The fascinating story of a 20th century Mennonite pioneer

Ted Grimsrud

[What follows is a review of one of the latest of a series of biographies of important 20th century Mennonite leaders (some of the others include books about Edmund Kaufman, Harold Bender, Guy Hershberger, and Orie Miller). This book does a nice job of making the story of the largely forgotten pioneering historian, C. Henry Smith. It will be published in Brethren in Christ History & Thought.]

Perry Bush. Peace, Progress, and the Professor: The Mennonite History of C. Henry Smith. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2015. 457 pages. $29.99.

 Henry Smith (1875-1948) was a fascinating and important American Mennonite figure whose story has been well told by Perry Bush in Peace, Progress, and the Professor: The Mennonite History of C. Henry Smith.

Born Henry Smith to an Amish farming family near Metamora, Illinois, just as the Mennonite world in North America was beginning a new phase of intense assimilation, this pioneering scholar and successful small-town businessman in many ways marks important transformations in the Mennonite world. He may not have won that many of the Mennonite conflicts he found himself in during the first half of the 20th century, but as Bush helps us see, Smith prefigured much about what this Mennonite world has become.

The attractions of education

Early in his life, Smith (the third of eight children) discovered the attractions of education to the degree that he stepped away from his expected farming future as a young adult and devoted his own energies to a teaching career. He started off working in rural schools but his circle kept expanding. He received all of his formal education in the state of Illinois—a very new Illinois Normal School (eventually Illinois State), the University of Illinois, and the University of Chicago.

By the time Smith received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago, he had been hired to teach at the just established Goshen College. Smith, who as a young adult added the “C.” to his name to make himself more distinctive, was one of the first Mennonites to earn a Ph.D. and allegedly was the first to gain that degree and remain a Mennonite.

At the origins of Goshen College

His early years at Goshen were stimulating and productive, as he poured his considerable energies into helping the college to become established. It was an exciting time of growth and trailblazing. Bush does a nice job in tracing Smith’s development as something new in his part of the Mennonite world in the first decade of the 20th century, a politically progressive and theologically liberal intellectual. In Smith’s mind, it seemed to be expected that just as the broader American society was moving inexorably onward to greater and greater things, so too would the Mennonite churches.

However, we learn, opposition forces in the Mennonite enclave in northern Indiana and beyond emerged to resist the ever-more progressive dynamics at the new college. Smith ultimately discerned that his future at Goshen College would be perilous in light of the developing fundamentalist/progressive conflict and, joined by a few key colleagues, moved a state to the east in 1913 and joined the faculty at Bluffton College in the small town of Bluffton, Ohio. Bluffton was also a Mennonite college, but it was affiliated with the less homogeneous General Conference Mennonite Church and already in its early days had staked out an identity characterized by much more independence from church leaders and doctrines.

At home in Bluffton as scholar-banker

At the same time that he was teaching a madhouse schedule and navigating the complicated dynamics of church politics, the indefatigable Smith also found time to begin what became a long and prolific publishing agenda. Though he taught widely in all areas of history as well as political science and other fields, Smith focused his scholarly energies on Mennonite history. In 1909, while still on the faculty at Goshen, he published the first comprehensive history of Mennonites in America. This book became a standard text. He revised it constantly and completed his final, much expanded version in 1941.

After moving to Bluffton, Smith also somehow found the time and energy to begin a separate career as a small town banker. In time he became the quite successful president of Citizens National Bank in Bluffton. He helped lead the bank through the Great Depression and through the trauma of an armed holdup by the notorious John Dillinger gang. Bush chronicles a long and by and large contented teaching and writing career for Smith at Bluffton.

A key Mennonite contributor

As I read this excellent book (Bush is a strong researcher and engaging writer), I was struck with how helpful it is to have Smith made more available to us today as a key contributor to the evolving North American Mennonite world.

Smith was unable to continue as a Goshen College professor due to his progressivism. He surely would be pleased now to see his former school well established as a quite progressive presence in the broader Mennonite world and in the world of higher education. The professional model that now characterizes all of Mennonite higher education surely owes something to this pioneer Mennonite Ph.D.

As a scholar of the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition, Smith articulated an understanding of Anabaptist origins that emphasizes the plurality of early Anabaptist groups that fed into what became the Mennonite stream of Christianity. A generation later, advocates of a single, normative source, the Zurich, Switzerland, group led by Conrad Grebel, came to dominate the field of Mennonite history. However, though he was rarely if ever cited, by the 1970s, Smith’s view was vindicated by the success of the “polygenesis” argument.

A cause that Smith devoted a great deal of energy to was what was called the “union movement”—the effort to get Mennonites of all varieties to cooperate together and even, as much as possible, join together organizationally. In large part due to the influence of the kind of conservatives in the (Old) Mennonite Church who made Goshen College unwelcoming to Smith, this union movement was fated to fail during Smith’s lifetime. However, Bush suggests that Smith’s efforts can nevertheless be seen as helping to set the stage for the eventual merger that created Mennonite Church USA from the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church denominations.

Bush tells only briefly of another important influence Smith had. The famous and influential statement of “The Anabaptist Vision” by Harold Bender in 1943 gained its shape in large part, Bush suggests, as a refutation of Smith’s version of the core tenets of Anabaptism. For Smith, Anabaptism’s big contribution had especially to do with pioneering the principle of religious liberty. And he saw the movement as being characteristically individualistic. After the publication of Smith’s revised The Story of the Mennonites in 1941, the Bender-edited Mennonite Quarterly Review became the scene of a vigorous debate between Bender (and those of like mind) who downplayed the issue of religious liberty and argued for a “brotherhood”-centered rather than individualistic reading the early Anabaptists, and Smith. Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision” was written in the context of those debates. Unfortunately, Bush did not have source materials that provided Smith’s response to Bender’s essay, and the debate is left unresolved.

I highly recommend this fine book. It is as readable as a good historical novel, and Bush has an eye for issues of on-going relevance in the fascinating history of C. Henry Smith.

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