Recollections of a Sectarian Realist: A Mennonite Life in the Twentieth Century

Maxwell Kennel

The Conrad Grebel Review 37, no 1 (Winter 2019): 91-93.

J. Lawrence Burkholder. Recollections of a Sectarian Realist: A Mennonite Life in the Twentieth Century. Edited by Myrna Burkholder. Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 2016.

Based on interviews with C. Arnold Snyder and edited by the subjects daughter Myrna  Burkholder,  Recollections of a Sectarian Realist  is the autobiography of J. Lawrence Burkholder (1917-2010). The book narrates Burkholders life story, covering his childhood (chapter 1), college years and early ministry (chapter 2), formative years as a relief worker in India and China (chapter 3), teaching at Goshen and Princeton (chapters 4 and 5), appointment to Harvard Divinity School (chapter 6), and tenure as president of Goshen College (chapter 7). The book also details early parts of his retirement (chapter 8) and includes further Musings on Pressing Issues of My Time” (chapter 9). In the foreword, John A. Lapp remarks upon Burkholders considerable influence on North American Mennonite life and describes how “he challenged the rigidity and self-satisfaction of some traditional [Mennonite] thought (viii).

Although Burkholder was not strictly or simply a sectarian or a realist, the title of the book hints at the challenge that his life and work were (and may still be) to Mennonite thinking about a range of issues from the place of the church in wider society, to the relationship between power and violence, and the meaning of social responsibility.

In the first chapter, Burkholder describes his early years in a small town and includes stories of childhood wonder and humorous comments on those days, as well as indications of his later interests in flying and theological reflection. His marriage to Harriet Lapp and college education are highlighted in the second chapter, and the third chapter describes his journey to China in 1944 as a relief worker through the Mennonite Central Committee.  Confronted  with  the  ambiguities  of  power,  Burkholders experiences flying refugees to Peking stand out as exemplary expressions of the moral entanglements that would define his doctoral dissertation (88-89). After returning home and benefitting from the financial and material aid of others, Burkholder describes his struggle to teach the Bible with integrity (100-101), and details the tensions of working paycheck-to-paycheck in a factory while pursuing a Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary (102-103).

Throughout the book Myrna Burkholder has included helpful stories and details in footnotes, one of which describes Harriets daily walk to her job at the Princeton Inn, passing Albert Einstein on his way to Princeton (103). Her father describes how, when chair of Bible and Philosophy at Goshen, his dissertation “The Problem of Social Responsibility from the Perspective of the Mennonite Church was received with belittling comments and calls for its repudiation by influential Mennonite scholars (116-119). At that time, the dissertation was suppressed and ignored, but in 1989 the Institute of Mennonite Studies published it, and most recently Burkholders masters thesis, dissertation, and late book manuscript on the third way” have been edited by Lauren Friesen and published as Mennonite Ethics: From Isolation to Engagement (Friesen Press, 2018).

Chapter 5 concludes with Burkholders departure from Goshen following the rejection of his ideas. Chapter 6 then describes a new phase of his life, following his appointment at Harvard, including his imprisonment following a civil rights demonstration in 1964. At Harvard, Burkholder engaged with radical student politics and the civil rights movement, and occasionally hosted Martin Luther King, Jr. Struggling to reconcile his Mennonite tendency towards separation and pacifism with the experience of women and black students, Burkholder felt a deep connection with contemporary advocates for social justice, and he soon began the Mennonite Congregation of Boston (148). Returning to become president of Goshen, he describes the issues he faced as a college president, from dealing with alcohol and substance use in the student body to leading an endowment campaign (167). The book concludes with Burkholders musings that include disagreements with John Howard Yoder on the ontology of evil (195), reflections on the compromises inherent in wielding institutional power (197), and thoughts on the importance of risk and the limits of nonresistance (202).

Burkholders autobiography gives a glimpse into the life of one major if hitherto underappreciated—Mennonite thinker in the 20th century. Arranged in a way that mirrors a classic division of a life story into stages, it bears considering what new narrative arrangements might lend structure to Mennonite lives in the 21st century, and how these arrangements may relate to and extend the social engagement and political entanglements that define Burkholders contribution to Mennonite thought and practice.

Maxwell Kennel, Ph.D. candidate, Religious Studies, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario.