Harold S. Bender and the Anabaptist vision
News Analysisby Leonard Gross
Through the centuries, certain statements created in times of confusion and conflict have caught the imagination of our people and as such became for a time an impelling vision of hope that helped pull the movement through onto more solid ground.
Such statements came at crucial times in our Anabaptist-Mennonite history: at Zurich in 1524-25, at the time of the birth of Anabaptism; at Schleitheim in 1527, when the movement seemed to be going off into all directions; but also in 1575, 1702, 1841, 1896 and, last but not least, in 1944, with the creation of Harold S. Bender’s Anabaptist Vision.
Each of these statements dealt with the Anabaptist vision—of disciples of Christ gathered in his Spirit who sought to live out his gospel of peace. In 1702, for example, part of the vision ran:
The characteristics of the true church are: the true fruits of
conversion; the avoidance of sins; living in goodness,
righteousness and truth according to the teaching of Christ
and his apostles; having the right faith in Jesus Christ through
obedience to the divine word; practicing his holy ordinances of
baptism and the Lord’s Supper; confessing God and Jesus
Christ candidly before the people; holding to a fiery brotherly
love among one another; and maintaining the unity of the
Spirit through the bond of peace and through taking up the
cross and the true discipleship of Christ.
A triad of ideas—discipleship, the community dynamic of mutuality and love, and the overriding spirit of peace—are central motifs in this 1702 Anabaptist vision. In a manner that is more than coincidental, these same themes surfaced again in 1944.
Harold S. Bender’s Anabaptist Vision was also a vision of faithful disciples of Jesus, gathered in the name and spirit of the Christ of peace. It cut through myriad doctrinal overlays that had accrued over the decades—especially after the transformation of the Mennonite church from a German culture to an American culture a half-century earlier.
From left to right: Cornelius Krahn, Bender, Melvin Gingerich were the editors of the four-volume Mennonite Encyclopedia published 1955-59.
It was, at its base, conservative in its attempt to conserve the best of our faith-tradition; it was liberal in being open to testing any and all new scholarship that impinged upon the quest toward an honest portrayal of our Anabaptist-Mennonite past. And it was this vision that permeated Bender’s life and thought throughout his lifetime. In fact, it had to be honestly conservative as well as liberal in order to jump back through the dominating progressive era of the 1910s and 1920s, when the Mennonite Church (MC) had leaned so heavily upon the new religious trends of the day. This included a form of Fundamentalism that, with its emphasis upon individualism and nationalism, endangered our traditional witness of peace, community and discipleship.
Although seemingly so “biblical,” such doctrines, when seen in the light of their social context, stood in opposition to certain traits that had been part and parcel of Anabaptist history all the way back to Anabaptist beginnings in 1525. Yet this danger remained largely unrecognized by many Mennonites during the first four decades of the 20th century.
Who was Harold S. Bender? In the year 2012, there are a generation or two who no longer know about Bender. Who was this man, and why do we, in 2012, choose to commemorate him and his views? The following is a brief summary of his story:
Harold S. Bender was born in Elkhart, Ind., in 1897, at a time when Elkhart was at the hub of the Mennonite Church (MC), thanks to John F. Funk’s Herald of Truth / Herold der Wahrheit and the other programs in publishing, relief work, mission work, mutual aid and education that developed there in the 1880s and 1890s.
In 1923, Harold married Elizabeth Horsch, and the family was blessed with two children, Mary Eleanor and Nancy. Elizabeth would prove to be a powerful ally to Harold, given her uncanny ability of honing the English language and her keen adeptness in the use of foreign languages.
From 1924 to 1962, Bender was professor at Goshen (Ind.) College in church history, Bible and sociology. He was dean of Goshen from 1931 to 1944 and dean of Goshen College Biblical Seminary from 1944 until his death.
Bender’s birth coincided with the Mennonite renaissance, or awakening, of the 1880s and 1890s, which was, in part, the result of a shift in language from German to English. Mennonites during this era began accepting much within their new English-speaking, North American culture, including higher education and a renewed interest in missions at home and abroad. Bender’s own interest in education should be seen in this light.
Bender’s formative years, on the other hand, came during the time of a new generation of MC leaders who attempted to establish a new Mennonite orthodoxy in doctrine and dress, with a certain codification of both and imbued to some degree with Fundamentalism. Daniel Kauffman was the major leader at the time (ca. 1898-1930). His books Manual of Bible Doctrine (1898), Bible Doctrine (1914) and Doctrines of the Bible (1928) became the definitive word for many within the church during those decades.
The importance of Bender’s work: The significance of Bender may be seen in part in terms of how he dealt with these new trends, both fundamentalist and liberal, within the church. Bender chose a route and approach to vision that differed from both. His vision stood in contrast to the Kauffman view of doctrine and dress, not so much in criticizing it directly but by circumventing it.
Bender chose to express the Christian faith through the historical process and attempted to rediscover the Anabaptist vision of biblical faith and life. He did not believe he was creating a new theology but was returning to and recovering an old faith: that of his own spiritual ancestors.
In 1927, he created a journal, the Mennonite Quarterly Review (MQR), and in 1929 he founded a scholarly series, Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite History, writing the first volume himself (Two Centuries of American Mennonite Literature). A dissertation on Conrad Grebel, one of the founders of Anabaptism (1935, published 1950), a biography of Menno Simons (1936), Mennonite Origins in Europe (1942), The Anabaptist Vision (1944) (lead editor of) the Mennonite Encyclopedia (four volumes, 1955-59), Biblical Revelation and Inspiration (1959) and These Are My People (1962)—these publications indicate the scope of Bender’s efforts to bring about a return to the Anabaptist faith as he understood it.
Throughout these decades, he edited MQR and published many shorter essays there and in other scholarly journals and church papers.
Bender’s leadership in MC life, worldwide Mennonitism and in ecumenical contacts was evident, in part, through the long list of committees and organizations in which he was active. Central in Bender’s vision, on all levels of interaction, was his concern for the way of peace and love as being integral to the path Christians should take.
Critique of the Anabaptist Vision: During a score of years, up to the time of the stormy era of the Vietnam generation, beginning around 1964, there was a positive resonance with Bender’s Anabaptist Vision on the part of a growing number of Mennonites and “outside” Reformation scholars alike. The Festschrift The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision, edited by Guy F. Hershberger and published in 1957, is a powerful testimonial to this development. The Anabaptist Vision had become the byword throughout the Mennonite Church. The essay is still in continuing reprints, under its own title, “The Anabaptist Vision.”
History has its own ways, however, of bringing about change. And the Vietnam era, which has come and gone, left its profound effect on North American culture and beyond. The Mennonite world had come to an end as it had been known. A barrier was erected, thanks to the Vietnam era, so high that it is all but impossible for Mennonites today to understand the ethos and faith of even our recent forebears—as recently as the 1950s.
Beginning in 1968, for example, the devotional covering for baptized women was no longer mandatory in the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference. The tremendous import of the changing reality behind this change in symbol is hard to imagine, hard to overestimate and of the utmost significance. And this symbol and reality, combined with the conscious shift in church polity —in 1971 the governing MC body, called Mennonite General Conference, died, and the new General Assembly was born—signaled tremendous change within the largest branch of Mennonitism—change that happened within other Mennonite groups as well.
But the trends and events of the times—inner-city uprisings, peace marches, the 1968 Democratic Convention, student unrest, Woodstock, secularism, assassinations, riots, Kent State, revolution—had also changed the very substance, spirit and structures of our 20th-century Mennonite tradition. From being “neither in nor of” the world, as apparently had been the case for half a century, thanks to the Vietnam War we seemed to be transformed into being both in and of the world by the 1980s. This is, at least, what some Mennonite observers and prophets were saying and predicting at the time. But had we really sold out to the world? Or had we just entered instead into a new phase of being in but not of the world around us?
The Anabaptist Vision from the perspective of 2012: In the year 2012, do we still hold to a vision that balances on the one hand the individual response (Christian discipleship) and on the other hand the corporate dimension of being the gathered, peaceful people of God?
By the 1980s, some uttered second thoughts about the substance, spirit and structures of the Anabaptist Vision. Some people apparently are rejecting the Anabaptist Vision; some are critical of parts of it; some remain affirmative. It was a missive for its time, and therein lie its strengths but also its limitations.
Those who think Bender’s Anabaptist Vision of 1944 went too far down the road of simplification would probably criticize Bender even more for stating in 1950 that it is discipleship and discipleship alone that provides the clues for finding “the central controlling idea of Anabaptist theology.”
On the other hand, in these days when spirituality is a major byword, those who ask about the spiritual dimension of Bender’s vision must of necessity read the whole of the Anabaptist Vision as well as Bender’s later, further interpretations of things Anabaptist in order to do him and his ideas justice. This includes his 1950 essay “The Anabaptist Theology of Discipleship,” in which Bender documents his thesis historically, and his 1961 essay “Walking in the Resurrection,” a description of a discipleship made possible only through the presence of the Spirit within and without—among those individuals gathered in Christ’s name.
The continuing usefulness of the Anabaptist Vision: There is, however, a clue to the continuing usefulness of the Anabaptist Vision even now, after the coming of an “end of the Mennonite world” in the 1960s.
The first joint gathering of the General Conference Mennonite Church (GC) and the Mennonite Church (MC), took place in Bethlehem, Pa., in 1983. The theme chosen for this event revolved around the triad of ideas that makes up the Anabaptist Vision. Both GCs and MCs entered this spirit and substance naturally and enthusiastically. It seemed to be a natural foundation, one that fit all the way around. No one seemed to see this as unusual or old-fashioned or liberal or conservative. In retrospect, it seems to have filled the bill of needs. Here is a clue to a deepening of the ongoing cooperative efforts of the two largest North American Mennonite groups that would later merge in 2002.
Whether anything else might be found some day that might serve better our ongoing purposes as a gathered people is still open to speculation. In closing this essay however, it should be noted that Harold S. Bender was not reinventing the wheel when he brought together his vision. Rather, he looked backward through his historian’s rearview mirror and, employing a well-used Mennonite tactic of old, counseled with other brothers and sisters in the faith and finally came up with his Anabaptist Vision in 1944.
Fifty years after Bender’s death, we would do well to keep the rearview mirror, to counsel with others and to continue in the quest for answering the question of how to be faithful to the original intent of the living Christ. In this regard, Bender himself provides a clue to an answer, in his “In Search of a City.” An adapted excerpt reads:
In the long perspective of the four centuries
that have passed since their beginnings in
Switzerland and Holland, the Mennonites have
often seemed to be a people without a country,
wanderers upon the face of the earth, having
no abiding city, seeking a City whose builder
and maker is God.
These clear-visioned, high-seeking souls
purposed to build the City of God on earth.
But the world would not let them, even though
that world itself often professed to be also
building the City of God. … It was to be a City
in which a living Christ should dwell, a Christ
of love and service, around whom should
gather women and men of his spirit and
purpose among whom hatred and violence
should be unknown.
Many people have sometimes laughed, even
scoffed at these simple souls who thought in
their simplicity that it should be possible to
create a fellowship of saints “without spot or
wrinkle” in the midst of an evil world. But it is
such scoffers and laughers who have always
taken the heart out of people and have gone on
leading the world into successive systems of
greed, hatred and war, sometimes in the name
of prosperity, sometimes in the name of
patriotism and sometimes in the name of
In the past century and a quarter, thousands
of Mennonites have found a home in the
favored and tolerant commonwealths of the
United States and Canada. … Whether in these
new lands of liberty they may not face more
subtle dangers of assimilation, more threaten-
ing ultimately to their way of life than the
outright animosity of the hostile society of old
Europe, remains to be seen.
It also remains to be seen how long the Anabaptist Vision will speak to us as current and future generations probe the mystery of that small segment of Christianity descending from the Anabaptists of long ago.—Leonard Gross, executive director emeritus, Historical Committee of the Mennonite Church
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