Why You Should Read a Book of History You Don’t Expect to Enjoy

Let me just get this out in the open: I don’t read history very often. My reading tastes, in my off-work hours, tend toward literary nonfiction, spiritual memoir, and the occasional contemporary novel. Biographies and histories of people, places, and institutions are, well, a stretch. My brain is a sieve when it comes to historical details and data, and I haven’t taken a history class for more than twenty-five years.

So when Nate Yoder’s manuscript, which would become Together in the Work of the Lord: A History of the Conservative Mennonite Conference, landed on my desk a few months ago, I’ll be honest: I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy editing it. I’m not a member of a Conservative Mennonite Conference congregation, so I knew I wouldn’t recognize many of the key characters and acronyms in the book. And I didn’t expect to identify with the concerns that the conference expressed with regard to the trajectory of the Mennonite group to which I belong: Mennonite Church USA. Other than wearing a prayer covering on Sundays as a young teen and growing up in Lancaster Conference in the 1970s, I don’t have much experience with conservative Mennonitism. So I thought I’d put on my editing cap, grit my teeth, and do my best not to yawn my way through my work.

Together in the Work of the Lord was published in July.

Except that’s not what happened. Somewhere in an early chapter of Together in the Work of the Lord, as I read about the heritage and witness of the Conservative Mennonite Conference, I found myself fascinated by what I was learning and eager to read more. Nate traces the way that the Conservative Mennonite Conference redefined the meaning of conservative from cultural nonconformity to evangelical theology, and the way that members of the conference defined themselves over and against people like me, members of more liberal Mennonite groups. As I read, I became impressed with the earnestness and good intentions of the people to whom Nate was introducing me, and I recognized many of my own concerns in their convictions. How do we pass on an authentic Mennonite faith to the next generation? What does it mean for an individual to be accountable to the church community? What goods and gifts from the past deserve to be preserved?

And at the basic level of what makes a book a good read, there are the stories. Nate Yoder tells a lot of interesting ones: conflicts between bishops and pastors about what it means to be in the world but not of it; the civil rights movement’s effects on Conservative Conference; differing ideas about spiritual warfare that shook Rosedale Bible College; and those flinty conversations about radios, TV, and women’s dress that fascinate me to no end.

Author Nathan E. Yoder working on his history of Conservative Mennonite Conference.

So while I have come to somewhat different conclusions about what it means to be faithful than many of the figures in Nate’s history, I found myself grateful for their witness. In an era of fracturing Mennonite Church USA identity, it doesn’t hurt any of us to attempt to view faith and praxis through the lens of another. That’s what Nate Yoder’s book did for me: helped me don someone else’s glasses for a time. Even if I ultimately set aside those glasses at the end of the book, I am the richer for having seen the world—and myself—through those lenses.

I’m proud that Herald Press, publisher for Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA, chose to publish this volume about our conservative sisters and brothers. This book is the 47th volume in the Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite History series. It’s not just for historians or scholars or insiders to the conference who will recognize the names and acronyms; it’s for outsiders like me.

Editing Together in the Work of the Lord made me grateful for this big, diverse, argumentative, and earnest group of people I belong to: the larger family of Mennonites. We sure don’t always get along, but I’m glad that we still somehow manage to belong to each other.

ValerieWeaverZercherValerie Weaver-Zercher is managing editor of Herald Press trade books.