When Eastern Mennonite University commissioned scholar Donald Kraybill to write a book about the school’s first 100 years, he said he wanted poetic license to look at the history through a sociological and theological lens.
What emerged is a book that exposes the school’s warts as well as its highlights.
“I would call it an unorthodox institutional history,” he said. “I was able to look at different themes like race, gender and the school’s orientation toward the outside world.”
In “Eastern Mennonite University, A Countercultural Education,” the distinguished professor emeritus at Elizabethtown College explains how the Harrisonburg, Va., school that was established in 1917 to “safeguard” its students against the outside world became a global leader in peace-building and social justice a century later.
That evolution is due, in part, to the inexorable tide of societal change. And those forces, he notes, also changed the school’s theology.
“The central Anabaptist theological question has always been ‘What does it mean to follow Jesus daily in life?’” he said during an interview at Elizabethtown College. “What EMU is doing is helping young people think about (that) in terms of your vocation.”
Throughout its history, EMU struggled with issues central to the school’s mission. Kraybill, who graduated from EMU in 1967, said the school was not quite fundamentalist but adopted much of the language of the fundamentalist movement. It wrestled with premillenial and dispensational theology — when Jesus would return to Earth — and, most recently, with same-sex marriage. That last issue was settled in 2015 when the university permitted same-sex marriage for faculty and staff members.
Progressive Era Influence
There was a time when Mennonite education ended at eighth grade. Mennonites tended to be rural farmers whose tradition was to be plain, pious and “quiet in the land.”
But during the Progressive Era at the end of the 19th century, America was changing from an agrarian society to an industrial nation. Mechanization and immigration helped fuel those changes and more Mennonites gravitated toward higher education.
Worried that the Mennonite Church was losing its young people to secular schools of higher education, Eastern Mennonite School was founded in 1917. Eastern Mennonite began as a high school. It became a junior college in 1930 and a four-year college in 1947.
But it was not just secular education that concerned Eastern Mennonite leaders.
“They also were worried about Goshen College (a Mennonite college in Indiana), that they see as a ‘purveyor of (theological) liberalism,’” he said.
The school’s founding did not please all Mennonites, he said. The conservative Lancaster Conference did not endorse the school until the 1930s and even then rebuffed an accommodation to fill half of the seats on the board of trustees.
While the book is focused on the Virginia school, it has strong Lancaster ties.
Five years after the school’s founding, A.D. Wenger assumed the presidency. Wenger, whose son Chester and daughter-in-law Sara Jane Wenger are being honored with the school’s Centennial Alumni Award this weekend, was a Virginia native who lived for a time in Millersville. A capable administrator, he is credited with having shepherded Eastern Mennonite through the Great Depression.
Chester Wenger, who is now 99 and a Lancaster County resident, remembers driving his father to Lancaster to not only raise funds for the school, but to recruit students.
John R. Mumaw — EMU’s fourth president — was an Elizabethtown College graduate.
Changing World View
The school’s evolution from an insular institution — “they used the term ‘safeguarding’ students from the outside world for three decades,” Kraybill said — to one that embraces worldwide peace-keeping and social justice coincided with World War II. The federal government’s willingness to allow conscientious objectors to perform civilian public service rather than serve in the military dramatically changed the school’s world view.
“For Mennonites in general and especially for EMU, that was a dramatic ideological shift,” he said. “Up until that time, they were not involved in social work. That changes the way EMU looks at the world. It’s changing their theology.”
That change was further accelerated when, in 1994, EMU founded its Center for Justice and Peace-building. Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist and a 2007 alumna of EMU, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.
Kraybill also unearthed several surprises:
One was the fact that the school failed twice — once in Newport News and another time in Alexandria, Va., before it took root in Harrisonburg.
Another was what he described as the “toxic” relationship that existed between Eastern Mennonite and Goshen College.
“EMU was founded as a conservative alternative to Goshen College and the ideological strife between the two institutions was intense in the first three decades,” he explained.
Race and the South
Perhaps most interesting was the school’s take on race. In 1937, the Lancaster Mennonite Conference sent missionaries to Africa. Their send-off was right out of the movies. Four hundred Lancaster County Mennonites chartered a train to New York to bid the missionaries adieu.
At the same time, writes Kraybill, “Some Eastern Mennonite School students cringed at the incongruity of sending missionaries thousands of miles to save dark-skinned people when some Mennonite segregationists refused to drive a few miles into Harrisonburg to aid an African-American mission.”
In the early and mid-1940s, then president J.L. Stauffer denied African American students admission to the school. Noting that Jim Crow laws were still in effect, Kraybill said Stauffer worried that admitting African Americans would lead to trouble for Mennonites in the region.
Kraybill said Mennonites already were under the microscope at that time for their refusal to serve in the military.
But student protests at the school forced the school to re-examine its admission policies. In 1948, Wilis Johnson became the first African-American student to enroll. The following year, Marjorie Thompson of Christiana, Pa., became the first African American student to reside on campus.
Those changes, he explained, put EMU on the cutting edge of desegregation.
“In some respects,” Kraybill said, “I consider that the most important chapter in the book.”
Today, more than one-third of the university is composed of non-whites.