Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Peace Church Influences on My Thought: Mennonites, Brethren, Quakers

I’m working on the next installment of the series on pacifism and the Bible, but here is a small interlude.  I have on this blog tried to describe major people who have influenced my life and thought, both from within my Baptist tradition, and from other traditions in the Body of Christ (and, indeed, Jewish influences, too).  But as a Christian pacifist from a branch in the Believers’ Church family, I have been more influenced by people from the Historic Peace Churches (Mennonites, Brethren, Friends/Quakers) than any other segment of non-Baptist theologians.   I owe special gratitude to Mennonites–I feel very close to Mennonites.  This is a small token of my deep gratitude.

Mennonite Influences:

I am probably one of the few Baptists to have read the collected works of the Dutch Anabaptist leader, Menno Simons (1496-1591). I’ve actually read through Menno’s works 3 times.  He has areas of weakness, such as his strange adoption late in his life of Melchior Hoffmann’s “celestial flesh” theory of Jesus’ virgin birth.  But Menno’s Foundation of Christian Doctrine, which was deeply influential on first generation Particular Baptists in England, is absolutely brilliant.  I have not studied other 16th C. Anabaptists as deeply as with Menno, but I have read parts of the works of Conrad Grebel and Michael Sattler, Balthasar Hubmaier (whose defense of believers’ baptism and theological repudiation of the persecution of heretics is brilliant), and Pilgram Marpeck.  I have not been influenced by later Mennonite thinkers between the 16th and the 20th centuries.

Of course, the strongest Mennonite influence on me has been from the late John Howard Yoder (1927-1997) but I have written on that elsewhere. I first encountered Yoder’s works in 1982, shortly after leaving the U.S. army as a conscientious objector.  Yoder was my introduction to Anabaptists and Mennonites–so, for the longest time, I thought that Yoder was typical of Mennonites and did not realize that he was somewhat controversial within his own tradition–though also a major influence on that tradition.

Other Mennonite influences include:

Ronald J. Sider, Mennonite from a Brethren-in-Christ background, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action and Professor of Theology, Holistic Ministry, and Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary, Wynnewood, PA (formerly known as Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary).  Sider first radicalized me in my concerns for the global poor.

Perry B. Yoder (Yoder is a common name among Mennonites), Professor of Old Testament, Emeritus at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary first helped me to find the strong peacemaking (with justice) theme in the Old Testament.  Other Mennonite Old Testament scholars who have been helpful to me include Jacob Enz, Millard C. Lind, Waldemar Janzen, Elmer A. Marten, and Ben Ollenburger.  Lind’s work on the Holy War texts has been very helpful (if not completely satisfying at every point),  and Janzen’s “paradigmatic” approach to Old Testament ethics makes a great compliment to that of Methodist OT theologian Bruce C. Birch. (Get both Birch’s and Janzen’s works on Old Testament ethics–and ignore that of Christopher Wright.)

Willard Swartley, is the Mennonite NT scholar who has influenced me the most (though I disagree with him on “homosexuality”).  Other Mennonite NT scholars with whom I regularly interact include Tom Yoder Neufeld, Lois Y. Barrett, Dorothy Jean Weaver, William Klassen, Donald Kraybill,  and David Rensberger.

Among Mennonite theologians and ethicists who have had major impacts on my thought are: J. Denny Weaver (especially for his rethinking of atonement in light of Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence), Clarence Bauman, Ted Grimsrud (whom I think is fast becoming a major theologian among Mennonites whom non-Mennonites need to hear), Thomas Finger (who interacted with the eschatological theology of Moltmann in a VERY helpful way), C. Norman Kraus (missionary cross-cultural dialogue that keeps Jesus at the heart of theology), my friend Mark Theissen Nation (who, in addition to being one of the leading experts on the thought of John Howard Yoder, also interacts helpfully with Stanley Hauerwas, Nancey Murphy, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, my own teacher, Glen Stassen, and with his own teacher, James Wm. McClendon, Jr.), my friend Duane K. Friesen (especially for using conflict resolution studies, and the work of Gene Sharp to forge a post-Reinhold Niebuhr realist form of Christian pacifism, and for his more recent work on theology of culture beyond Troeltsch and H.R.Niebuhr), my friend Ted Koontz (for his interactions with Just War thinking and his helping to forge the emerging ethic of Just Peacemaking) and his better half, Gayle Gerber Koontz ( for Mennonite feminist theology, for several collaborative works and for helping disciples of H. Richard Niebuhr and disciples of John Howard Yoder better understand each other).

The African-American historian (and friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.), Vincent G. Harding, is a Mennonite historian who has influenced my view of both U.S. history and the civil rights movement.

I need also to briefly mention such friends as Leo Hartshorn, Susan Mark Landis, Gerald Schlabach, Keith Graber Miller, John K. Stoner (who was also my employer for a time), Ray C. Gingrich, Marian Franz, and Joseph Kotva.  I am doubtless forgetting many.  Suffice it to say that, as an “Anabaptist-Baptist,” Mennonites have given me a second spiritual home.  During my time as a Visiting Professor in far-off Pasadena, CA, I split my church attendance between First Baptist of Pasadena and Pasadena Mennonite Church.  I have also been welcomed into the congregational hearts (and sometimes the pulpits) of Peace Mennonite Church in Dallas, TX, First Mennonite Church, Allentown, PA, Lancaster Mennonite Church, Lancaster, PA, College Mennonite Church, Goshen, IN, Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, IN .

Church of the Brethren influences:  Smaller in number, but still significant.  I love the blending of German pietism with Anabaptism in the CoB.  I am still reading the great founders of the Dunker/Brethren movement, Alexander Mack, Sr. and Jr. 

The C o B. church historian, Donald Durnbaugh wrote a study of the Believers Church tradition that I continue to use in courses on ecclesiology and ethics.  I am deeply impressed by the feminist C o B theologian, Lauree Hersch Meyer and by philosopher of religion, Nancey Murphy, who was raised Catholic and converted as an adult to the Church of the Brethren after a course on 16th C. Anabaptism. Widow of the late Baptist theologian James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Nancey is a friend and a powerful scholar who does much work on the interaction of science and faith and on post-liberal approaches to theology and ethics.

Vernard B. Eller was very wrongheaded in his attack on all feminist-inspired inclusive language for God, and his laudable efforts to communicate to non-experts could sometimes give his writings a non-scholarly look and feel, but he introduced me to the importance of Jacques Ellul and “Christian anarchy,” and he showed how to re-think Kierkegaard in a direction more appropriate for a more communal, less individualistic, ecclesiology.

Dale W. Brown has continued to be a model of communicating Biblical pacifism to mass audiences.

Dan Ulrich in New Testament and Stephen Breck Reid in Old Testament both are Brethren biblical scholars who deeply influence me.  Reid, who is African-American, is a major voice in cross-cultural biblical interpretation.

I doubtless need far more contact with scholars in this Historic Peace Church.  The first peace studies program in North America came from a Church of the Brethren college and one of the C o B programs inspired the birth of the Peace Corps.

Influences from Friends/Quakers:  The early 17th C. Friends, growing out of a radical Puritanism, combined a high Christology with a mystic theology. I identify with those Christocentric early Quakers. But the movement splintered (especially in the U.S.) in the 19th C. between liberal (Hicksite) Friends who kept the unprogrammed meetings and resisted conforming Friends to the rising evangelicalism, but which seemed, in many cases, to lose the Christocentrism of George Fox, Margaret Fell, Barclay, Woolman and others.  Many in today’s liberal Friends (part of the Wider Quaker Fellowship) embrace a relativistic form of universalism that is not concerned that Quakerism remain Christian.  On the other hand, Evangelical Friends have programmed meetings, pastors, and look and feel much like evangelical churches (hymn singing, lack of silence) that simply do not practice water baptism or physical eucharist.  These evangelical Friends have lost much that is distinctively Quaker, including, in many cases, the peace witness.  In between are Conservative (Wilburite) Friends which attempt to hold onto the original Quaker ethos, but which are very tiny in number.

All this unhealed division has affected Quaker theology and scholarship:  Liberal Quakers often dismiss theology altogether and Evangelical Friends are simply apologists for the creed known as the Richmond (IN) Declaration.  All this is distressing to this outsider who believes that without a vibrant Friends’ testimony, the wider Body of Christ will be the poorer.

George Fox’s Journal is very influential on my devotional life as is John Woolman’s Journal.  I admire the deep abolitionist witness of the Grimke sisters and Lucretia Mott.  Among modern Quakers, my spiritual life has been enlivened by the late Thomas R. Kelly, and the late Douglas V. Steere.

Bayard Rustin, an African-American Quaker who played a tremendous role in the Civil Rights movement was behind the scenes for much of the movement because he was gay.  Rustin had flaws, but I find his witness compelling.

I find the theological writings of Chuck Fager (peace activist and editor of Quaker Theology), to be helpful in many cases, along with the different emphases of co-editor, Ann K. Riggs, (who directs the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches, USA).  I am just discovering the theological emphases of Rachel Muers, Douglas Gwyn, and Stephen W. Angell, along with the New Testament studies of former Baptist-turned-Friend, Michael W. Newheart.


October 15, 2009 - Posted by | ecumenism, theology, tradition


  1. I didn’t know Sider was a Mennonite. Thanks for the great reading list…

    Comment by Dan Trabue | October 16, 2009

  2. Yeah, Sider and I have had our differences, especially over GLBT inclusion and equality in churches, but I read his “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger” in college, in the middle of the Ethiopian famine. It completely radicalized me, prepared me for liberation theology, changed my life.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 16, 2009

  3. Michael,
    Thanks for including me at the end of your posting. I hope that you will read my “My Name Is Legion” (Liturgical 2004), in which I approach Mark 5 as a pacifist. Also, Ann Riggs is now (Interim?) Principal of Friends Theological College in Kaimosi, Kenya. Your comment that “liberal Quakers dismiss theology altogether” is provocative. I’m not sure I agree, but the statement does encourage me, as a “liberal Quaker,” to get my theological work out there.

    And I’m enjoying reading Swartley’s “Covenant of Peace.”

    I appreciate your project on the Bible and Pacifism. I hope to read your postings more closely and give you feedback.


    Comment by Michael Willett Newheart | October 16, 2009

  4. As a Friend, I appreciate your comments Michael-quite informative !

    Comment by Paul | October 16, 2009

  5. Yeah, Sider was one of the writers who this then-uber-conservative Christian read and nudged me in the direction I’ve taken.

    Comment by Dan Trabue | October 16, 2009

  6. I had no idea you were a Friend, friend Paul. Programmed or Unprogrammed? Liberal, Conservative (Wilburite) or Evangelical? Which Yearly Meeting?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 16, 2009

  7. Michael, I took that dig at liberal Quaker dismissal of theology from Chuck Fager and Ann K. Riggs at a Historic Peace Church conference a few years back. I was there because, at the time, I was outreach coordinator/field organizer for Every Church a Peace Church. Fager and Riggs’ rebuke was also a challenge and a call for more as they edited Quaker Theology.

    Thanks for the update on Ann Riggs’ position. Swartley’s Covenant of Peace is his masterpiece. Most NT scholars write a NT Theology at the end of their career. Swartley wrote this, instead.

    I look forward to your feedback on my Bible and Pacifism project for laypeople.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 16, 2009

  8. Great post, Michael. I know you aren’t trying to be exhaustive, but let me add a few other names.

    My friend and fellow Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary grad Daniel Smith-Christopher (now teaching at Loyola Los Angeles) is a great Quaker pacifist OT scholar. He wrote the commentary on Daniel in the New Interpreter’s Bible from a pacifist perspective, and his little book Jonah, Jesus, and Other Good Coyotes is a fine contribution to biblical peace theology.

    Gordon Kaufman and Daniel Liechty are two left-of-center Mennonite theologians who see peace as central to theological work.

    Gerald Mast, a colleague of Denny Weaver’s at Bluffton University is a Communcations prof who is doing great work on appropriating the peace message of the 16th century Anabaptists.

    As soon as I can I will read you stuff on Bible and Pacifism and give you some feedback—it looks great.

    Comment by Ted Grimsrud | October 16, 2009

  9. Ted, first, what a great avatar. Is that pic of your son?

    I read _Subverting Hatred: The Challenge of Nonviolence in Religious Traditions_ that Smith-Christopher edited, but I did not know he was a Friend. Teaching at Loyola, I jumped to the conclusion that he was a Jesuit (even though I have taught part-time at 3 Catholic institutions!). I haven’t read his OT contributions. I’ll be sure to look into them.

    I have begun to read Gerald Mast’s work. Glen Stassen and I wrote the initial chapter (“Defining Violence and Nonviolence”) to the Bluffton U. faculty book, _Teaching Peace_ which Mast co-edited with Denny Weaver. But I haven’t read much of the rest of his work, yet.

    I have read a little of Liechty’s work and it is interesting, but Kaufman’s work I find abstract and cold. I tend to react to it as I do to to Tillich or James Gustafson. However, I know that people whom I respect greatly like you, Ted and Gayle Koontz, and John Stoner all find more in Kaufman than I do. Likewise, others find James Reimer’s work very helpful, but I don’t. I was only charting the Peace Church influences on me, personally, not listing every important scholar in the HPCs.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 16, 2009

  10. One evangelical Quaker who has not lost a peace witness is Richard Foster, who has been a big influence on me.

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | October 17, 2009

  11. Grandson!

    Comment by Ted Grimsrud | October 17, 2009

  12. Love and peace is within our soul. We have to strive to make them grow through reflection and positive action…Jesus’ message points the way for me personally…While I respect theology and philosophy a great deal, they do not satisfy my spiritual appetite-and intellect will only take one so far…

    Comment by Paul | October 17, 2009

  13. Cool.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 17, 2009

  14. Yeah, I didn’t say every member of Evangelical Friends had lost the peace witness.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 17, 2009

  15. You seem, Paul, to divide theology and philosophy from spirituality, from reflection and positive action. There may be types of ivory tower theology (and certainly philosophy) that are only intellectual, but I don’t make such divisions. Theology that is truly Christian is rooted in prayer and meditation and the practices of the church. For the Christian, are these not branches of the same tree, rooted deep in the soil of personal love for God and in God’s deep love for us?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 17, 2009

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