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Spring 2011 · Vol. 40 No. 1 · pp. 112–114 

Book Review

War, Peace and Social Conscience: Guy F. Hershberger and Mennonite Ethics

Theron F. Schlabach. Scottdale, PA and Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 2009. 723 pages.

Reviewed by Abe Dueck

This work is a monumental study of the life and contributions of one of the most influential Mennonite ethicists of the twentieth century. Hershberger’s life spanned almost that entire century (1896-1989), with his major published contributions coming at mid-century: War, Peace, and Nonresistance in 1944 (rev. 1953), and The Way of the Cross in Human Relations in 1958. This was the era best known as the Harold S. Bender era, which focused in particular on Bender’s address entitled, “The Anabaptist Vision.” It was a creative and defining period in Anabaptist scholarship which was centered in the (Old) Mennonite Church and a group of Goshen scholars. Virtually all Mennonite groups were profoundly affected by the contributions of these scholars and their successors, including John Howard Yoder.

Schlabach gives a very detailed account of Hershberger’s life and intellectual achievements. The book is divided into five parts consisting of thirteen chapters. The first part is basically a biography of Hershberger’s early life. Schlabach describes him as a very unsophisticated and unpretentious individual who nonetheless had clearly come a long way from his humble rural Iowa roots. The second focuses on attempts to forge a Mennonite consensus prior to World War II. The section ends with a lengthy chapter on War, Peace, and Nonresistance. Later chapters deal with a variety of other ethical issues and concerns. The major themes include labor relations, community, mutual aid, and race relations.

On the issue of war and responsibility to the state, Schlabach demonstrates how Hershberger’s early position was quite separatist. This meant that the state was instituted by God for sinful society and therefore the gospel had virtually no relevance in that realm. Christians were not to be a part of any coercive institution. This, of course, made Christians vulnerable to the charge of irrelevance. Over the course of time, Hershberger seemed to be open to rethinking his position somewhat, although the issue of social responsibility and violence versus nonviolence still remained unresolved and to be debated by later generations.

Another issue to which Hershberger made a significant and creative contribution was “Mennonite Community.” In 1939 Hershberger wrote what Schlabach refers to as a “manifesto” for the Mennonite Church on “Nonresistance and Industrial Conflict” (MQR, Apr. 1939). Hershberger insisted that because the struggle between capital and labor was essentially a struggle for power (167), Christians could not actively participate in either camp. The Christian duty was to submit to injustice rather than to oppose it. Borrowing somewhat from Niebuhr, Hershberger believed that larger social groupings inevitably involve coercion. Mennonite communities should offer creative alternatives that would make Mennonite factories “the happiest, the most contented industrial units in America.” Until about 1965 Hershberger wrote extensively on issues related to what was referred to as the “Mennonite community movement.” In the early years this was tied more to an agricultural base, but slowly the issues focused increasingly on the move to urban areas. His concern was to see how “Jesus Christ would build His church in the rural, the urban, and the metropolitan setting” (216).

There is no question that Hershberger pioneered Mennonite thinking on many ethical and social issues. He generally interacted comfortably with other scholars, even when they disagreed with him, and always remained closely connected with his church. He also engaged with the broader Christian community, including the Quakers, who shared a commitment to peace, and others like Reinhold Niebuhr, who offered a very different theological and ethical perspective.

Hershberger had to tread carefully when it came to Mennonite fundamentalists who were wary of a liberal social gospel and wanted a more “separatist” stance. Hershberger’s theology remained essentially conservative with a strong biblical base. For many Mennonites he defined nonresistance in a way which broadened their perspective to include lifestyle and institutional qualities that involved much more than a rejection of participation in war. Still, he was challenged by other scholars who thought that his vision was too narrow and introduced new concepts such as “nonviolent resistance” and who were concerned about the relevance of Mennonite pacifism in society as a whole.

Mennonite Brethren were also profoundly affected by Hershberger’s writings. Most notably, John A. Toews, who taught at Mennonite Brethren Bible College for many years and whose influence was felt very broadly in the MB community, learned much from Hershberger and his colleagues.

Schlabach’s book undoubtedly makes a very important contribution to all Mennonite groups as they seek to understand their development in the twentieth century. Unfortunately, the book is much too detailed to invite a broad readership, especially among Mennonite Brethren, most of whom have no acquaintance with Hershberger’s writings. A shorter volume summarizing, analyzing, and critiquing Hershberger’s contributions would have been much more helpful.

Abe Dueck, Academic Dean Emeritus
Canadian Mennonite University
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

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