Burkholder's dissertation 'all but banned'
Former Goshen College president recounts disagreement with church leadersby Everett J. Thomas
As a young adult, J. Lawrence Burkholder flew C-47 cargo planes in China during the Marxist revolution of the late 1940s. As an adult, he marched for racial justice alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was in East Germany when the Berlin Wall fell. Burkholder inserted himself into such difficult situations because he believes Anabaptists have a responsibility to make the world a more peaceful place.
But when he wrote his dissertation in 1958 and called for Mennonites to get involved in public policy, Burkholder says his call was ignored by (old) Mennonite Church leaders. Current Goshen (Ind.) College president Jim Brenneman revisited the controversy in a Jan. 15 convocation at the college.
Burkholder’s dissertation received summa cum laude honors at Princeton (N.J.) Theological Seminary but was placed on a shelf in the Goshen College library. It remained unpublished, even during Burkholder's tenure as Goshen’s president from 1971 to 1984.
"It was all but banned," Brenneman said, "literally going underground for 30 years, staying unpublished until 1989, five years after President Burkholder completed his own tenure here at Goshen College."
"Guy Hershberger read my thesis and respectfully said, ‘It’s brilliant,' " Burkholder says. But, according to Burkholder, Hershberger also wrote criticisms on many pages.
"I erased them, and I'm so sorry I did that," Burkholder says. "But I didn't want people to go in there and read his criticism and not read my thesis."
Burkholder's primary argument with the Mennonite leaders of the 1950s centered around a movement toward living in Mennonite communities.
"H.S. Bender, Guy Hershberger and Orie Miller were convinced that if you had the will and knowledge of discipleship you would be able to enter into community and be saved from the world," Burkholder says. "I gave up on perfection, even though the idea of perfection is something we have to live with."
Burkholder argued that Mennonites should enter into civil discourse and even participate in public policy decisions.
"It was … Burkholder’s thesis that called for all Christians, Mennonites and others … to become engaged in the civil, business, political and institutional establishments of the world,” Brenneman said.
But according to Brenneman, this call arrived in a college culture that preferred to engage the world only as naysayers.
"The normative school of thought at Goshen was that of radical dissent, nonconforming idealism and prophetic disestablishmentarianism,” said Brenneman, citing H.S. Bender's call for all Christians to "withdraw from the worldly system and create a Christian social order within the fellowship of the church."
Today, at 92, Burkholder sees Mennonites doing exactly what he envisioned more than half a century ago.
"Responsibility comes when we are accountable to someone outside ourselves, especially in politics," Burkholder says. "I knew if you go into the world and take some responsibility for it, you’ll pick up some dirt."
For J. Lawrence Burkholder, taking responsibility for making the world a better place is more important than striving for perfection in a Mennonite community.
The Limits of Perfection, a popularized version of Burkholder's dissertation, was published in 1993 by the Institute for Anabaptist and Mennonite Studies and Pandora Press.
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