enough with the definitional problems associated with the terms “evangelicalism” and “Anabaptism.” Both have a rather contested genealogy–a fact mentioned in only a handful of the contributions. For instance, scholars like Sawatsky and Perry Bush have offered excellent readings of the evolution of “Anabaptism” from the sixteenth-century to the present, showing that it has been repeatedly re-interpreted to address presentist concerns and to meet specific needs. (Fea gets this; others do not.) And while the editors address specifically the definitional quandary associated with “evangelicalism,” they nevertheless allow each contributor define the concept on his or her own terms, with the result of a rather disjointed overall approach to the topic.
As theologian Ted Grimsrud noted in his blog review, the “rather benign,” David Bebbington-inspired definition favored by most contributors ignores the fact that evangelicalism is (at least with regard to the dominant historiography) a “post-fundamentalist” movement. That is, evangelicalism emphasizes not just the “authority of the Bible” but its plenary inspiration and inerrancy; it emphasizes not only “Christ’s atoning death on the cross” but substitutionary atonement. Both of these, Grimsrud rightly concludes, are areas in which some Anabaptists (especially more liberal Mennonites) would take exception to evangelicalism.
Of course, defining evangelicalism as “post-fundamentalist” negates the influence of holiness and Pentecostal traditions, both of which were often more appealing to Mennonites than fundamentalism and both of which existed on the margins of fundamentalist evangelicalism and therefore did not wholly embrace either inerrancy or substitutionary atonement. Thus, the question of adequate definitions remains.
Definitional issues aside, The Activist Impulse unquestionably demonstrates the vital intersections between these movements. From Swartz’s discussion of Anabaptist-inspired evangelical leftists, to Wetzel’s determined excavation of Mennonites’ “third way” between fundamentalism and liberalism, the volume catalogs numerous instances in which Anabaptists and evangelicals have cooperated and commingled—though not without conflict.
Such is undoubtedly the case with Samuel Wolgemuth. Clearly, Wolgemuth saw his primary “activism” as evangelism, a fact he made clear during countless rallies, preaching engagements, and lecture series. And yet, at least among his natal denomination, his revivalist rhetoric rang with a distinctly Anabaptist timbre. Consider a 1978 sermon delivered to the Brethren in Christ General Conference, on the importance of world missions. “Our history as a church calls us, as does the Word of God, to identify with those who set out long ago to turn their world upside down,” delcared Wolgemuth. “Their obedience to the Holy Spirit set them apart from the crowd with an initiative that no one could stop. . . . The church of today is heir to the revolutionary [missionary] forces [that] changed the face of the world.”3
Unlike the majority of his evangelical colleagues, Wolgemuth viewed the preaching of the Gospel as a distinctly counter-cultural act. If that’s not an evangelical-Anabaptist intersection, I don’t know what is.
 For more on Wolgemuth, consult s.v. “Wolgemuth, Samuel Frey,” in Randall Balmer, Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2003); Joan Giangrasse Kates, Obituary of Samuel Frey Wolgemuth, Chicago Tribune, February 8, 2002.
 Monographs advancing such a thesis include Hostetler, American Mennonites and Protestant Movements (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1987), and Theron Schlabach, Gospel vs. Gospel: Mission and the Mennonite Church, 1863-1944 (Scottdale, Pa. : Herald Press, c1980). Other similar studies include Rodney J. Sawatsky, “Fundamentalism, Liberalism, and Anabaptism: Mennonite Choices in the 1920s and 1930s,” unpublished paper, December 4, 1978, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, Lancaster, Pa., and Luke L. Keefer, Jr., “The Three Streams in Our Heritage: Separate or Parts of a Whole?” Brethren in Christ History and Life 19, no. 1 (April 1996), pp. 26-63. Burkholder and Cramer are explicitly critical of a 1979 collection of essays, Mission and the Peace Witness: The Gospel and Christian Discipleship (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press), edited by Robert L. Ramseyer.
 Samuel Wolgemuth, “‘An Open Door — No Man Can Shut It’ (Revelation 3:8),” Brethren in Christ History and Life 1, no. 2 (December 1978), p. 71.
Devin C. Manzullo-Thomas (M.A., Temple University) is a public historian and archivist. He is currently working on an article-length biography of Samuel Wolgemuth that seeks to shed further light on twentieth-century intersections of Anabaptism and evangelicalism. Professionally, he serves as assistant editor of Brethren in Christ History and Life, the journal of the Brethren in Christ Historical Society.