John M. Janzen, Harold F. Miller, and John C. Yoder, eds., Mennonites and Post-Colonial African Studies

The Abstract

John M. Janzen, Harold F. Miller, and John C. Yoder, eds., Mennonites and Post-Colonial African Studies, Routledge, New York, 2021. 298 pp. $160 hardcover; $44.05 e-book. ISBN: 9780367474324. In Mennonites and Post-Colonial African Studies, editors John M. Janzen, Harold F. Miller, and John C. Yoder present the life stories of twenty-one mostly North American, mostly male Africanists who claim […]

See all articles in this issue See all issues in this volume

Book review by Anicka Fast

John M. Janzen, Harold F. Miller, and John C. Yoder, eds., Mennonites and Post-Colonial African Studies, Routledge, New York, 2021. 298 pp. $160 hardcover; $44.05 e-book. ISBN: 9780367474324.

In Mennonites and Post-Colonial African Studies, editors John M. Janzen, Harold F. Miller, and John C. Yoder present the life stories of twenty-one mostly North American, mostly male Africanists who claim some connection to the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement. The editors frame the book as an exploration of how the scholarship and professional activities of these featured individuals interacted with, shaped, and were shaped by the vibrant and rapidly growing field of African Studies in the early post-colonial period (1960s and 1970s). In particular, the editors attempt to pinpoint how the Anabaptist background and values of these “pioneers,” “professors,” and “practitioners” shaped their contributions to African Studies.

Readers—who likely include non-Anabaptist Africanists as well as “insider” families and friends—are invited to appreciate the contributions of North American Mennonites to African Studies in a wide variety of areas, such as African religion, literature, music, development theory, history, anthropology, health, and theological extension education. All these contributions, the editors claim, “represent a distinctive Anabaptist perspective and approach to African studies,” which is shaped by (1) contributors’ “Anabaptist heritage”—notably, by the Anabaptist emphasis on “peace” as well as its “suspicion of state authority”; (2) the featured individuals’ own experiences of “ethnic markers” and their sympathetic awareness of religion; and (3) the institutional support of Mennonite mission and service institutions (16).

The stories are arranged into three sections: pioneers, professors, and practitioners. The three missionary “pioneers” first interacted with Africa through Mennonite mission agencies in the 1940s and 1950s, prior to Independence and to the development of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) programming in Africa, although their active careers continued into the 1970s and 1980s. The eleven scholars in the “professors” section and the seven “practitioners” (whose careers took a more applied direction) most strongly exemplify what contributor Curtis Keim calls “the remarkable MCC Africanist phenomenon” (76) in the immediate wake of Independence. MCC served as the channel to African studies for ten of the professors/practitioners: eight first served through MCC’s Teachers Abroad Program (TAP) (Donald Holsinger, Curtis Keim, Karen Keim, John D. Metzler, John C. Yoder, Lauren Yoder, Ronald J.R. Mathies, and P. Stanley Yoder); one served in MCC’s Pax program (John M. Janzen); and one served a regular MCC service worker term (Franklin Baer). It is noteworthy, however, that just over half of the featured scholars developed an interest in African studies primarily through a non-MCC connection. Five of them (Donald Jacobs, Melvin Loewen, David Shenk, David Shank, and Fremont/Sara Regier) served primarily through a Mennonite mission agency such as Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM), Congo Inland Mission (CIM), or Mennonite Board of Missions (MBM). One (Merrill Ewert) did Christian Service—a two-year Mennonite Brethren (MB) service opportunity similar to TAP/Pax. Five more developed a focus on African studies through familial or marital connections with Mennonite mission agencies (Saïd Sheikh Samatar, David Denlinger), African Mennonite churches (Musuto Chirangi), or North American Mennonite colleges (Mary Oyer, E. Wayne Nafziger).

In the introduction, the editors situate the contributors within the “formative early decades” of the emerging field of African studies, at a time when this field of study was in full flower but prior to its more recent focus on “intellectual decolonization.” They also offer a historical overview that positions the contributors with respect to the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement and to MCC in particular. This historical sketch focuses on the voluntarism of the sixteenth-century European Anabaptists, the resulting persecutions and migrations, and the twentieth-century attempts to preserve Anabaptist “distinctiveness” through the reiteration of believers church principles in a new context. MCC is presented as the “most important institutional expression” of this twentieth-century reinterpretation of Anabaptism (8). Indeed, the editors devote six of the eight pages of their “brief Anabaptist-Mennonite history” to this organization, covering its inspiring beginnings in Russia, its large-scale feeding and refugee resettlement programs before and after World War II, and the development of programs for conscientious objectors—such as Pax and TAP—that led to significant encounters with the people and challenges of the Global South (10).

Oddly, the narrative gives only cursory attention to the missionary movement that began to put North American Mennonites in touch with Global South brothers and sisters in the first place, several decades before the creation of MCC, despite the clearly central role that this movement has played both in the lives of most of the contributors and in the foundation of MCC itself, especially in Africa. 1 The editors narrate a shift within MCC from relief efforts aimed at “blood relatives” to a primary focus on Global South contexts and on those “outside the Mennonite ethnic family” (11). However, although African members outnumber North Americans within the global Mennonite church today, the editors do not make this reality central to the “narrative arc” of their story; “Mennonites” are still implicitly assumed to be North Americans.2

Three closing chapters and a foreword by Aliko Songolo offer responses by voices “from outside” (255). These are perspectives from scholars, Mennonite or not, who are “close to the main story” but not part of it (17). These respondents tend to give the lie to the editors’ assertion that the contributions of the Anabaptist Africanists highlighted in this book can be explained by the “defining role” played by their “Anabaptist heritage” (16). Stephen Feierman, for example, kindly points out that Mennonite scholars, as “good and moral” as their scholarship may be, have no monopoly on virtue, and he invites them to become more aware of their own temptations to nationalism (258–60). Paul Gifford sees no particular common thread among the contributors and concludes that being Anabaptist-Mennonite does not give them a “unique perspective” (261). Emily Welty laments the shocking lack of preparation of these well-intentioned volunteers, who often saw service in Africa as an “adventure” and an escape from closed Mennonite communities in America, and decries the fact that “vulnerable people” in Africa suffered from the ignorance of the volunteers, who later, bolstered by male and white privilege, went on to develop careers that drew on this knowledge about Africa (270).

Despite the rather self-congratulatory editorial framing and the puzzled responses by “outside” voices to this activity of chronicling and celebrating “Mennonite” contributions to Africa, I found the twenty-one stories themselves to be vibrant and inspiring accounts of transformation. They illuminate the phenomenon of young (mostly) North American (mostly) Mennonite (mostly) men having their lives changed through an encounter with Africa through the channel of MCC or other Mennonite service agencies in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. They very clearly show the recurring factors that led these individuals to Africa, highlight how Africa changed them, and point out that their subsequent academic and professional contributions tended to focus on helping others better understand, appreciate, and develop kinship with Africans. The following examples of a “pioneer,” four “professors,” and a “practitioner” illustrate this transformation that was evident in all the stories and which differed in significant ways from the narrative proposed by the volume editors.

Donald Jacobs (1928–2020) was of Lutheran background, and while he and his family joined a Lancaster Mennonite congregation during his adolescence, they did not embrace “conventional conservative” Mennonite culture (21). For example, during World War II, some of his six older brothers were conscientious objectors while others joined the army or the marines—all with their parents’ support (21). As a young man working alongside Mennonite missionaries in Appalachia, Jacobs learned that a Germanic Mennonite “subculture” was an “obstacle” for missionary outreach (22)—a conviction that was later strengthened when he observed Lancaster Mennonite attempts at church planting in New York (25). While serving with his wife, Ruth, in Tanzania with Eastern Mennonite Missions in the 1950s, Jacobs’ life was transformed by the East African Revival. Although his initial admiration of the revival was tempered with skepticism, his resistance “collapsed” as he experienced the “kindness, love, and encouragement” of an African fellow teacher (23). He became a full participant in the practices of confession, worship, and fellowship that characterized this remarkable transnational and transcultural religious phenomenon.

In Jacobs’ subsequent doctoral studies, then throughout his years as a teacher in a Tanzanian Mennonite theological college, and as a mission administrator, he wrestled with the question of how newer churches would express their Mennonite or Anabaptist identity without copying Germanic Anabaptist cultural “trappings” (28). At the same time, he shared the message of revival with fellow Americans by leading a revival fellowship in New York (44). According to Jacobs’ younger EMM colleague, David Shenk (also featured in this volume), the revival message that American missionaries such as Jacobs brought back to the Lancaster Mennonites helped to profoundly revive and renew the Lancaster Mennonite Conference; it injected “a vibrant and personal spiritual life into an ethnic Mennonite community which regarded obedience to powerful bishops and adherence to outward cultural markers such as traditional attire as far more important than an inner experience of faith” (49).

Jacobs’ story includes little or no detail about how he may have influenced African Studies as a field of study, but it clearly shows how his spirituality and later career path were profoundly influenced by his interaction with and participation in the church in East Africa. Much of Jacobs’ contribution to mission theology took the form of promoting the need for African churches to “formulate and answer their own questions” within their own cultural framework while working out what it meant to be part of a global “Mennonite” body. The impetus for this lifelong focus mostly came not from American Mennonite culture but in spite of it.

John M. Janzen (1937– ) is an example of the Pax/TAP phenomenon. His story showcases the remarkable confluence of factors that contributed to enlarging the worldviews of privileged young North American Mennonite men during the early post-colonial period. Janzen notes that his General-Conference-oriented, liberal Mennonite upbringing was shaped by the influence of teachers and pastors with MCC service experience and/or University of Chicago PhDs, offering role models that combined overseas service with academic careers (68). At the same time, his experiences of living, working, and developing friendships with African men during his Pax term were transformative, leading to tension with established missionary modes of interaction and to a deeper understanding of the political and cultural context of Congo and of the “reality of decolonization” (66–67).

Pax participants, as young single men, had the freedom to sit around fires and chat, the time to learn local languages, and the space to try local foods that the “more senior missionaries” did not always have. For Janzen, this contributed to friendships that led to a deep appreciation for the richness of Chokwe culture and music (66). In his graduate studies and subsequent academic career, he drew on all these formative experiences. His academic work and service focused on prophet movements such as that of Simon Kimbangu, Central African concepts of health and healing, and responses to collective trauma in Africa’s Great Lakes region.

As Janzen reviews his life and career, he sees his trajectory as having been shaped in multiple ways by an “Anabaptist-Mennonite perspective,” which, in his view, includes the values of empathy instilled during Pax service; an inclination toward the historical method; a focus on peacemaking; and a penchant for the study of “religious continuity, renewal, and change” (75). As is the case for most of the individuals featured in this volume, Janzen’s chapter includes a degree of reflection about his own privilege and power—in his case, a developing awareness of his own power to represent or obscure the voices of others (74). However, it is the combined force of a dozen similar Pax/TAP stories that most strongly impresses upon the reader the extent of the privilege that allowed people like John—and not the “gifted Congolese individuals” who shaped his worldview—to pursue graduate studies and an academic career (66). And it is perplexing to see no analysis of this reality in the editors’ introduction, which frames these stories primarily as distinctively Anabaptist contributions to African Studies.

Mary Oyer, Curtis Keim, and Karen Keim

Other professors’ chapters illustrate some additional themes of the Pax/TAP phenomenon. First, while many of the professors point out the influence of Mennonite values, upbringing, or institutions in shaping their trajectory, most emphasize that it was the encounter with Africa that transformed them, helping to overcome the inertia, resistance, and conservatism (or liberalism!) of their narrow North American Mennonite worldviews. For example, for Goshen College professor and “dean” of Mennonite hymnody Mary Oyer—who was steeped in “highly Eurocentric” artistic paradigms—it was a US State-Department-funded research trip to East Africa in 1969 that “transformed [her] into [a] cross-cultural broker with unremitting commitment to communicate with others the immense gift that Africa had brought” to her life (128) and to introduce African music into the “Mennonite canon” (132).

Second, almost all the professors refer to the generational tension between older Mennonite missionaries and younger MCC workers—a historical episode that is just beginning to receive scholarly attention.3

Third, the gendered nature of the phenomenon is illustrated by the stories of spouses Curtis Keim and Karen Keim (both contribute a chapter). It was Curtis’s need to find an avenue for alternative service that brought the couple to Africa (88). Curtis did his PhD first, followed by Karen, who was “interrupted” by a child along the way (84). How many other Pax/TAP couples have a similar story? There were plenty of women TAP teachers. Did they not get invited to contribute? Were they less likely in the 1970s to follow up a TAP term with a PhD? As Welty aptly notes, the editors pay distressingly little attention to these questions (268). I share her disappointment about the strong skewing of the volume toward white men’s stories.

For Merrill Ewert, listed as a “practitioner”—although he also had academic experience at Cornell University and Fresno Pacific University—personal and professional transformation was catalyzed by a confrontation with young high school students at the MB mission station of Kajiji in southern Congo. Ewert was reluctantly teaching math and religion in a local school at the request of church and mission leaders, even though his math skills were poor, his French nonexistent, and his Kituba based on only four weeks of study. In desperation, unable to tell students the right answers to math problems, and in the face of their criticism of his religion class, he resorted to teaching both classes primarily through questions, shifting from lectures to discussions in which students determined the answers themselves, sometimes through a vote (208–9).

Welty is right to point out how problematic it can be to celebrate such “missteps” that support the career development of an unprepared volunteer, while reducing “vulnerable people . . . to collateral damage of the Western volunteer’s learning” (270). Nevertheless, Ewert’s story provides a good example of how, at that historical juncture, a cadre of young and inexperienced, well-intentioned and unprepared North Americans teachers were transformed through an encounter with African students, church leaders, and colleagues, even when that transformation was not as mutual as it should have been.

Certainly “Anabaptist” factors played some role: Ewert was encouraged to consider international service by a Tabor College professor, and his extended family’s “Anabaptist” values and MCC service experience instilled in him a “progressive” attitude toward development work that contrasted with the more “evangelical” approaches of his Mennonite Brethren context (204–6). However, although these experiences and orientations provided a doorway to service in Africa, it was a moment on the Kajiji basketball court, cringeworthy as it may have been, that transformed him and “redirected [his] life and career” (215).

As a collection of stories illustrating the TAP-Africanist pipeline, this book is fascinating. The various accounts describe a juxtaposition of factors pulling these young people to Africa that was nothing short of paradoxical. MCC alternative service options were born out of pacifist convictions, but these sat alongside the growing political sensibilities of a new generation of anti-colonial and civil-rights-minded young American Mennonites whose exposure to post-colonial theory led them to rebel against an earlier generation of missionary paternalism even as they had to learn, in Africa, to “act like elites” themselves (82).

Some drew deep motivation from the teaching of Goshen, Bethel, Messiah, and Tabor College professors, whether because of their Anabaptist peace theology (103), their expertise as historians (75), or their own experiences of overseas service (146, 205). For others, US federal funding for African Studies, at a high point in the 1960s and 1970s, played a non-negligible role in helping them translate their TAP experiences into a career as Africanists (79–80). Personal career considerations played a role alongside a genuine service mindset nurtured by the example of previous generations of Mennonite missionaries who the TAP/Pax workers now regarded as hopelessly colonialist (148, 235). English-speaking American Mennonites were attracted by the excitement of a year in Europe en route to Africa: French language training paid for by MCC was “appealing” (55) and even led some, such as David Shank, to doctoral studies in Europe (133). For Karen Keim, learning French in Belgium and Congo opened the door to a career in African literature. For John C. Yoder and his wife, Janet, the prospect of an all-expenses paid year in Europe was more of a draw than Africa itself; it served as a combination of “prolonged honeymoon” and rumspringa as young North American Mennonites could be freed from some of the constraints of the conservative Mennonite communities they had left (147). In the experience of Curtis Keim, TAP cohorts in Europe skipped out on church and enjoyed sampling alcohol despite having signed a no-drinking pledge with MCC (79).

In short, many North American Mennonites were drawn into African Studies because of some rather American, and not particularly “Anabaptist,” factors. These are stories about how a non-nationalist pipeline to service (one that nevertheless flirted with nationalism, hence the aptness of Feierman’s warning) converged with a variety of contextual factors to produce some mostly male Africanist scholars who subsequently become ambassadors for a broader worldview among North American Mennonites. Being “Mennonite” was part of what drove this phenomenon; yet many of the participants reacted against Mennonitism, or saw their Pax/TAP terms as an escape from a narrow, ethnically defined identity.

As chronicles of the complex and fraught process of developing a more catholic and ecumenical self-conception, these are important stories, worth recording and even celebrating. But I would have loved to see the self-congratulations set aside long enough that readers could (1) more easily see and rejoice in how these young men and women were transformed by the global church; (2) critically reflect (as the “outsiders” in this book straightforwardly do) about the paradoxes of the nationalist structures that helped to push some Mennonites beyond themselves while simultaneously reifying ethnocentrism; (3) accurately recognize the role of Mennonite mission agencies in laying the groundwork for many of these transformations; and (4) begin to ask why such transformation has not been more long-lasting or profound.

Anicka Fast holds a PhD from Boston University (2020). She has been seconded by Mennonite Central Committee to serve with Mennonite Mission Network as a Specialist in church history and missiology for Francophone Africa. Anicka teaches courses focused on the history of the church and its mission in various Francophone theological institutions in West and Central Africa. She lives in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, with her husband and two daughters.



MCC’s work in Africa is a direct outgrowth of early North American Mennonite missionary efforts on this continent. MCC’s first interventions in Africa were all “developed and discussed” with Mennonite mission boards, if not directly initiated by them. See Tim Lind, “MCC Africa Program: Historical Background,” MCC Occasional Papers, no. 10 (Mennonite Central Committee, August 1989): 5–7, 13–15.


John D. Roth, “What Hath Zurich to do with Addis Ababa? Ecclesial Identity in the Global Anabaptist Church,” The Conrad Grebel Review 31, no. 1 (Winter 2013): 24–43, 32–33. Of the 2.13 million baptized Mennonites around the world, North American Mennonites make up 30 percent and Africans 36 percent. See Mennonite World Conference, “World Directory,” 2015,


Alain Epp Weaver, “‘A Habit of Social Concern’: Anxieties about the Relationship between Mennonite Central Committee’s Relief and Service Programs and Mennonite Missions from the 1950s to the 1970s,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 40 (2022, forthcoming); Jeremy Rich, “The Mennonite Central Committee in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1960–1985” (Global Anabaptist-Mennonite Young Scholars Symposium, sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism, Goshen [Ind.] College, June 30, 2017).