Church historian leaves book legacy to EMU

He donated or sold 12,000 or more books to EMU and contributed in numerous other ways to the school over a 60-year period.

Irvin B. Horst, 94, currently resides at Oak Lea at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community. The Anabaptist scholar’s professional career took him to several European countries and lengthy teaching stints in Holland and at EMU. His spouse, Ava Rohrer Horst, died in 1994 at age 77.

Dr. Horst, professor emeritus of church history at EMU, devoted much time and energy to acquiring both rare and contemporary books to enrich the collections in the Menno Simons Historical Library in Hartzler Library. The library is named for the late Sadie A. Hartzler, head librarian at the former Eastern Mennonite College, 1926-1962.

Irvin B. Horst
Irvin B. Horst: “(The late) Sadie Hartzler helped instill in me a passion for books and for Mennonite history.” Photo by Jim Bishop

“I was a poor Mennonite farm boy from Berks County (PA) who wanted to go on in school but lacked the means,” Horst said. In 1936, the late Daniel W. Lehman was in the area soliciting students and told young Horst that “I think we can find a way to get you to Harrisonburg.”

Horst wound up working in the library under Sadie Hartzler, while “enjoying biology classes under D. Ralph Hostetter and studying Latin with Dorothy Kemrer.

“Sadie Hartzler not only encouraged my interest in books, but also helped kindle a passion for Mennonite history,” he said.

Horst was president of his class when he graduated in 1939 with a degree in biblical studies and theology. In 1946, he went to Europe to do post-war relief work while searching far and wide for books in Dutch, German and English to give or sell to the historical library.

Horst recalled a directive he received at that time from then academic dean Ira E. Miller: “Send us all the books you can!”

Horst joined the EMU faculty in 1955 to teach church history, but in those days, he noted, “we found ourselves teaching other courses that we weren’t necessarily trained for. We had large classes and heavy teaching loads.”

Along with teaching, Horst did major research on European and American Mennonite and Amish history and continued his efforts to build up the school’s historical library, which became the Menno Simons Historical Library and Archives, housed in the basement of Northlawn residence hall until moving to its present location on third floor of EMU’s Hartzler Library when that facility opened in 1971.

In 1967, Horst accepted an appointment from the queen of the Netherlands as professor of church history on the theological faculty of the University of Amsterdam. During his distinguished tenure, he continued to actively peruse book catalogs and visit antiquarian book shops, seeking additional items for the historical library.

When Horst left for his new assignment in Europe, colleague J.P. Jacobszoon wrote, “America will miss him, but the Netherlands is extremely glad to receive him, especially the Dutch Mennonite Church. There will be a gap in the United States and among American Mennonites. It may be, however, that he will create a new relationship between the churches on both shores of the Atlantic.”

“Irvin’s contribution to the Historical Library lay in his knowledge of the field of Mennonite and Reformation history and knowing what books and authors were important for us to collect,” said Lois B. Bowman, director of the Menno Simons Historical Library since 1990 and a faculty member since 1963.

Among the most significant acquisitions from Horst, according to Bowman, are two Jan Luiken collections of 100 and 35 items, respectively, including the 1685 illustrated Dutch “Martyrs’ Mirror,” the Menno Simons collection (66 items) of materials from the 16th to the 20th centuries both by and about Menno Simons and an Annuity Book collection of 197 items, a “gift” for which Horst receives an annual payment of a percentage of the appraised value.

In April, 1987, Horst was named scholar-in-residence at the place near and dear to him, the Menno Simons Historical Library at EMU.

The university released a book, “Menno Simons: A Reappraisal,” in January 1992 and dedicated to Horst as a “festschrift,” a book published in honor of a scholar. The 225-page hardback was a compilation of the addresses given at a Conference on Menno Simons held at EMU in 1990 and edited by Gerald R. Brunk, professor emeritus of history.

Menno Simons, a Dutch Catholic priest who converted to the Anabaptist movement in 1536, soon became one of the fledgling church’s leaders.

“I wanted to make these books available to EMU not only to expand the library resources but so that persons would be positively influenced by these important works in the life of the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement,” Horst said.

A feature article on the Menno Simons Historical Library and the many services it offers can be accessed at