Del Gray, associate professor of Bible and Religious Studies at Tabor College, recently posted a statement critical of American Evangelicalism on Tabor’s “Wittenberg Door.” Gray modeled his statement after Martin Luther’s 95 Theses of October 31, 1517. The statement was intended to contribute to conversations on the Tabor campus. Now distributed by Mennonite World Review, the statement is taking on its own life on the internet. Gray’s first thesis begins, “The evangelical church has lost its soul, trading the teachings of Jesus for politics.”
I don’t intend to comment on Gray’s 95 theses, except to say that it reminded me of an earlier lively conversation at Tabor–during the American Centennial Year of 1976. I wrote about that 1976 conversation in my book, A People of Two Kingdoms II, Stories of Kansas Mennonites in Politics (Bethel College, 2016). Gray is clearly in the tradition of those called “Neo Anabaptists” at Tabor in 1976. Below is an except from chapter 8 of that book, pages 169-174. The chapter is titled “Bicentennial 1976.”
Hillsboro and Tabor College, 1976
The town of Hillsboro, population about three thousand, outdid all other towns of south central Kansas in bicentennial celebrations. Governor John Carlin of Kansas designated Hillsboro an official “Bicentennial Town.” Hillsboro’s civic leaders managed to attract two nationally-sponsored exhibitions—an “Official Bicentennial Wagon Train” in March and the “Armed Forces Bicentennial Caravan” in October. The Bicentennial Wagon Train was one of several in the country that traversed historic national trails and converged at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, on July 4. The Hillsboro Star-Journal estimated that five thousand people attended the Main-Street parade, and some four thousand stayed for the evening program in Memorial Park for a program that included a choral group from Pennsylvania University. The Wagon Train had national corporate sponsorship, but the Armed Forces Bicentennial Caravan was a public relations project for the U. S. Department of Defense.
In addition, the local Hillsboro Bicentennial Commission, co-chaired by Carol Wiebe and Ray Baker, organized its own Memorial Day “Bicentennial Birthday Celebration” on May 29. The parade included a 13-man military color guard from Fort Riley, American Legion members and the Boy Scouts. Garner Shriver, fourth-district congressman, spoke at the dedication of a new civic center. Golfers participated in a bicentennial golf tournament, one of many community events. The Hillsboro Star-Journal, published a special 24-page issue, including a “Special Bicentennial Section.” On the first page were illustrations of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, of Independence Hall, of a fife and drum corps, of a patriot lighting a cannon to shoot ships in the harbor, and of a Betsy Ross sewing thirteen stars onto an American flag.
The Mennonites of Hillsboro had mixed reactions to the bicentennial celebrations. One enthusiastic supporter was Elmer W. Flaming, president of the First National Bank and leading member of the Parkview Mennonite Brethren church. Annoyed by articles in the MB denominational periodical, The Christian Leader, that were critical of American civil religion, Flaming wrote an essay titled “Why Celebrate the Bicentennial.” He said, “The Declaration of Independence is the official and unequivocal recognition by the American people of their belief and faith in God. It is a religious document from the first sentence to the last. It affirms God’s existence as self-evident truth which requires no further discussion or debate. The nation it creates is God’s country.” For Flaming the bicentennial celebrations represented “our opportunity and challenge to revive America with an injection of the same religious faith and dedication that brought about the birth of a great nation.”
On the opposite side were some teachers and students at Tabor College, located a few blocks south and east of the center of town. Tabor was wrestling with its identity as a Mennonite Christian liberal arts college. One new faculty member who arrived at Tabor in January 1976 found Tabor to be a “hornet’s nest” of controversy. At the center of debate were a number of young idealistic faculty members who urged Tabor to become a distinctively Anabaptist Christian school with a strong peace emphasis. On the other side were teachers and administrators who promoted a conservative evangelical identity that would attract more students of non-Mennonite background. Students in a college forum presentation identified the parties as “the pacifists versus the patriots. The alleged Mennonite ethnicists versus Protestantism.” One label for the idealists was “radical neo-Anabaptists.”
In the fall of 1975 the Tabor College homecoming committee decided on a bicentennial theme, “Highlights of History,” for the homecoming parade. The committee invited student groups to create floats portraying events from America’s past. Some students and teachers of “neo-Anabaptist” persuasion protested. The student Christian Fellowship Association (CFA), led by Curt Kuhns and Gordon Zerbe, decided to boycott the parade, asking “whether we as a Christian college could celebrate a government that was established by the overthrow of another, has a long history of war, and where so many things are not of God.” Don Ratzlaff, editor of the student paper, critiqued the CFA’s decision: “At a time when our country needs a moral shot in the arm, CFA proposes we give it a mortal shot in the head. America is in dire need of a Christian influence, not a Christian cop-out.”
A year later, in October 1976, the neo-Anabaptist group at Tabor mobilized a public protest when the most militaristic of Hillsboro’s bicentennial events, the Armed Forces Bicentennial Caravan, came to town. The caravan consisted of four large semi-truck trailers that contained museum displays for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, “recounting the contributions made to America by her armed forces.” An Army spokesman for the display said it was not a recruiting program, but rather “a concerted effort by the Armed Forces to bring the American Revolution Bicentennial closer to the people of Hillsboro and the surrounding communities.” In the Air Force Van, said the promotion, “Fifteen projectors and more than 700 slides are used simultaneously in the 17-minute show to highlight the Air Force’s role in aviation in its early stages, during the two world wars, in space research and in today’s world.” The Defense Department was spending a lot of money to refurbish its reputation tarnished by defeat in the Vietnam War.
The Tabor College protesters decided to set up a counter-military display, deliberately crude and low-tech to contrast with the sophisticated and expensive military caravan museums. For a display table for peace literature they rolled in a large wooden utility-wire frame and tipped it on its side. They parked their bicycles in front of the gas-guzzling military semi trailers, and put up a sign, “CHRISTIANS ARE CONCERNED, HAS WAR EVER MADE PEACE?” Visitors to the peace display engaged the protestors in friendly as well as hostile conversation. At his noon break, a young mechanic from the nearby Ford Company came to argue that the military forces celebrated in the Caravan museums were the reason the protesters had the right to free speech. K. B. Bruce, editor of the Hillsboro Star-Journal, made the same point editorially: “The history portrayed in this fine caravan gave those few individuals Saturday their right to distribute material for peace in this country.”
Intense reaction to the Caravan confrontation put Roy Just, Tabor College president, in a difficult situation. Elmer Flaming, conservative Main Street banker, called Just and asked him to rein in his protesting students and faculty. On the other side, Ben Ollenburger, professor of religious studies and philosophy, distributed a statement for the “Tabor Forum” scolding the college for failing to support the protesters. They should rather be commended for “an act of courage and faithfulness in giving public testimony to the New Testament message of peace.” And, said Ollenburger, the college should renew its commitment “to be faithful to the tradition and theology which is the reason for this school’s existence.” President Just attempted to mediate between his radical faculty members and conservative major donors. According to Frank Brenneman, one of the faculty protesters, Just agreed with the ideals of the neo-Anabaptists. But he wanted the radicals to know that Tabor College could not ignore someone like Flaming, a major financial contributor whose bank held the major share of Tabor College’s debt.
The “Caravan confrontation” prompted G. George Ens, a medical doctor in Hillsboro, to write out his own version of the underlying issues, and to send them to President Just with copies to three of Tabor’s neo-Anabaptists (John E. Toews, Ben Ollenburger, and Al Dueck). In Ens’s view, two “philosophies” were contending for the minds of Tabor students. One was the “Christian capitalist” philosophy that had sustained the Mennonite Brethren Church. It held to an atonement theology with salvation in Christ followed by evangelism and mission work; believed in the validity of capital and benevolence; valued a thrifty and frugal life-style; and respected government as instituted by God. The alternative “socialistic” philosophy, which was threatening to undermine the church, criticized “cheap grace;” thought money was evil; advocated poverty and communalism; was anti-American and avoided involvement in government except for negative prophetic witness.
The Bicentennial-related events and discussions of 1975-76 were one part of an ongoing social and theological process among the Mennonite Brethren and at Tabor College. Roy Just, president of Tabor from 1963 to 1980, was widely perceived as having shifted sharply conservative in the latter years of his presidency. According to Lynn Jost, co-author of the history of Tabor College, President Just after 1973 envisioned Tabor as “a school of evangelistic mission,” but the faculty resisted, “insisting on the historic liberal arts mission.” In 1976 Just hired Calvin Redekop to the position of Vice-President, knowing that Redekop would be a strong advocate of Anabaptist identity at Tabor. However, the outspoken neo-Anabaptists, including Redekop, all left Tabor College in the late 1970s, convinced that Tabor had chosen definitively to move in a conservative evangelical, rather than an Anabaptist, direction. The American bicentennial dialogue in Hillsboro illustrated the acculturation process of Mennonite Brethren toward conservative evangelicalism.