by Austin McCabe Juhnke

Noted cultural theorist Clifford Geertz defined culture as “stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.”[1] This definition asks us to attend to the ways people actively create and recreate senses of shared identity through the act of cultural expression. As a musicologist, however, I am biased toward thinking about the importance of musical experience.

Is there such a thing as a “Mennonite” collective self, and, if so, how do the songs we sing shape who we perceive ourselves to be? What sounds, stories, and people might be left out of the community we hear in our singing?

Songs are not stories (though they may contain them), and their meanings for us are not limited to their lexical content. Indeed it is possible that the words of the hymns we love to sing may only poorly articulate our theological beliefs, or may even conflict with them directly. Part of what makes these hymns meaningful beyond the content of their texts is the experience of singing together, the way they resonate in our bodies, and how we sense our selves in relationship to others in singing them. This collectivizing experience is powerful, and even though some of us may never interact personally with every member of our congregation, when we sing together the community is manifest in the immediacy of the sonic experience.

This experience of collectivity, though powerful and immediate, is ephemeral. Once the final reverberations of the song fade, the sounds exist only in memory. Through hymnals, however, the sonic experience of community is represented as a tangible, durable object. When we sing together from our denominational hymnals, it frames that experience as a “Mennonite” one, and we imagine that we are joining in song with a larger denominational community.

But if the powerful experience of singing together can produce positive feelings of community and inclusion, we must also consider the opposite: that music-making can result in exclusion and alienation. So what kind of denominational collectivity do we hear behind the sounds of our hymns collected in our hymnals?

What story about ourselves does a hymn have to fit into to make it a properly “Mennonite” one?

During the 1950s and 60s, the question of what kind of community the hymnal represented animated much of the work of the Mennonite Hymnal committee. Since the (Old) Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church collaborated for the first time on the hymnal, the question of what music connected these two Mennonite groups underlay much of the committee’s editing process. The answer to this question was often found through historical research, connecting hymns to a Mennonite story that began with the Anabaptists of the 16th-century Reformation in Central Europe, and tracing an escape from persecution to the United States, Canada and other parts of the Americas.

It was clear which musical styles the committee viewed as part of this “Mennonite” story, namely hymns in four-part harmony from before the rise of popular gospel songs in the 1870s. (“To God be the glory,” HWB #102, is an early example of this gospel hymn style.)

Though the European-Anabaptist narrative tied many groups of North American Mennonites together, others in the denomination could not identify with it.

This reality is highlighted by the fact that the committee completed the Mennonite Hymnal during a period in which black, Latina/o, and Native American Mennonites began to demand their own voices be heard within white-dominated Mennonite spaces. (Felipe Hinojosa documents this history in his 2014 book Latino Mennonites.) The Hymnal Committee did respond to the Civil Rights Movement, though in a limited way. Mennonite pastor Stanley Bohn encouraged the committee to work towards “integrating” the hymnal by including the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Black National Anthem. Though they chose not to include the “dramatic” anthem, the committee consulted with leaders at Lee Heights Community Church, an integrated Mennonite church in Cleveland, and opted instead to include a small selection of spirituals.

Later in the 1960s, black and Latino leaders in the (Old) Mennonite Church formed the Minority Ministries Council (MMC) to represent and address the concerns of minorities within the church. The work of the MMC included educating white congregations about the experiences of minorities within the denomination. John Powell, MMC Executive Secretary, recalls that music soon became an important piece of that project:

One of the things [MMC member Lyn Hershey] would do would be to invite minority people to be with him in a congregation and to tell their stories. But it was always the fact that we were listening to the same music over and over again. So [the] Minority Ministries Council says, you know, if we are in fact a community that is fully engaged and wanted to be inclusive, then we need to help people understand our music.[2]

The MMC went on to sponsor music by Mennonite minority performers. One such group was the Mennonaires from a black Mennonite church in Columbus, Ohio.

The choir had already formed during the 1960s in hopes of enriching their church music selections to represent their own cultural perspectives. Led by director Eugene Norris, the choir began to visit white Mennonite churches in the area surrounding Columbus. In 1971, the choir performed at a Mennonite Church Missions Board conference where Powell first encountered the group. He was himself a guest soloist on their MMC-sponsored 1972 album Praises, which featured a selection of black gospel songs and spirituals.

Eugene Norris remembers the harmonies of white Mennonite hymns had aesthetic resonances with the vocal harmonies of black expressions. On Praises we hear these gospel harmonies accompanied by hand clapping, percussion, keyboard, and guitar and overlaid with the bluesy strains of solo singing.  For Norris, the goal of the music was not to stake a claim for a separate black space within the Mennonite Church, but rather to work toward a new synthesis about what the multicultural Mennonite Church is and could be:

The long-range goal [of the music] was that . . . we’re all part of this now. Once you have actually gone into the [mission] field you actually are affected by the field now. You can’t just say I’m going to send these people out here and we’re not going to be touched or changed by them. That’s not the way the gospel works. That’s not the way reconciliation works. We’re all broken, and in the process of working and sharing we become transformed and God tends to take us somewhere else than where we were.[3]

Clip from Praises, tr. 3  “You Can’t Hide,” Eugene Norris, soloist. (Choice Recordings CR 4321 S), 1972.

The freer, more percussive (even danceable!) sounds on Praises connected the group to the stories and aesthetics of African American traditions, unsettling the feelings of European-Anabaptist community created in singing four-part harmony from The Mennonite Hymnal. At the same time, the Mennonaires—by their very name—insisted that they belonged to the Mennonite denominational community.

For those with ears to hear it, these sounds did not constitute a threat to Mennonite identity. Instead the Mennonaires sang a form of Mennonite community not delineated by its relationship to a single history, but rather one that is dynamic and alive, incorporating diversity by living into better forms of togetherness.

The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery—to name only a few recent horrifying examples—remind us that the struggles for racial justice of the Civil Rights Era are far from distant history. The Mennonaires and the MMC demonstrate that the history of racial oppression and the fight for justice is our Mennonite history, too. If we are going to live into Christ’s kingdom on Earth, we are asked to listen first to those we may be most prone to ignore. We can start by sensing our own community in new ways—hearing new stories and new songs: In conjunction with the new collection of music for Mennonite Church Canada and USA, work by Katie Graber has brought to light the diverse music-cultural practices of North American Mennonite congregations. What new forms of Mennonite community will we hear in the forthcoming collection of songs? How will these sounds productively unsettle us as a denomination and challenge us toward new forms of community and better relationships with one another?

Austin McCabe Juhnke is a lecturer in musicology in the Ohio State School of Music, where he teaches on topics ranging from rock ’n’ roll to Western art music. He completed his PhD in 2018 with the dissertation “Music and the Mennonite Ethnic Imagination,” focusing on religious and ethnic pluralism in the Mennonite Church during the 1960s and ’70s. Combining oral history, ethnography and archival methods, his work uncovers interplay between white, black and Latina/o Mennonite musical identities and models an intersectional framework for understanding music in American religious life. 

  1. This is a paraphrase from Clifford Geertz, The interpretation of cultures: selected essays by Clifford Geertz (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 448.

[2] Powell in conversation with the author, May 5, 2017

[3] Norris in conversation with the author, May 11, 2017



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