Speakers Recount Historical Meeting in EMU Class

Music Man dress rehearsalPaul Peachey (center) makes a point in the Mennonite History and Thought class as I.B. Horst (l.) and Calvin Redekop listen.
Photo by Jim Bishop

For 50 minutes on Friday morning, Feb. 18, in the President’s Room of Hartzler Library, it was something of a time warp.

Three scholars, part of a seven-member group who assembled in 1952 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, to critique the status and direction of the Anabaptist movement, interacted with students in a "Mennonite History and Thought" class.

Irvin B. Horst, 89; Paul Peachey, 86; and Calvin Redekop, 79, outlined their involvement in what proved to be a landmark 12-day meeting that also included John W. Miller, A. Orley Swartzendruber, David A. Shank and the late John Howard Yoder. All were living in Europe at the time, doing graduate study or post-war work with Mennonite Church agencies.

"Dr. Al Keim, professor emeritus of history at EMU and author of a major biography of the late Mennonite theologian and educator H.S. Bender, called that gathering "the most creative event in Mennonite history," Mary S. Sprunger, professor of history, told the class in introducing the speakers. "This ‘reunion’ today of three of those original group members is also an historic event."

Dr. Horst, a one-time professor of church history at EMU who later taught 18 years at a Mennonite seminary in Amsterdam, was instrumental in bringing the original group together and in providing insight into similarities and differences between American and Dutch Mennonite faith and practice.

"American Mennonites were becoming more and more acculturated, especially after World War II, just as Dutch Mennonites had generations before," Horst said.

Dr. Redekop, a sociologist and author, is the only "Concern" member not of "Old Mennonite" background. Of Russian Mennonite descent, Redekop said he was raised "a fundamentalist" and was "quite taken back" upon enrolling at Goshen (Ind.) College in 1946.

"Although at first I felt like an alien [at Goshen] my experience there made me appreciate my Anabaptist heritage, and I quickly found myself stimulated and encouraged by the interaction in that European group meeting," he told the students.

The gathering became known as the "Concern" movement, and from this initial meeting came subsequent gatherings and the issuing of a series of widely-distributed "Concern" pamphlets addressing several key issues they felt the Mennonite Church needed to squarely face.

"Even though we all had done graduate study in church-related areas, our group didn’t focus as much on theological issues as on polity – the question of power and authority in the church and are we congregationally structured or more of an authoritarian body," Dr. Redekop said.

"Our aim was to ‘critique’ the Mennonite Church, not to set it off in a new direction," Redekop stated. "We all were influenced by the thought and writings of Harold S. Bender, the most prominent Mennonite leader of the 1940s and 1950s."

"Unfortunately, Bender felt threatened by our efforts, when really what we wanted was to take his work a step farther," Peachey said. "However, a number of the younger generation of Mennonites appreciated what we were trying to do."

"Our desire was to work at reform and revival as an Anabaptist people and not to promote divisiveness and schism," Redekop said. "I think we achieved that goal."

He noted that an intentional church community, Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Ill., evolved from the "Concern" movement with one of the group members, John W. Miller, giving leadership.

"I wanted to introduce students to the story of these young Mennonites who were trying to find a way to make 16th century Anabaptism relevant for the church in the 1950s and ’60s," Dr. Sprunger said. "They took these issues seriously and dared to propose radical ideas about New Testament congregationalism to a hierarchical church leadership that didn’t welcome the Concern group’s critique of Mennonite denominationalism.

"Even though they wore suits and listened to lectures on Mennonite history, this was a kind of activism," she said. "Scholarly research, discussion and publishing was their way to raise issues and call the church they loved to be more faithful."

"The speakers captured an important topic that still faces the church today – distribution of power," said Paul J. Yoder, a junior history and social studies major from Harrisonburg. "I appreciated the emphasis on reform that they voiced. It’s rare to get to talk with and hear from actual figures that we’re studying in class," Yoder added.