A Mennonite Guide to Historical Preservation

This year, Mennonites all across Canada can be split into those who found a copy of the new Mennonite hymnal under their Christmas tree and those who found a copy of Andrew Unger’s new novel, Once Removed.* It’s a shame, really, that these two books came out in the same year, competing as they were for the Mennonite gift-buying budget that is already strained by the many MCC goats and school kits we also feel compelled to wrap up and place under the tree every single year.

At first glance, the two hottest books of the season have little in common. The Voices Together hymnal is hardcover and is offered in six different formats (plus audio recordings!). The novel is clearly inferior on this front. It is available only in two formats — paperback and ebook. It offers no Worship Leader or Accompanist edition whatsoever. Nor is there a version specifically designed for projecting the pages onto a Church sanctuary wall.  The author does, however, offer something of a teaching guide on his youtube channel – it’s no Worship Leader edition but it’s something.

On the other hand, Once Removed is an easier read than Voices Together. A grasp of the English language is all that is required to get through the novel, whereas one cannot truly appreciate the value of the hymnal without the ability to read both text and music. There is also a certain amount of character progression in Once Removed that helps sustain the reader’s interest. Once Removed‘s protagonist progresses through the novel by suffering and developing as a person. The protagonist of Voices Together, on the other hand, is three persons in one though only one of the three has any progression from birth to death and even that story is told without a clear sense of character growth.

The hymnal is less plot-driven than Once Removed.  It follows a rather simple narrative of gathering, telling God’s story, responding to God’s story, and then dispersing. Once Removed, on the other hand, features several small gatherings, includes the telling of multiple stories as well as the townspeople’s response to them within the larger narrative arc, and also has a few moments of dispersing.  Once Removed achieves all this in less than 300 pages albeit without any sheet music. Voices Together clocks in at 992 pages.

In these ways and more, the books are quite dissimilar.

And yet. Upon further reflection, it is clear that these two Mennonite bestsellers do have more in common than each costing more than three times the price of The Life and Times of Johann Cornies.  At their core, both books are about preservation. The hymnal works to preserve our so-called heart songs while also integrating new music into the canon. And the novel champions preserving old buildings while also integrating progressive attitudes on such issues as women’s right to attend public town meetings.

So whichever book you received for Christmas, you may be finding yourself pondering questions around what must be preserved and what can be left to decay in the rubble heap of history. Or maybe that’ll just happen if you’re reading Once Removed. If you’re paging through Voicing Together,  it’ll probably take until February to get past the “grumbling about 606 still being in the wrong place” stage.

Because neither work provides a definitive guide to exactly what is worth preserving from the past and what things are best left forgotten, I have decided to make a start here. Sadly, though GAMEO documents over 35 local and regional Mennonite historical societies, none of these entries provide greater insight into the criteria for preservation than that the items collected be “of historical significance.” But, as anyone who has ever tried depositing 60 years of their grandmother’s shopping lists with a Mennonite archive has learned, we do not always agree about what is worthy of preservation.

Here’s a start:

  • Housebarns – worth preserving (see Once Removed for details)
  • Church buildings – not worth preserving. Remember, the Church is the people, not the building
  • That cave that Anabaptists hid in back in the day – preserve that
  • Anything that came from Russia – keep
  • Really old oak trees – keep these alive at all costs
  • Other trees that might get in the way of agriculture – chop those suckers down
  • Evidence of ancestral racism – trash that
  • Evidence that our ancestors actually had positive interactions with people of other races, religions and ethnicities – bury that also; it’s too confusing to keep
  • Questionable theology in Anabaptist writings – preserve but hide deep in an archive somewhere
  • The writings of a certain 20th-century celebrity Mennonite theologian later discovered to have been sexually abusive – keep but wring your hands over it
  • Tiny spoons – definitely keep those
  • Pluma mooss – hold onto that recipe
  • Apfel mooss – maybe not this one
  • Plautdeitsch and Pennsylvania Dutch languages – yes, but not in a way that cuts us off from the world quite so much as it once did
  • Knowledge of the Mennonite selbstschutz – the first rule of the Mennonite selbstschutz is that you do not talk about the Mennonite selbstschutz
  • Knowledge of Mennonite nazis – keep on hand to pull out whenever you notice Mennonites starting to feel proud
  • Cookie recipes – keep
  • Old sixteenth-century hymns that sound atonal and dirge-like – only keep if you are Old Colony Mennonite
  • Old nineteenth-century hymns written by American protestants that have four-part harmony – keep if you are not Old Colony and declare them to be part of our heritage
  • The tongue-screw rescued from the ashes after Hans Bret was burnt at the stake in 1557 – cherish this instrument of torture
  • The old shriveled up pear that Maeyken Boosers gave her son just before her martyrdom in 1564 – also keep and treasure
  • Folk art, tales and songs that are at least a century old – treasure these, hiding the ones that show us to have been racist or sexist in the archives next to the dodgy theology books from the odder Anabaptist groups
  • Camp and schoolyard songs and skits from the 20th century that betray colonial and/or sexist attitudes – burn these and never speak of them again
  • Traditions that inscribe structures of inequality – preserve these and pretend that the inequality is actually complementarianism and/or Biblically justified
  • Wooden plaques with German Bible verses burnt into them – hold onto these even if you haven’t a clue what the Gothic script says
  • Krueger clocks – keep these and fight your siblings and cousins for them
  • Recipes that you always thought were traditional Mennonite foods but were actually from a magazine your grandmother bought about the same time you were born – slide those to the back of your cookbook
  • Quilts – keep and use on beds unless they are threadbare or do not have perfect small stitches. In the latter case, use as floor rags
  • Minutes from Church meetings of all kinds – keep without exception
  • Notes from Church women about planning menus and events – pshaw, no one’s going to want to read that
  • 60 years’ worth of your grandmother’s shopping lists – don’t listen to the archivist and just hold onto these. Someday your own grandchildren will thank you.

Archivist’s Elixir

It should go without saying that Mennonite cocktail recipes are all worth preserving. This one honours the art of preservation by actually containing preserves.

2 oz bourbon

1oz Chambord

1 oz fresh lemon juice

1 – 2 tbsp raspberry preserves

a couple dashes of bitters

Measure all ingredients except the bitters into a cocktail shaker filled halfway with ice. Shake thoroughly. Strain into an old-fashioned glass and serve over ice, garnishing with a lemon wheel or raspberries. Drink to the memory of Christmas presents past.


* Watch for my review of Once Removed that will be in the Spring issue of the Journal of Mennonite Studies.


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