New fruit, rooted in history at the Mennonite Heritage Center

by Sarah Heffner, Hereford

The Mennonite Heritage Center, Harleysville, and Eastern Mennonite Seminary cosponsored a class on Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction to Basic Themes and Perspectives on four Tuesday evenings in October.  Instructors John Ruth and Steve Kriss and 23 participants considered critical themes running throughout Anabaptist history.

Steve Kriss instructs the Anabaptist history class at the Mennonite Heritage Center. Photo by John Ruth.

The class syllabus described this introduction as “acquainting students with the almost 500-year sweep of Anabaptist/Mennonite history, experience and theological reflection since 1525. This story of a movement and faith communities will be viewed against the background of the spiritual, social, geographical and cultural dimensions both historically and from today’s perspective.”

An ambitious agenda for the four evenings, but an excellent opportunity for participants to ponder what Ruth described as “a small chapter in a specific story with universal meaning”. During the first class, the instructors gave a quick overview of early European Christian history leading up to the Reformation period. From the early beginnings as a persecuted church until Christianity became legitimized as a religion after the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, the church grew and spread throughout Western Europe. Kriss noted that although the church became rich and institutionalized, it was still the voice of Jesus Christ through the centuries.

Ruth, who has led many trips to the Anabaptist European roots in the Netherlands and the Palatinate, discussed the early European reformers’ objections to the corruption of the official state church during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The religious fervor, persecution and social upheaval of this period led to the development and growth of the Anabaptist churches. Ruth noted that the development of the printing press played an important role in the ability of the common person to learn and study Scripture and theology for themselves. The insularity of the local Mennonite culture began to change with the modern era. “Mennonites of this region were in a thermos bottle for three centuries and their warmth was retained,” Ruth said.

Kriss spoke about the mission effort of the mid to late 20th century as one of Christianity’s major efforts, noting that the mission efforts sometimes lacked in cultural understanding. “We are now in another reforming time,” Kriss said. “The good news goes out even though the church goes through upheaval. How do we play in the global church reality?”

The last evening was spent looking at the global Mennonite story and the rising presence of the global church in local Mennonite conferences. Franconia Conference is growing because of the new immigrant congregations. Kriss noted that we will need to graft the stories of the historic congregations and the new congregations together—the fruit might look different but the harvest is there. The desire is to have our roots planted seriously but with a strong sense of the global community.

Both Kriss and Ruth enjoyed the challenge of teaching this topic. “Teaching with John Ruth is a privilege and challenge,” Kriss noted. “I appreciate his wisdom, wit and experience. In our teaching together, I hope that John and I are able to model the struggle and possibility that exists within our time with respect to history and hope for the future, knowing that we’re living a story still being written by God and that we are characters in this ongoing drama across the generations—of creation, learning and redemption in the way of Christ.”