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Bluffton professor receives grant to write biography of C. Henry Smith

Andréa Ressler - 03/26/09

Bluffton University

Perry Bush, professor of history, was awarded a grant by the C. Henry Smith Trust to assist in the writing of a biography of C. Henry Smith, a distinguished Mennonite historian and noted professor and scholar at Bluffton (Ohio) University.

A member of the Bluffton faculty from 1914-46, Smith is well-known for his numerous books on Mennonite history and his particular attention to the peace commitments of the Mennonite tradition. Educated at Illinois State Normal University, the University of Illinois and the University of Chicago, Smith is the first known American Mennonite to secure a doctoral degree and continue in the church. Prior to joining Bluffton’s faculty, he served at Goshen College in Goshen, Ind., from 1903-05 and 1908-13.

Smith died in 1948, and a trust was established in his name with the sole purpose of maintaining and strengthening the peace witness in Mennonite churches. Funds are granted to scholars in order to facilitate research, writing and exploration of peace and nonviolence in an educational setting.

“This biography of C. Henry Smith will increase our understanding of the beginnings of Mennonite higher education in general and the personal perspectives that shaped the early years of Bluffton University in particular,” said Sally Weaver Sommer, vice president and dean of academic affairs at Bluffton. “In clarifying the intellectual and spiritual sources of a ‘progressive’ 20th century Mennonite identity, the book will help us understand the driving force behind the primary ideological alternative to ‘the Goshen school’ and the Anabaptist Vision approach to Mennonite identity.”

The grant provides Bush with course-release time and funds for student research assistants, travel expenses and general book-writing logistics. He will teach one course during the fall and spring semesters to allow time for research, travel and writing.

While Smith wrote an autobiography, The Education of a Mennonite Country Boy (1925), no Mennonite scholar has written a book-length manuscript specifically about him.

“C. Henry Smith is overlooked a lot,” says Bush. “He had a very different vision of Mennonites in this world. There was a middle ground for him—a selectively negotiated acculturation between Mennonites and a society that was no longer outside the boundaries of their isolated rural worlds. He has a lot to offer us about shifting from ‘only rural, German-speaking people’ to ‘educated, city dwellers’ who are still strongly Mennonite.”

Bush feels a certain responsibility to write about Smith and the rich history he brings to the Mennonite Church.

“I feel a sense of compulsion,” Bush says. “I’m a Mennonite Christian that wants to serve the church. And past Mennonite historians are retiring. I want to help carry on the immense and rich tradition of Mennonite history that the older generation maintained so well. I feel an obligation to the church to explore Mennonite history. We have a small tradition, and if people like me don’t record it, then who will?”

This isn’t the first time Bush has been tasked with a large writing project. As a part of Bluffton’s centennial celebration, Bush was commissioned to write a book on the institution’s history. He wrote Dancing with the Kobzar: Bluffton College and Mennonite Higher Education in 18 months. He has also written “a history of an idea”—Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (1998)—and “a history of a city”—Scorched Earth: Rust Bowl Resistance in the American Midwest (under consideration with University Press of Kansas). This time, Bush is interested in writing about a figure that played a key role in Mennonite history.

While no words have been written as of yet, Bush has begun combing the Bluffton University Archives and Mennonite Historical Collections and researching secondary texts. With the help of Carrie Phillips, archives and special collections librarian, Bush is looking over letters, books and various articles that mention Smith.

Bush, who plans to conduct research in Goshen and central Illinois where Smith was born, is excited to devote his time to the biography.

“This grant will give me more balance between teaching and writing,” he says. “It will also allow me to focus solely on something I love: writing.” He hopes to complete the book in a couple years.

A graduate of the University of California Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon University, Bush has taught at Bluffton since 1994. He is chair of the department of religion and history and historian for the Central District Conference in Mennonite Church USA. He has received numerous awards, including the Peace History Society’s 2003-04 Charles DeBenedetti Prize for best essay for “The Political Education of Vietnam Christian Service, 1954-1975”; the 1997-98 C. Henry Smith Peace Lectureship; and the Dean Shirley Outstanding Faculty Teaching Award at Phillips University for the 1992-93 academic year.